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Issue 43 - A day in the life of a coal miner

Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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A day in the life of a coal miner

In our series looking at traditional Scottish occupations, David Fleetwood looks at the life of a collier.

The drone of the winding gear and the gradual clunking of the cage as it descends form the foreboding start to the day for those heading down the mine.

Generations of men have made the long descent each morning to the dirty, dusty work of extracting coal. As the noise of the winding gear slowly fades away, the blackness becomes thick and almost tangible. The beam of the miners’ headlights is quickly smothered, but not before the glint of the coal and minerals in the walls of the shaft is seen.

The modern day experience of working down a mine is very different to that experienced by previous generations of colliers. However, the tough life of the miner has been essential to Scotland for many years, not least to provide fuel for the hearth, helping to keep out the chill of a Highland winter.

The basic task of mining coal out of the rock and sending it up to the surface by cart has changed relatively little over hundreds of years. The first mention of coal in Scotland is in a charter of 1291, which granted the Abbot and Convent of Dunfermline the rights to dig coal at Pittencrieff. Yet the first people to work coal in Scotland were the monks of Newbattle Abbey and this along the banks of the River Esk, although they quarried rather than mined the coal there.

The earliest mines would not be familiar to today’s colliers. They took the form of tunnels called ingaen e’es, which followed the coal seams near the surface. This was very dangerous work, and the tunnels quickly became very dangerous through the accumulation of methane and other gases. They were often poorly constructed and there were several instances of collapse. Constructing the tunnels was both dangerous and arduous. There was little technical support in those days, and the tunnels were produced by manually hewing coal away from the other rock.

Slowly mines adopted a system of vertical shafts to gain access to the coal at deeper levels. This created two major technical problems for the early miners: raising the coal and keeping the pits clear of water. The earliest schemes involved coal and water being hauled up the shaft using a winch which was worked by hand. This was later changed to a horse gin. Steam engines first came into use in Scotland in 1765, and by the mid-19th century steam was also used to extract coal from the seams.

Even with the adoption of steam-driven technology, few pits went deeper than 30 fathoms (54.8 metres). As mines began to be driven deeper, ventilation became a problem for the miners. What appeared at first to be an insurmountable obstacle to the continued exploitation of coal was solved by a Durham blacksmith, who noticed that a fire in his forge caused a strong current of air to rush through it.

This method was applied to mines by the late 18th century, with a large furnace constructed at the mouth of the shaft and wooden pipes laid through the shafts. As the fire drew air through the pipes and out of the mine, fresh air rushed in.

Despite the physical dangers of the collapse of seams and noxious gases, the life of the early miners in Scotland was made far worse by their situation as serfs under bondage to the pits at which they worked. As soon as a miner entered a mine he became bound to work in the pit for the rest of his life.

Acollier’s son was also bound to the pit by birth, and lifelong serfdom in a pit was also used within the justice system as an alternative punishment to prison. Enslaved miners had an iron collar riveted around their neck. Rewards were high for anyone who managed to return an escapee. It was not until 1775 that an act was passed that ended the system of bondage for colliers.

Women and children also worked in the mines. Almost 100 years after bondage was abolished, this practice was scrutinised too. A parliamentary report of 1843 noted that the conditions in which both women and children were employed were terrible, and the employment of women and boys under the age of 10 years was prohibited. The commissioner’s report indicated that the conditions in the east of Scotland were amongst the worst in the country.

Children as young as five or six were commonly employed alongside women.

Their role was usually to carry coal in large baskets from the point of excavation to the mouth of the pit. Conditions were terrible with wet and slimy wooden stairs the only way to ascend to the pithead. Accidents were common, and slips were made much more dangerous by the huge weights of coal carried up the steps.

Once machinery had been put in place to carry coal up the shaft, the work of women and children was restricted to dragging the coal from the face to the bottom of the main shaft. Many of the side workings away from the main shaft were only 22 inches in height, and women and children had to crawl along dragging the coal in sledges behind them.

By the beginning of the 19th century rails were introduced, with children yoked to them with chains. The commissioner’s report noted that in one pit a girl of six carried a hundredweight of coal 14 times daily in a journey equivalent to ascending St. Paul’s Cathedral. The working day was often between 15 and 18 hours in these terrible conditions.

The hard physical labour was severely detrimental to the health of both the men and women, and colliers were usually among the most unhealthy individuals in society. The children of colliers were not only made unhealthy by their time in the pit, but also because of the poor physical condition of their mothers. It was common practice to give ailing infants a mixture of whisky and warm water, which further damaged their health.

By the age of 20 most colliers suffered from significant breathing difficulties and persistent coughs. But despite their respiratory problems, colliers had very well-developed muscles and were strong, tough men. The women were also tough, although many had injuries from collisions with wagons or falls when carrying heavy loads. The health of most colliers declined rapidly between the ages of 40 and 50; they suffered from significant respiratory problems and the deterioration of their muscles and skeleton.

With the introduction of minimum standards of employment in the later parts of the 19th century, the conditions for colliers began to slowly improve and safety measures were implemented. Before entering the cage for descent, miners had to pick up a tag which identified them and recorded that they were underground. Light was provided by a safety lamp, a huge innovation that vastly reduced the chance of fire underground.

However, conditions were just as tough.

The journey to the coal face was still made in a tub on narrow gauge rails, and the ‘miner’s crouch’ was a common stance – a product of the small tunnels which characterised a coal mine.

By 1939, life at the coal face was perhaps the area that had changed most. Here the collier was surrounded by steel props and removed coal from the face with a pneumatic drill rather than with an iron pick. As much as 57 per cent of coal was cut by mechanical means and a similar amount was removed mechanically to the pithead. Yet at the end of a long day most miners still went home covered in coal dust, with pithead baths an innovation yet to come.

Throughout history, the life of a miner has always revolved around a simple process: the physically demanding work of hewing coal from the ground. It is dirty work, conducted in cramped conditions underground. Yet the industry has been vital to Scotland for centuries, providing not only a source of heat for homes but also the basis for Scottish industrial development. For several decades this development was almost wholly based upon the work of colliers, who risked their lives to hew ‘black diamonds’ from the ground, returning blackened with coal dust and with muscles aching.

Looking out into the darkness in the thin air, there is an overriding feeling of claustrophobia. It is impossible to imagine the large echoing empty space as a bustling mine full of men and machinery, but now it is all that remains of the life of the miner, which was once so vital to every person in Scotland and to which the nation of today owes a significant debt.