POEM'S OF THE MINES AND MINERS
CHILDREN AND WOMEN OF THE MINES
The following poem concerns a little girl named Sarah of eight years of age whose occupation was that of a 'trapper'. This was the employement given to the younger of the children that worked down the pit, and involved the child sitting for many hours, often in total darkness opening and closing the doors that controlled the air currents down the pit. It was penned at the time of the Shaftesbury Commission of 1842, on child labour in the coal mines of Britain The Coal Mines Act of that year, is often heralded as the watershed in coal mining history. The Act became law on the 10th of August that year, and within three months of that date all female's under the age of eighteen employed underground had to find other employment.
Those women over that age were allowed to continue till the 1st of March 1843, though the Act still allowed women to continue their work on the pit top. The 1842 Act also forbade the underground employment of boys under the of ten years. In today's age, one would shriek in horror at the thought of our children and women working in the dark and squalid conditions down in the mines. Yet in the 1800s it was common practice, and indeed encouraged. In many instances, the children and women belonged to the same family, and would supplement the family income by drawing the coals to the shaft bottom. As one might imagine, the 1842 Act was extremely difficult to enforce, for a start, it was to be a further eight years before an Inspector of Mines was appointed. There was also much disapproval among the workforce, there were cries that "These humanity mongers, should have first considered giving compensation, before interfering with the wages of the poor". The Bolton colliers in Lancashire "Complained loudly of the injury that has been inflicted on their families, by preventing the females accustomed to working underground, from obtaining an honest livelihood".
In effect the employment of women and children down the pits as to continue for a good number of years. The women simply dressed up in male attire, and passed themselves off as men, the underlookers simply turned a "blind eye". The poem paints a rather rosy picture of the child's employment. In many cases the children very often much younger than Sarah, were left without light or companionship save for a glimpse of the passing drawer for a full shift, often in excess of fifteen hours. Samuel Hirst aged nine worked at the Jump Pit in Yorkshire, he told the commission "I sit by myself, I never have a light, I sit all day and do nothing but open and close doors".
In isolated cases, children as young as three years were taken down the mine. Joseph Gledhill, again working in the Yorkshire Coalfield told the commission "I work as a banksman, I have three sons living, one of them went into the pit with me when he was three years old, and commenced work regularly as a hurrier when he was between five and six. That was at Flockton, another began at between four and five, another between five and six".
Sarah (at the Shaftesbury commission)
Sarah Gooder was a little girl
Of eight, just rising nine
With a choice between the workhouse
Or toiling down the mine.
She did not, unlike some children,
Pull tubs on all fours
But spent a happy childhood
As a trapper on the doors.
She went blithely down each morning
At the hour of half past three
At five-thirty in the evening
She skipped home to her tea.
She said "The darkness scares me
It is a fearsome thing
But sometimes I'm allowed a light
And often then I sing!"
"And then I sing!" Dear Christ above!
Poor little soul starved mite
To find her heart rejoicing
In simple candle's light.
When Herod slew the innocents
His weapon was the sword
But these babe's souls were murdered
By strict observance of God's word.
And so we built an Empire
And forged a mighty nation
The navy was its bulwark
Child slavery its foundation.
An earlier inquiry into the Employment of Children in Factories was conducted in 1833. Mr. E.C. Tufnell stated in that inquiry that; "The hardest labour, in the worst room, in the worst conducted factory, is less hard, less cruel, and less demoralising than the labour of the best of coal mines".
The Collier Lass
My names Polly Parker, I come o'er from Worsley
My father and mother work in the coal mine
Our family's large, we have got seven children,
So I am obliged to work in the same mine.
As this is my fortune, I know you'll feel sorry
That in such employment my days I shall pass
I keep up my spirits, I sing and look merry
Although I am but a poor collier lass.
By the greatest of dangers each day I'm surrounded
I hang in the air by a rope or a chain.
The mine may fall in, I may be killed or wounded,
May perish by damp or the fire of the train.
And what would you do if it weren't for our labour?
In wretched starvation your days you would pass,
While we could provide you with life's greatest blessing,
Then do not despise the poor collier lass.
The 'Pit Brow' lasses were common in the Wigan Coalfield well into this century. They were employed to screen (clean) the coal as it came out of the mine by picking the stones from the coal.
A Pit Brow Wench for Me
I am an Aspull collier, I like a bit of fun
To have a go at football or in the sports to run
So goodbye old companions, adieu to jollity,
For I have found a sweetheart, and she's all the world to me.
Could you but see my Nancy, among the tubs of coal,
In tucked up skirt and breeches, she looks exceedingly droll,
Her face besmear'd with coal dust, as black as black can be,
She is a pit brow lassie, but she's all the world to me.
Disasters, and Explosions.
Death from explosion was the constant shadow companion of the miner, the lethal methane gas caused thousands of deaths nation-wide particularly during the last century. The occupation of coal miner was excepted as being the dangerous calling without exception. Few would survive a gas explosion in a mine, the blast can be likened to being in a cannon barrel when the charge is set. The only possible route of the explosion is that of the mine passages, there was no escape. The most disastrous explosion in a British coal mine in terms of lives lost was the Sengenhydd Disaster of 1913.
The top blew off at Sengenhydd,
With a sullen awful sound.
That was the final requiem
For nigh five hundred underground.
Of course there was an outcry
At so many lives cut short
And the owners faced stern justice
Before the local court.
But really it would never do
To give too great offence.
They found no case to answer
Of wilful negligence.
They were in direct contravention
of the Mines and Quarries Act,
But it was considered impolite
To dwell upon the fact.
Still for such a fatal mischance
A culprit must be found
And so they fined the manager
Five and twenty pounds.
It was a source of comfort
To mother, child or wife,
To find their menfolk valued
At a shilling for each life.
Twenty seven lives were lost at the Maypole Colliery in the Wigan Coalfield of Lancashire on 18th August 1908. Not the greatest mining disaster by any means, but one which was well reported and documented. Fund raising for the victims of the disaster was achieved in many ways, one was by the distribution of postcards with the following verse.
Don't go down the mine daddy
A miner was leaving his home for work
When he heard his little child scream
He went to his bedside. his little white face,
"Oh daddy, I've had such a dream,
I dreamt that I saw the pit all afire
And men struggled hard for their lives
The scene it then changed, and the top of the mine
Was surrounded by sweethearts and wives.
Don't go down the mine dad,
Dreams very often come true,
Daddy you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you
Just go and tell my dream to your mates
And as true as the stars that shine
Something is going to happen today
Dear daddy don't go down the mine.
The miner, a man with heart good and kind
Sat by the side of his son
He said "It's my living, I can't stay away,
For duty my lad must be done".
The little lad looked up, and sadly he said
"Oh please stay today with me dad"
But as the brave miner went forth to his work,
He heard this appeal from his lad
Whilst waiting his turn with his mates to descend
He could not banish his fears
He returned home again to his wife and his child
Those words seemed to ring through to his ears.
And when the day ended, the pit was on fire
When a score of brave men lost their lives
He thanked God above for the dream his child had,
As once more the little one cried.
A BROTHER'S CARE
A poem about the Moorfield Colliery Disaster.
The earth seemed to shudder in violent commotion
Deep beneath its surface was a dreadful explosion
Its thundering elements wildly engaged
Spreading death and destruction wherever it raged
And there, amid the scenes of wildest alarm
A young boy rushed forward, from danger and harm
But having gained safety, he thought of another
"I must go back" he said, and look for my brother
And quickly returning, his footsteps retracing
In spite of the danger, he knew he'd be facing
In spite of the entreaties, his comrades enjoined
He would not, he could not, leave him behind
Back into darkness and danger he hurried
Back to the place where so many were buried
A father's brave heart, or the love of a mother
Could not have done more, than he did for his brother
Around him the wrath of the disaster was lying
The pathway was strewn with the dead and the dying
To the spot where his brother was last seen, he sped
Soon, he too would number along with the dead
The brave hearted youth, was undaunted by danger
To all selfish motives, the lad was a stranger
A brave, noble impulse, no danger could smother
The lad was killed, attempting to rescue his brother
No marble adornment graces his tomb
No sculptured memorial, to tell of his doom
He needed no record, by artists engraven
His deed, is a record recorded in Heaven
His glory shall live on, in the memory of those
Who gather greatness and goodness in friends and in foes
His young life he ventured to death for another
He died a hero, in search of his brother.
STRIKES AND DISPUTES
For goodness sake, wife, leave off crying
I've only turned out with the rest
We can't be worse off than we have been
And may be, it's all for the best
"It can't be", Oh! what nonsense, who say so?
The masters and owners must live
Why of course, they will give us the advance, Nell
Don't say they ain't got it to give
There you go again, holding a meeting
And saying, "All our prospects are gone",
That "A little is better than nothing,
And that half a loaf's better than none".
I know little Willie is poorly,
But you see wife, it can't be helped now,
And the rent for the house, must stand over,
In fact we'll manage somehow
The life of a miner? Why, bless me
It's as dangerous as any can be,
Why, it's worse than a soldier in battle,
Or even, a sailor at sea
For the soldier can oft see his danger,
And again, he knows well how to fight
And even the sailor has chances,
But miner's are murdered outright.
Now, look at Bill's wife, around the corner
A widow now, with five little brats
And struggling to keep her life together
By mending and making of mats
Why, all he got, when he was living
Was five and six shillings a day
They brought him home, bleeding and mangled
As lifeless, and cold as the clay
I know it's hard to be starving,
But what is a fellow to do?
If I could, I'd go back tomorrow,
Yes, dear, for the children and you
Now, do hold your head up, Nell darling
You're making yourself quite ill,
And as for poor me, I'm heartbroken
I'll go back to work, Nell, I will.
THE CLOSING OF THE MINES
Having built the very foundation of the Industrial Revolution, and fuelled the fires that made Britain great, the coal miner in the modern age was cast aside. The coal mines were closed ending an industry second only to agriculture in antiquity. For generations father worked along side of son. The tradition ended in 1992 when the Conservative Government announced its 'Plan for Coal'. A plan that included the closure of practically all the nations collieries, and the redundancy of thousands of miners, forsaken at the cheap price of imported coal and the 'Dash for Gas' to fuel the power stations.
The pit stands dead, the wheels are still
There's no more coal for the men to fill
Machinery stands there rusted and broke
The blackened chimney emits no smoke.
The young men have gone to different mines,
But for men like Jack, it's just hard lines.
A lifetime of knowledge, his views respected
But they say he's too old, he's been rejected.
No more for Jack the chair's swift drop,
The air's cool roar as they leave the top,
Or the ribald jesting with his mates,
On the paddy ride to the different gates.
No more will Jack duck into the face,
With a practised glance as he takes his place.
And pits his strength, and his wit and skill
At the daily task that can main and kill.
He pretends not to care, he's done with the pit.
He's had a bellyful, to hell with it.
But he fells half a man, as he sees his friends
When they take the bus at four lane ends.
He stands there forlone, he doesn't feel old,
But they've written him off, he's out in the cold,
Bereft of his living and a way of life
He wanders aimless home to his patient wife.
The Burnley Miner - Then and Now
Gilbert walked to work
Wearing old clothes and his helmet
Bottle of cold tea tied to his belt
The strings of his knee pads
Wringled his trousers like a batsman's pads.
His grandson drove to work, like an office worker
Gilbert walked home in his muck, with tired Panda eyes
To a zinc bath on a peg rug, in front of a coal fire.
His grandson drove home, clean, like an office worker
Now, the old man has gone, the grandson out of work.
No pits left in Burnley.
Bank Hall Pit Top - Burnley
On Bank Hall Pit Top, above the River Brun
Along the aqueduct, the narrow boats run
Past derelict factory and ghost satanic mill
And the colliery wheel that now stands still,
Fast, in its iron mountings, a permanent monument
To a bygone age when matchstick men spent
Back breaking shifts digging the blue black coal.
The parkland grass is now dug by the velvet mole.
Where the shuttle flew, now flies the solitary magpie.
He brings no news of joy.
Where the bobbins hummed, now hums the busy honey bee.
He brings no work for man or boy.
No smoking chimney stack obliterates the blue sky.
Now in its eyrie rim there grows a stunted tree.
Down by the dole, where all the people go,
Their pace once hurried, now is slow,
As winding up the hill they go.
To Bank Hall Pit Top, above the River Brun,
To the aqueduct, where the narrow boats run,
Bound for a gleaming new Jerusalern,
That has already bypassed most of them.
A rudder holds its wake like a trailing tattered hem,
And Autumn's first wind shakes the red rose from its stem.