Pre-1842: East Scotland Excerpts


Excerpts from:  REPORT by ROBERT HUGH FRANKS, ESQ., on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in the Collieries and iron works of the East of Scotland, and the State, Condition, and Treatment of such Children and Young Persons

A copy of the full report can be obtained from THE COAL MINING HISTORY RESOURCE CENTRE


Few of the mines in the East of Scotland exceed the depth of 100 fathoms. They are descended by shafts, by trap and turnpike stairs, and, in some instances, by inclines. In descending the shaft a basket tub or cage is used, the cage being the most modern and altogether the safest plan, as it does not expose the passenger to be brought in contact with any other ascending or descend body.

The workings in the narrow seams are sometimes 100 to 200 yards from the main roads, so that the females have to crawl backwards and forwards with their small carts in seams in many cases not exceeding 22 to 28 inches in height. 

MARGARET HIPPS -  17, coal putter:

On short shifts I work from eight in the morning till six at night; on long ones until 10 at night; occasionally we work all night. When at night-work, from six at night till eight and ten in the morning. Only bread is taken below and the only rests we have are those we have to wait upon the men for while picking the coal. My employment, after reaching the wall-face, is to fill a bagie, or slype, with 2.5 to 3cwt. coal. I then hook it on to my chain and drag it through the seam, which is 26 to 28 inches high, till I get to the main-road, a good distance, probably 200 to 400 yards. The pavement I drag over is wet and I am obliged at all times to crawl on hands and feet with my bagie hung to the chain and ropes. I turn the contents of the bagies into the carts till they are filled; and then run them upon the ironrails to the shaft a distance of 400 to 500 yards. It is sad sweating and sore fatiguing work and frequently maims the women. My left hand is short of a finger, which laid me idle four months.

[Reads and writes. Very ill-informed. Is a fine personable woman, above the middle Stature and rather stout. It is almost incredible to believe that human beings can submit to such employment, crawling on hands and knees, harnessed like horses, over soft slushy floors more difficult than dragging the same weights through our lowest common-sewers and more difficult in consequence of the inclination, which is frequently one in three to one in six.]

Coal bearers are women and children employed to carry coal on their backs on un-railed roads with burdens varying from 3/4 cwt. to 3 cwt. It is revolting to humanity to reflect upon the barbarous and cruel slavery which this degrading labour constitutes, a labour which happily has long since been abolished in England, and in the greater part of Scotland, and I believe is only to be found in the Lothians, the remnant of the slavery of a degraded age.

JANET CUMMING - 11 years bears coals: 

I gang with the women at five and come up at five at night. I work all night on Fridays, and come away at twelve in the day. I carry the large bits of coal from the wall face to the pit bottom, and the small pieces called chows in a creel. The weight is usually a hundredweight. I do not know how many pounds there are in a hundredweight but it is some weight to carry. It takes three journeys to fill a tub of 4 cwt. The distance varies as the work is not always on the same wall, sometimes 150 fathoms, whiles 250 fathoms. The roof is very low and I have to bend my back and legs and the water comes frequently up to the calves of my legs. I have no liking for the work, father makes me like it. I never got hurt, but often am obliged to scramble out of the pit when bad air was in.

ISABELLA READ, 12 years old:

I am wrought with sister and brother. It is very sore work. I cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit bottom to wall face and back. She thinks about 30 or 25 on the average. The distance varies from 100 to 250 fathoms. I carry a hundredweight an a quarter on my back, and am frequently in water up to the calves of my legs. When first down I fell frequently asleep while waiting for coal from heat and fatigue. I do not like the work, nor do the lassies, but they are made to like it. When the weather is warm there is difficulty in breathing, and frequently the lights go out.


AGNES MOFFAT, 17 years of age:

She began working at 10 years of age. She works 12 and 14 hours daily. She can earn l2s. in a fortnight if work be not stopped by bad air or otherwise. Father took sister and I down. He gets our wages. I fill five baskets. The weight is more than 22 cwt. and it takes me five journeys. The work is o'er sair for females. I had my shoulder knocked out a time ago, and laid idle some time. It is no uncommon thing for women to lose their burthen (load), and drop off the ladder down the dyke below. Margaret M'Neil did a few weeks since, and injured both legs. When the tugs which pass over the forehead break which they frequently do it is very dangerous to be under the load. The lassies hate the work altogether but canna run away from it.

ISABEL HOGG - 53 years of age, coal-bearer

Been married 37 years; it was the practice to marry early, when the coals were all carried on women's backs, melt needed us; from the great sore labour false births are frequent and very dangerous. I have four daughters married and all work below till they bear their bairns - one is very badly now from working while pregnant, which brought on a miscarriage from which she is not expected to recover. collier-people suffer much more than others - my guid man died nine years since with bad breath; he lingered some years and was entirely off work 11 years before he died. You must just tell the Queen Victoria that we are guid loyal subjects; women-people here don't mind work but they object to horse-work and that she would have the blessings of all the Scotch coal-women if she would get them out of the pits and send them to other labour.

[Mrs. Hogg is one of the most respectable coal-wives in Penston, her rooms are all well furnished and the house the cleanest I have seen in East Lothian.]


PUTTERS The labour in which children and young persons are employed, next in severity to the sore slavery of coal bearing, is coal putting, in which we find sexes more equally distributed. Putters drag or push the carts containing from the coal wall to the pit bottom, weight varying from 3 to 10 cwt.

The boxes or carriages which are here employed are of two sorts, the hutchie and the slype. The hutchie being an oblong square sided box with wheels which usually run on a rail and the slype is a wood framed box curved and shod with iron at the bottom, holding from 2.25 to 5 cwt of coal, adapted to the seams through which it is dragged. The lad or lass is harnessed over the shoulders and back with a strong leathern girth, which behind is furnished with an iron hook, attaching itself to a chain fastened to the coal cart or slype, which is thus dragged along. The dresses of these girls are made of coarse hempen stuff (sacking) fitted close to the figure. The covering to their heads are of the same material. Little or no flannel is used, and their clothing, being of an absorbent nature frequently gets completely saturated shortly after descending the pit, especially where the roofs are soft. The girls after their return from labour hang their dresses up to dry, and know instances of their pit clothes ever being washed, save at Lord Elgin's colliery in Fife, and some few others in the same county. The stockings worn by the collier girls cover only the ankles and calves of their legs. The feet of many are naked. Those who work in railed roads below ground wear heavy iron shod shoes.

Where the seams are narrow and the roofs low, the lads and lasses drag on all fours, as one boy (witness) says in the evidence, 'like horses.' These slypes are used in those parts of mines where rails are not laid (the dip and rise preventing), or where the floors are soft from wall faces to main roads.

KATHERINE LOGAN - 16 years old, coal putter

She began to work at coal carrying more than five years since. She works in harness now and draws backwards, with face to tubs; the ropes and chains go under pit clothes. It is o'ersair work, especially when we crawl.

JANE PEACOCK WATSON - age 40, coal bearer, West Linton, Peebleshire:

I have wrought in the bowels of the earth 33 years and have been married 23 years, and had nine children.  Six are alive, three died of typhus a few years since and I have had two dead born.  They were so from the opressive work.  A vast of women have dead children and false births which are worse, as they are no able to work after the latter.
I have always been obliged to work below till forced to go home to bear the bairn, and so other women.  We return as soon as we are able, never longer than 10 or 12 days, many less if they are needed.  It is only horse work, and ruins the women.  It crushes the haunches, bends their ankles, and makes them old women at 40.

AGNES KERR - age 15, coal bearer - Dryden Colliery, Mid-Lothian:

Was nine years old when commenced carrying coals; carry on father's account; make 18 to 20 journeys a-day; a journey to and fro is about 200 to 250 fathom; have to ascend and descend many ladders; can carry 1.5 cwt.  I do not know how many feet there are in a fathom but I think two or three yards: know the distance from habit; it is sore crushing work; many lassies cry as they bring up the burthens.  Accidents frequently happen from the tugs breaking and the loads falling on those behind and the lasses are much fashed with swelled ankles.  I canna say that I like the work well; for I am obliged to do it; it is horse work.  Was at school five years since.  I was in the Bible [can read well]; forgotten all about it.  Jesus Christ led the Jews out of Egypt: believes Jesus was God; does not recollect what death he died, or the names of any books in the Bible or Testiment.  Often goes to buy meal; gets a peck; can't say whether it weighs 7lb. or 14lb.; can't sew or knit.  I would go to kirk if I had clothes.

ELLSPEE THOMSON - age 40, coal bearer, New Craighall Colliery, Inveresk, Mid-Lothian:

I wrought all my life, till a stone, 14 months ago, so crushed my leg and right foot, below ground, that I could no' gang.  If women did not work below the children would not go down so soon and it would better for them, as they would get more strength and a little learning.  Can say to my own cost that the bairns are much neglected when both parents work below for neighbors, if they keep the children, they require as much as women sometimes earn and neglect them.  The oppression of the coal-bearing is such as to injure women in after-life and few exist whose legs are not injured, or haunches, before they are 30 years of age.  Has known many women leave for service but for want of proper intruction have not been able to hold to the places: the liberty women have unfits them for restraint.  Thinks colliers' daughters full as virtuous as other women, only their habits are so different from being taken down so early, especially as collier men think the lassies need less education.  The hours children are wrought is much too long; many work 15 hours, none less than twelve.  I do not know any women that have much suffered from the bad air but most of the men begin to complain at 30 to 35 years of age and drop off before they get the length of 40.

JANE JOHNSHON - age 26, draws coal - Preston-Hall Colliery, Cranston, Mid-Lothian:

I was seven and a half years of age when my uncle first yoked me to the work, as father and mother were dead; it was at Sheriff-Hall and I carried coal on my back; I could carry 2cwt. when 15 years of age but I now feel the weakness upon me from the strains.  I have been married near 10 years and had 4 children; have usually wrought till within one or two days of the children's birth.  Many women lose their strength early from overwork and get injured in their backs and legs; was crushed by a stone some time since and forced to lose one of my fingers.  I cannot read; never was taught; my three children, girls of the age of 8, 5, and 2 years, I leave at home; a wench comes to see after them and take them to the school.  None know how to read at present.

JANET SELKIRK - age 18, draws coal - Preston-Hall Colliery, Cranston, Mid-Lothian:

Begun to work at 10 years of age; did so, as hard work below made mother blind.  I cannot read, as family expenses are heavy.  Two sisters are trying at the reading; four other bairns are supported by mine and father's work.  Am obliged to like the work, as all the lassies are.  It would no be possible for men to do the work we are forced to do.  Men only marry us early because we are of advantage to them.  The roads are so low and narrow that small persons only can pass.