You only have to mention the Black Country and immediately an image of coal comes to mind, the fossil fuel that fired the furnaces, drove the foundries and became the mainstay of progress throughout the Industrial Revolution, a natural mineral that defined the Dark Region for 250 years.
Once above ground millions of tons of black gold were transported to factories to help produce commodities destined for all over the world, to the iron foundries, and the wholesalers for delivery to local households, and the gas works for lighting the streets. Giant spoil heaps scarred the landscape, a clue that work was being carried out underground nearby, and winding gear stanchions became the collieries’ very own working sculptures, where the miners were sent down to the hidden depths, and the wealth of their toil and sweat was brought back to the surface. The miners were a stout breed of men who boarded a bucket to go to work and probably stared back at the fading light from the pit head during their descent, wondering whether they would ever breathe fresh air again.
But before the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 brought to an end the employment of women, and children under ten working underground, it was common for whole families to work together in the jaws of hell. Some children started work in the bowels of the earth when they were just five years old, but the majority first travelled in the bucket when they were about eight, and would have to work the same hours as adults, sometimes longer, doing jobs that paid less.
The youngest child normally worked as a trapper (imagine that child being younger than eight). He or she would have spent up to twelve hours, probably in total darkness for the duration, opening the wooden doors to let the coal tubs through that allowed fresh air to flow through the mine at the same time. It was hard work, boring, not to mention frightening, and above all, dangerous.
If the child fell asleep the safety of the whole mine could be in jeopardy.
Women and older children were employed as hurriers, pulling and pushing tubs of coal along roadways from the coal face to the pit-bottom.
Some children worked in pairs, one as a hurrier, the other as a thruster, but the older and stronger ones, and the women, always worked alone. Hurriers were harnessed to the tub and thrusters would help hurriers by pushing the tubs of coal (each tub could weigh over 600kg) from behind with their hands and tops of their heads through roadways often only four foot high.
In December 1850 Charles Dickens published an interview, taken from the evidence of a Black Country miner, for his magazine "Household Words", and in this extract the miner talked candidly about life in the mines when he was a child: "When I went down into the pit I drew little wagons of coals with a girdle and chain; this is called hurrying. Hard work it was. The blisters were often as big as shillings and half-crown pieces. All full of water they were. And the blisters of one day were broken the next, and the girdle stuck to the wound.
Sore work, I promise you; but I got one and sixpence a day for it, and the last three months, two shillings.
“After this I was hired as a foal to my uncle, a young fellow of nineteen who was a putter. Those who push the little wagons of coal along the tram-roads are called putters; and when a young boy helps an elder he is called his foal.
When two boys of fourteen and fifteen years of age push together, equally, they are called half-marrows. I was a foal for near a twelvemonth; and then a halfmarrow, and got twelve and sixpence a week.
“One day the butty (overseer) sent us to a part of the mine where we had never been before. There was firedamp there, and it put out our candles, one after the other, as fast as we lighted them. So we saw as it was not safe to try it any longer, and we began to scramble our way back in the dark.
Laughing we were a great deal. But we missed our way and got into an old working as had been abandoned for years, and got quite lost.
We wandered about here two whole days and nights afore we found our way out, and were nigh starved to death! “I was strong of my age, and the butty said I had some sense in me, and set me to use the pick sooner than usual.
In general the miner does not use the pick and become a holer or undergoer till he is one and twenty. I was set to do this at nineteen and earned four shillings a day, and sometimes more.
“Got badly burnt once at this work. I was lying in a new working where the air was bad, and I was obliged to use a Davy Lamp. I had bought a new watch at Tipton, and I wanted to see what o'clock it was by it — else what was the use on it? and I couldn't tell by the Davy, I just lifted off the top and pheu! went the gas and scorched my face all over, so that the skin peeled off. It was shocking to see and I was laid up with this for two months — and sarv'd me right, I say now, but it was hard to bear at the time."