As a family historian, I’m always on the look-out for sources which flesh out the lives of my ancestors. Leeds Central Library has one particular gem which deserves a spotlight. For those of us with early Victorian mining ancestry it is a must.
The Children’s Employment Commission looking at children and young persons working in mines published its findings in 1842 . This report is only a fraction of the evidence gathered. It draws on the masses of summaries, information and interviews produced by its Sub-Commissioners countrywide. These far more detailed Sub-Commissioners’ reports formed separate publications, reprinted by the Irish University Press in 1968 as part of its Industrial Revolution Parliamentary papers series . Leeds Library holds two volumes of this evidence, containing a wealth of information which did not make the cut for the main report.
Appointed from late 1840 onwards, the remits of these Sub-Commissioners encompassed all fields of mining – from coal, to copper, tin, lead, zinc and ironstone. It covers those toiling underground, as well as those engaged in surface work and smelting. All corners of the country are represented – including Scotland, Wales and Southern Ireland. So it would be a mistake to think it is only relevant for those with Yorkshire or coal mining ancestry.
Yorkshire coal mining, though, is my particular interest, and the focus of this summary. However, this summary will give you a taster for the information available for other regions and sectors of mining.
Three Sub-Commissioners reported on the West Riding coal mining areas. Their evidence spans both volumes, and the amount of name-rich genealogical information they produced is staggering. We owe tremendous thanks to the trio.
- William Raynor Wood examined the employment of children and young persons in the collieries and iron works of the towns of Bradford and Leeds;
- Samuel S. Scriven investigated those employed in the collieries around the Halifax and Bradford districts; and
- Jelinger C. Symons looked at the remainder of the Yorkshire coal field.
They considered a range of issues including ages, numbers of children, the employment of girls and women, how the children were hired, the jobs they undertook, their wages, their working hours including night shifts, their workplace conditions including accidents, meals both in and outside the workplace, holidays, how they were treated, their educational standards and the impact the work took on their physical, religious and moral condition. These findings are illustrated with sketches of children and youths at work, diagrams showing pit layouts and illustrations of machinery.
Tables and appendices collate an array of information, some of which is unexpected material. Fatal pit accidents in a 3½ year period in Bradford and Halifax District feature, with the names and many ages of the victims. There are lists of child workers in particular pits. These include details of in excess of 200 named Bradford and Halifax hurriers with their ages, height, physical condition, whether they could read and write, along with their employment details. There is a tabulated medical examination of children in Dewsbury Colliery. There are also tables showing the names, ages and wages of the three youngest children and three oldest young people working at selected collieries. Beyond this, for comparison purposes, similar wage, age, physical and educational information is collated for children in other industries such as worsted workers in Halifax, or scribblers, carders, spinners and card setters. So, don’t rule out evidence relating to mines if you have ancestors working in other industries.
Crucially, these findings were based on interviews with a cross section of people directly involved in, or with an interest, in mining. You get the usual suspects – coal mine proprietors, doctors, workhouse staff and vicars. But you also have statements from coal miners, mothers and fathers of children employed in the industry, as well as the children themselves. Working class folk whose voices are not ordinarily heard. Here are the real treasures of these reports. You can almost hear the accents and regional phraseology of these long-gone people in the written statements. And yes, there is an explanation of terms generally in use among colliers of the West Riding. Addle, agate, leet, lake and mashed up are my favourites .
Each interview is prefaced by the deponent’s name and gives location, age and employment details. And because the interviews were conducted at around the time of the 1841 census, it is easy to cross match them to your ancestors. From this you can find out precisely where they worked, what they did, wider family information, their health, their educational standard, what they ate, even where they lived and their previous abodes.
My 4x great grandfather Jonathan Ibbetson, a widower, and three of his children, are interviewed by Symons. These include his 11½-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. From the interviews I learned that two out of his three daughters worked below ground, one having done so since the age of six. The girls were hurriers, employed by their brother. This was common practice – the colliers, not the mine proprietors, generally employed, and paid, hurriers themselves. The hurrier’s job was to convey the empty corves (wagons, usually with small wheels) to the miner, help fill them with coal, then push the laden corves by dragging, pushing, or ‘thrusting’ them with their heads in readiness for them to be taken to the surface. In this case the two girls worked together, thrusting the corves a distance of 160 yards, and back, which Elizabeth says hurt and made her head sore. On average they conveyed 16 full corves daily. We learn the family moved from Queenshead (Queensbury) to the Birkenshaw area, and worked in Mr Harrison’s pit in Gomersal. We also learn of their poverty, with John (a hurrier, aged 13½) saying:
I have been to Sunday-school. I stop at home now, I’ve no clothes to go in; I stop in because I’ve no clothes to go and lake with other little lads.
One particularly shameful practice, the plight of pauper apprentices, is highlighted in the evidence. Poor Law Unions were in effect binding out workhouse children to miners to work as hurriers. Dewsbury Poor Law Union were singled out for particular censure for putting out a Batley workhouse boy, Thomas Townend, to work for a Thornhill collier. Symons described it as:
A very gross case of the unduly early employment of a workhouse child…before he was quite five years old.
Thomas is interviewed saying:
I remember being in the pit. I liked it; but they would not let me stay.
For those of you who watched the BBC TV series ‘Gentleman Jack’ there is evidence from children working at the Rawson-owned Swan Bank and Bank Bottom collieries, as well as ones employed at the late Miss Anne Lister’s Listerwick Pit . There are also details about the ages and wages of some hurriers at Listerwick.
And where else would you get an entire section devoted to the families of six colliers in Flockton? Not only do you get the names, ages, relationships, occupations and wages of every household member, you get a summary of their weekly food and fuel consumption, along with a description of their house, garden, and furniture right down to the books they owned. There is even a pen piece for each family. Samuel and Martha Taylor’s reads:
The parents of this man were ignorant, being totally uneducated, and their moral character not good; yet, notwithstanding, he has turned out a very respectable man; and having married an industrious, worthy young woman, he is likely to become a good member of society. His wife has taught him to read and write; and though brought up amidst dirt and disorder his cottage presents a pleasing picture of comfort.
Pure genealogy gold!
Even if your ancestor is not interviewed or mentioned by name, the evidence is well worth consulting for the incredible overview of all aspects of the everyday lives and work of those employed in the mines in this period.
As a result of the investigation, the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 was passed. Crucially, from 1 March 1843, it was made illegal to employ women or girls of whatever age underground in any mine or colliery in Britain. Boys under the age of 10 were no longer permitted to work below ground either.
This blog pulls together my three previous posts on this subject. These are:
- The Shame of a Workhouse – An Infant Down the Pit;
- Coal Mining Chidren: “I’ve Heard I Shall Go to Heaven If I’m A Good Girl”; and
- Anne Lister’s Pit Children.
With special thanks to the staff at the Leeds Local and Family History library for their help in locating a copy of the Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volumes 7 and 8.
 Children’s Employment Commission – First Report of the Commissioners: Mines. London: Printed by William Clowes for H.M.S.O., 1842
 Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volumes 7 and 8. 141 Thomas St., Dublin: Irish University Press, 1968.
 To earn; to be employed; as it happens; to be idling/passing time; and disabled/worn out.
 Anne Lister died in September 1840 and the evidence was taken in May 1841, but the boys had worked there for around three years.