21st February 1934. The Cost of Coal.
Whilst most British mine employees had to endure a troglodyte underground existence, many worked on the surface. These included those women who campaigned and petitioned successive Home Secretaries to be allowed to work, as the well paid coal-sorters-the ‘pit brow lassies’ -until the 1960s.(1)
In a House of Commons debate Today in 1934, Mr Tinker MP for Leigh said, ‘I desire an answer relative to deep mines… regarding the Parsonage Colliery, Lancashire which has attained a depth of 4000 feet with excessive heat.'(2)
It appears that even with ventilation, temperatures of 115 (f) 45 (c), were experienced and it was back in 1871 that a Report had fixed 4,000 feet as the datum mining level.
The Secretary of State for Mines, Ernest Brown, replied, ‘that the Royal Commission in 1907 had considered the matter and on the whole we do not think that any good object would be served by prescribing a temperature for carrying out work in mines.’
Mining had always been a dangerous and strenuous job, with a history of pit disasters and strikes, and undertaken by workers with a stoical toughness working in the most inhospitable circumstances imaginable.
It was a toughness exemplified in the early day by mining union leader Ben Tillett (later MP), who was born in 11th September 1860 in a tiny house in John Street, Bristol, yards from the coal-pit at Easton, and who suffered under a succession of step-mothers.
He recorded: ‘The drab street was occupied by miners and the outlook was black, gaunt and sooty against the skyline [with] the buzz of the circular-saw cutting timber and pit-props, driven by engine.’
He worked with ‘spluttering candles held by a bracket on greasy caps.[There was] dirt and mud and pools of filthy water, stifling heat and a rushing tempest of everyone pushing, bawling, shouting and cursing’.
No wonder miners have always had to fight fiercely for improvements in pay and conditions and the fact that the Trades Union Congress committed itself to the socialist slogan of Nationalisation of industries as early as 1890s, was largely due to miners’ pressure owing to the owners’ gross neglect of health and safety in pits.
The first Statute to control mining was the Coal Mines Act 1850 whereby Inspectors reported to Home Office until 1920s. By the end of the 19th century, The Board of Trade became involved as the terrible conditions became more widely known with many Acts concerned to ameliorate working practices.
It wasn’t until the 2oth century that executive and bureaucratic organizations saw respective governments attempt to address matters with a plethora of legislation. Thus from the 1930s we get The Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission 1930-1936 and The Coal Commission to the industry’s Nationalization in 1947, when, in this ‘brave new world’ we get The National Coal Board (NCB).
By 1986 we see The British Coal Corporation to 1997, (which saw Privatization in 1994), and finally with most of the mines closed, The Coal Authority employing a few pits, in an industry which once had thousands and a million men.
And all the time the miner sweated!
(1) Women and young children were banned from working underground in 19thc. Children under the age of 13 were banned under The Mines Prohibition of Children Labouring Underground Act 1900 (passed July 30 1900).
(2) Lindsay’s founded the Wigan Coal & Iron Company which at the time was the largest Lancashire coalfield which in the 1920s employed 9,000 with the shafts of Parsonage Colliery between 1913 and 1920, the deepest in Britain.
Ref: Malcolm Bull’s ‘Calderdale Companion’.
Ref: hfinster.P C. Harald Finster 22.3.1990. Picture of Parsonage Colliery.
Ref: ancientindustries.blogspot.com.Pict of pit brow ladies.
Ref: House of Commons Debate 21 February 1934 Vol 286 cc 473-8 Coal Industry Parsonage Coll Leigh.
Ref: BR Transport and Memories and Reflections: Ben Tillett.
Ref: Coal Industry (Parsonage Colliery, Leigh) Debate in Commons.
Ref: Grace’s Guide-(Wigan Coal/Iron (Haigh Hall).
Ref: House of Commons Debate 21 Feb 1934 vol 286 cc 473-8. (Hansard).
Ref: Laurence Chaderton, Earl of Crawford Haigh Colliery/Ironworks.
Ref: Parsonage Colliery 1934. Hansard/millbanksystems.com.