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Public Reaction to the Disclosure of Conditions in the Coal Mines

In 1842 the Mines Report was published. It revealed conditions of work and life in mining communities that had gone unnoticed by the general public and led to a public outcry. The main result of the Report was the 1842 Mines Act. The following article appeared in the Conservative Party's periodical, the Quarterly Review.

In 1844, Friedrich Engels wrote about conditions in the mines.

Here, by three ponderous folios, we have disclosed to us - in our own land, and within our own ken - modes of existence, thoughts, feelings, actions, sufferings, virtues, and vices, which are as strange and as new as the wildest dreams of fiction. The earth seems now for the first time to have heaved from its entrails another race, to astonish and to move us to reflection and to sympathy.

Here we find tens of thousands of our countrymen living apart from the rest of the world - intermarrying - having habits, manners, and almost a language, peculiar to themselves - the circumstances surrounding their existence stamping and moulding mind and body with gigantic power. The common accidents of daily life are literally multiplied to this race of men a hundredfold; while they are subject to others which have no parallel on earth. It is not, then, a matter for wonder that their minds should borrow from the rocks and caverns they inhabit something of the hardness of the one and something of the awful 'power of darkness' of the other; and that their hearts and emotions should exhibit the fierceness of the elements amidst which they dwell.

It is mainly to Lord Ashley, who has headed this great movement for the moral improvement of the working classes, that we are indebted for these volumes, issued apparently for the purpose of letting the public know the true condition of the mining population, and so forcing, by the weight of opinion and individual co-operation, society at large to attempt an amelioration.

The legislature of past years has undoubtedly been to blamed in taking no cognisance of such a state of things as is now exhibited. But are they blameless who employ these men, and reap the benefit of labours which have induced a premature old age in their service? Have they, which so much in their power, fulfilled their duties - have they considered how to strengthen the connection of the master and the hireling by other ties than those of gain? Has our Church, clerical and lay, been diligent in civilising these rough natures? Have proprietors, enriched by the development of minerals enabled the Church to increase her functionaries in proportion to the growth of new populations? These are questions which must be asked, and answered, before the burden of change is laid on a few, which should be borne by many. We feel that this benefit must be conferred by all; and the power of the state must be propped by the self-denial of the owner - and the mild, untiring energies of the Church must be aided by the kindly influences of neighbourhood - before it can be hoped that such a race as the miners can be brought to abandon their rooted prejudices and brutal indulgences. Living in the midst of dangers - and on that account supplied with higher wages, and with much leisure to spend them - they unite in their characters all that could flow from sources which render man at once reckless and self-indulgent - a hideous combination, when unleavened by religion and the daily influences of society - little likely to be removed by Acts of Parliament alone, and never if Acts of Parliament find none but official hands to aid in enforcing them. ...

If there was anything which could tinge with a deeper hue these scenes and deeds, it would be the possibility that all such evils might be inflicted on women; and so they are in the following districts, which we purposely name:

  1. West Riding of Yorkshire, southern part
  2. Bradford and Leeds
  3. Halifax
  4. Lancashire
  5. South Wales
  6. East of Scotland

In the last of these provinces the whole state of the mines as to care, ventilation, draining, and as to employment of women, reads so miserably, that we fain would hope the account overdrawn. ... But we will not multiply these spectacles of human misery and degradation; and to whom can they be traces? Is the contractor alone in fault? - is the proprietor scatheless? Or shall we blame the parents and relations, by whose avarice and improvidence, according to Mr Sub-Commissioner Scriven, in almost every instance, these females are thus subjected to moral and physical evils of the worst kind? On both sides the guilt is great - very great - but surely vastly greater in him who has not even the excuse of poverty for receiving 'the thirty pieces of silver'. The example of discontinuing this hateful practice has, however, been set in what we must consider as the very worst district. No sooner did the abomination come to the knowledge of the Duke of Buccleuch than his grace commanded its utter abolition in all his collieries' and the same course was immediately followed by the family of Dundas of Arniston, and others of his neighbours: -

'Until the last eight months,' says William Hunter, overman in a colliery at Arniston, ' women and lassies were wrought below in these works, when Mr Alexander Moxton, our manager, issued an order to exclude them from going below, having some months prior given intimation of the same. Women always did the lifting, or heavy part of the work, and neither they nor the children were treated like human beings; nor are they where they are employed, Females submit to work in places where no man nor even lad could be got to labour in: they work in bad roads up to their knees in water, in a posture nearly double: they are below till the last hour of pregnancy: they have swelled ankles and haunches, and are prematurely brought to the grave, or, what is worse, a lingering existence. Many of the daughters of miners are now at respectable service. I have two who are in families at Leith, and who are much delighted with the change.'

The Duke of Buccleuch's manager, Mr James Wright, says: -

'I feel confident that the exclusion of females will advantage the collier in a physical point of view, and that it will force the alteration of the economy of the mines. Owners will be compelled to alter their system. They will ventilate better, make better roads, and so change the system as to enable men who now work only three or four days a week to discover their own interest in regularly employing themselves. Since young children and females have been excluded from his Grace's mines, we have never had occasion to increase the price of coal.'

Quarterly Review, LXX (1842), 158 et seq.

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