Primary History

Victorian Britain: Children in coal mines

  • Why was coal so important?

    Most of the energy we use today comes in the form of electricity or oil. In Victorian times, energy came from water-power (waterwheels), from horses and above all from burning coal. Coal was as important to Victorians as oil is to us today. Steam engines burned coal. Steam engines drove factory machines, locomotives pulling trains and steamships. All this coal had to be dug from coal mines. Britain had a lot of coal, deep in rocks beneath the ground. .

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  • What were coal mines like?

    Most coal was dug from deep mines. A long vertical shaft was dug down from the surface. Leading off from it were side tunnels. Miners rode in a lift, worked by a steam engine. In the tunnels, they hacked at the coal with picks and shovels. Coal mines were dark, dirty and dangerous. The only light came from candles and oil lamps. Gas in the mine could choke miners, or explode. Tunnels could flood or collapse. Accidents killed many miners.

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  • How were coal mines run?

    Coal mines were owned by the person on whose land they were dug. The mine owners sold their coal to the factories. Some mine owners were very rich, but they paid miners low wages. They did not care about health and safety, so at first they let small children and women work underground.

    In 1842, Parliament stopped women and children under 10 years old from working underground. In 1860 the age limit for boy-miners was raised to 12, and in 1900 to 13.

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  • What jobs did children do in mines?

    Some children pushed trucks of coal along mine tunnels. They were called 'putters'.

    'Trappers' opened and shut wooden doors to let air through the tunnels. A trapper boy sat in the dark, with just a small candle, and no-one to talk to.

    Some children started work at 2 in the morning and stayed below ground for 18 hours. Children working on the surface, sorting coal, at least saw daylight and breathed fresh air.

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Fun Facts
  • Child miners started work very early. They often got before sunrise to walk to the mine.

  • Miners got covered in coal dust. There were no baths at the mine. At home child-miners sat in a tin bath in front of the fire.

  • Mine children often worked in complete darkness. There were no electric torches. Candles cost precious pennies.

  • Horses also worked underground. Pit-ponies pulled wagons of coal along the tunnels.

  • Miners took their dinner down the mine - perhaps bread and cheese, or bread with a bit of cold bacon.

  • Any miner (man or child) who stole another miner's dinner was beaten with a stick.

  • To drink, most miners took a tin can of cold tea with them.

  • It was often very wet in a coal mine. Water dripped into the tunnels, soaking the miners as they worked.

  • Some miners took canary birds in cages down the mine. If it breathed in dangerous gas, the canary passed out (fainted), and the miners hurried to safety.

  • In just 40 years the amount of coal dug from British mines rose from 17 million tons (1830) to over 121 million tons (1870).

  • To wake miners early in the morning, a man called the 'knocker-up' went from house to house, tapping on bedroom windows with a long pole.

  • At England's National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, Yorkshire, visitors can go down 140 metres underground.

  • Children did not only work in coal mines. Some child-miners worked in slate mines too.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.