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By the early part of the 18th century much of the easily mined surface (or adit mined) coal had been extracted. Increasingly coal had to brought up from deep mines, often two kilometres beneath the earth. As the coal industry expanded, more and more miners went underground to extract coal and often worked very long hours in hazardous conditions.
In early mines coal was brought up the surface in very primitive ways. Whole families worked at the mines. The father and the boys hewed the coal (cutting the coal from seams with a pick). The mother and girls ‘hurried’ (carried) the coal to the surface by climbing a spiral staircase with a basket, filled with coal, on their backs. It was held in place by a strap around the front of their heads. This often made their hair at the front wear away, creating a bald spot.
In some mines, both the coal and the miners were brought to the surface in wooden buckets which were pulled up the shaft. Sometimes the miners just had a rope to hold on to. Rope breaks and mistakes with a windlass often led to miners plunging to their deaths. As these awful accidents became known, there were calls to find out just how bad conditions were in the mines. A commission was set up to investigate the working conditions in the mines.
In 1842 a Parliamentary Committee which reported on the mines found that many workers were working in the most appalling conditions. Not only did they work very long hours, but they were also hired at very young ages. Children as young as five were used as ‘trappers’ to open and close underground doors in the mine to let the ‘hurriers’, who pulled the loaded wagons, get through. These children worked in the dark because their families were often too poor to be able to afford candles. They were in the dark for up to twelve hours each day and often had rats scurrying all over them. If they fell asleep they were beaten by the miners.
The commission also found that children were employed as coal ‘hurriers’, pulling carts or sledges filled with coal over long distances and through very small tunnels. Girls as young as thirteen were often used fir this work. The chain around their waist caused damage to their pelvic bones, distorting them and making them smaller. This often proved fatal in later life when many of them died in childbirth.
The commission discovered that men, women, boys and girls were working together in the most frightening circumstances. Strangely enough, it was the fact that girls were mixed with ‘near naked’ men which caused the most upset, and not the long hours or the harsh and brutal conditions.
Other commissions, such as the Factories Inquiry Commission of 1833, gathered evidence and reported that the situation in factories was just as awful. The factory inspectors found that children worked twelve hour days, generally with only a one hour break. If the factory or mill was busy, they might work up to eighteen hours a day. The conditions were every bit as bad as in the mines, and some reports told of children spending their entire working lives doubled up under machinery in cotton mills. They were often permanently disabled as a result.
The combination of public outrage, political pressure and changes in the law eventually led to better and safer working conditions.
By the end of the 19th century, conditions had greatly improved. However, this was not achieved without pressure from the workers themselves, who increasingly gathered to protest about their conditions of work. These gatherings eventually led to organised self-help groups which later became known as Trade Unions.