Struggle and Strife; It Was the Harshest of All Industries, with Welsh Miners Only Expected to Live until the Age of 40 at One Time. in an Extract from a New Book on Our Coal Industry, Ronald Rees Charts the Dangerous Circumstances under Which Our Men, Children and Often Women Worked
THE authors of the 1842 report on the employment of children in mines listed the 10 most common ways in which miners could be injured or killed: 1) Falling down the shaft.
2) Being struck on the head, by something falling, when descending or ascending the shaft.
3) Breaking of the rope or chain that raised or lowered the basket, bucket or cage.
4) Being drawn over the winding pulley and dashed to the ground or precipitated down the shaft through the neglect of the engine man.
5) Something falling from the mine's roof.
6) Being crushed by a fall of coal at the face.
7) Suffocation by carbonic acid gas (chokedamp).
8) Suffocation or burning by firedamp.
9) Drowning from sudden break-ins of water from old workings.
10) Injuries from horse or carriage.
Only winter sailing in cold Atlantic waters presented as many dangers.
J U Nef, the great American historian of British coalmining, considered that subjecting men, women and children to labour in mines was equivalent to sending raw, unarmed troops into battle against a trained and well-equipped enemy. He could well have been echoing a sentiment expressed by one of the 1842 commissioners, who remarked that, to judge from the conversation in certain mining communities, "We might consider the whole of the population as engaged in a campaign."
The military metaphor was also adopted by Lionel Brough, Government Inspector of Coalmines for the Western District, in his report for 1864. "This account of death, contusions, fractures, amputations and surgical operations, altogether sounds like the description of military movements in the field rather than the report of industrious and peaceful pursuits."
By the time of World War II, mining was a far less dangerous occupation than it had been a century earlier, but miners still suffered from tensions, similar, according to B L Coombes, to those that affected soldiers.
For the pitman, the hazards began at the shaft: "A collier," as one respondent to the 1842 Children's Employment Commission remarked, "is never safe after he is swung off to be let down the pit." In the category of day-to-day accidents, deaths from shaft accidents were second only to falls of rock from the roof or, in places where the seams were thick, of coal and rock from the coal face. If, as in early days, the descent was by ladder, men, and the boys clinging or tied to their backs, sometimes fell to their deaths through a loss of footing or, as happened from time to time, through an accumulation of chokedamp in the shaft.
At Llanelli, where ladders are said to have been in common use in 1842, they were placed perpendicularly down the side of the shaft and divided by stages or platforms every 20 or 30 yards. Falls could only have been fatal.
After the introduction of the windlass and the horse-driven whim gin, colliers descended and ascended either by standing in a basket or tub, or simply by hooking a foot or leg through a loop of the rope or a link in the chain.
If hooked in series they looked, as one observer remarked, like a string of onions or, where each man was holding a lighted candle, like a chandelier. In shallow pits, the raising and lowering was by hand windlass, and in deep ones, by horse gin.
The colliers held on with one hand, leaving the other free to guide their bodies away from the sides of the shaft.
Boys, who often sat astride the knees of the men, could be dislodged by bars or timbers projecting from the side of the shaft.
Ascending or descending in baskets or tubs was less hazardous than hanging onto a rope, but whether filled with coal or colliers, the tubs, without guides to restrain them, could swing from side to side in the shaft. Nor, too, was there any protection from projectiles from above. In December 1815, a basket being lowered down a shaft at Llansamlet was struck, when about 120 feet from the bottom, by a falling stone. …