On this day in 1842 the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, commonly known as the Mines Act 1842, was passed. The Act came in the wake of the Children's Employment Commission (Mines) 1842 report, which revealed the terrible working conditions children at the time were forced to work under and forbade women and girls of any age to work underground and placed a minimum age of ten years old for boys.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the 18th century, was based on the availability of coal to power steam engines. Demand for coal exploded and the small-scale techniques that had been traditionally employed could no longer keep up. In areas such as central and Northern England, South Wales and Central Scotland, where there was an abundance of coal, extraction therefore moved away from relatively primitive drift mining, to underground mining, enabled by the introduction of pit props in around 1800. In Britain the annual output of coal in 1700 was just under 3 million tons, but had risen to 16 million tons by 1815 and 30 million tons by 1830.
Labour poured into the mining areas from the British and Irish countryside, with around 216,000 people employed in Britain's mines in 1841. The use of women and children (at a fraction of the cost of men) was common and the work extremely dangerous, with death or serious injury an everyday threat. Shifts would typically be between 11 and 12 hours.
The public became aware of conditions in the country's collieries in 1838 after an accident at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, near Barnsley. A stream overflowed into the ventilation drift after violent thunderstorms causing the death of 26 children; 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years of age. The disaster came to the attention of Queen Victoria who ordered an inquiry.
In 1840 Lord Ashley headed the royal commission of inquiry, which investigated the conditions of workers (especially children) in the coal mines. Commissioners visited collieries and mining communities across Britain, gathering information sometimes against the mine owners' wishes. The report, illustrated by engraved illustrations and the personal accounts of mineworkers was published in May 1842. Below are some quotes from those interviewed by the commissioners:
"Nearly a year ago there was an accident and most of us were burned. I was carried home by a man. It hurt very much because the skin was burnt off my face. I couldn't work for six months."
Phillip Phillips, aged 9, Plymouth Mines, Merthyr
"I got my head crushed a short time since by a piece of roof falling..."
William Skidmore, aged 8, Buttery Hatch Colliery, Mynydd Islwyn
"...got my legs crushed some time since, which threw me off work some weeks."
John Reece, aged 14, Hengoed Colliery
Victorian society was shocked to discover that children as young as five or six worked as trappers, opening and shutting ventilation doors down the mine, before becoming hurriers, pushing and pulling coal tubs and corfs. Lord Ashley deliberately appealed to Victorian prudery, focussing on girls and women wearing trousers and working bare-breasted in the presence of boys and men, which "made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers". Such an affront to Victorian morality ensured the bill was passed, despite objection from those connected with mining in both the Commons and the Lords.
From March 1st 1843 it became illegal for women or any child under the age of ten to work underground in Britain.
There was no compensation for those made unemployed which caused much hardship. However, evasion of the Act was easy - there was only one inspector to cover the whole of Britain and he had to give prior notice before visiting collieries. Therefore many women probably carried on working illegally for several years, their presence only being revealed when they were killed or injured.
The concept of women as wage earners became less acceptable in the mining industry as the years went by. However, a small number of female surface workers could be found well into the twentieth century. In 1990 the protective legacy was repealed and after 150 years women are once again able to work underground.
This scene was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on interesting and important events in British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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