Occupations: Lamp Cleaner

The local coal mines created a myriad of jobs beyond actually chiselling out rock from the coal face. A lamp cleaner was one such job, an occupation which may not automatically spring to mind when considering the range of roles associated with pit working.

The lamproom was an integral part of any coal mine. It was also an important part of pit safety.

Lighting underground in days before electricity was problematical. It was necessary, but the method of lighting could trigger explosions. These posed a serious mining danger, with the heat from naked flames igniting methane gas or coal dust.

The miners safety lamp was a way of minimising this risk, with the flame enclosed by gauze and/or glass. They also indicated the presence of dangerous gases, burning more brightly if they were present.

Safety lamp invented by George Stephenson in 1815 for use in mines, with a Davy Lamp on the left, invented in the same year. Lives of the Engineers, 1862, digitized by Project Gutenberg 27710, Samuel Smiles. Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image

In 1815 the Clanny lamp was tried out. That year George Stephenson and Sir Humphrey Davy also became involved in developing safer methods of lighting in the mine, with the Davy lamp probably the one which is best known.

But these were only the first steps in finding a solution. Pit explosions were not eliminated by them. Damage to lamps, dangerous practices, even air currents were just some of the issues which meant they were not the hoped for solution. As problems continued so did the modifications and development of further designs and patents, and the implementation of an increasing raft of safety measures.

These included locking mechanisms on lamps to ensure miners below ground were not tempted to try open them, for example to relight it themselves if the light went out. Despite the dangers this was a real temptation, as returning for the lamp to be relighted took time which in turn reduced the amount of coal which could be got, which in turn affected earnings. So miners would try to circumvent the locking mechanism. Other inventions were types of lamps, such as the Mueseler, Landau, or Yates, whereby the flame was automatically extinguished if the lamp was opened.

In 1881 Joseph Swan exhibited his first electric lamp leading to the developments in this field. By the turn of the 20th century electric lamps were increasing in use, but it was not until after the First World War that they really took over from the traditional oil and flame methods.

The pit lamproom was therefore crucial, for inspecting lamps, locking them and ensuring they were undamaged and safe for use underground. The lamproom was under the overall control of a lampman, also known as the lamp keeper or lamp locker. This employee would inspect, trim, light, lock and generally make ready the miners’ safety lamps. He would also keep a record of lamps in and out of the lamproom, and supervise the other lamproom men and lads, including lamp cleaners.

The description of a lamp cleaners’ job is self-explanatory. The 1921 census occupation classifications details it as follows:

Lamp cleaner; lamproom man; cleans miners’ safety lamps in lamproom.1

Also involved in lamp cleaning was the lamproom boy or lad. He would assist the head lampman in the lamproom in cleaning the safety lamps, filling them with oil, and cleaning the gauzes etc.

These jobs fell within the overall category of mining and quarrying occupations under Classification Code Number 047 covering ‘Other Workers Below Ground’, but, as the Dictionary goes on to explain, the terms could also apply to workers doing similar work on the surface.

1. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Ministry of Labour. Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of POPULATION, 1921. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927.