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. .
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.
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.
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.