A Coal Miner's Evidence

A Coal Miner's Evidence  (1850) 
by Charles Dickens

SECOND PART of the interview by Charles Dickens, as reporter for Household Words, regarding a miner's evidence on accidents in NE England. Contemporary Account: Article dated Saturday, December 7 1850.

(Concerning the recent explosion and previous accidents of a similar kind in SOUTH STAFFORDSHIRE and NORTH DURHAM mines, this coal miner was in the pit at the time of the recent explosion)

"After my accident I did not go down again in the pit for six months. I warn't strong enough. I drove a 'gin' on the bank. [the 'gin' consists of a horse going in a circle, and working a wheel that winds up or lets down loads into the pit]. The work was not hard, except in cold or wet weather; but then I often stood in a hovel by a fire, and kept th' old horse going by pelting him with small bits of coal, to let him know I was there. I learnt to read at an evening-school at this time; and to write a little too. But I've forgotten both since.

"When I next went down into the pit I drew little waggons 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 foal to my uncle, a young fellow of nineteen who was a putter. Those who push the little waggons 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 or fifteen years of age push together, equally, they are called half-marrows. I was a foal for near a twelvemonth; and then a half-marrow, 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 fire-damp there, and it put out our candles, one after another, as fast as we lighted them. So we saw as it was not safe to try it on 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 is usual. In general the miner does not use the pick, and become a holer or undergoer [those who go into holes and undermine masses of coal] 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 as 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 all peeled off. It was shocking to see. 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.

"As for accidents from the explosion of gas, I say there's no help for them, and never can be, so far as the men themselves are concerned. I have been oftentime very careless myself, as I've told you, and so are all miners, and always will be. You may cure the mine of gas, perhaps, but you'll never cure the men. Nor, I don't well see how you're to cure the gas, at all times, neither. When a heading [the working at the end of an excavation] is made up a slant, the gas collects in the upper end, and to disturb this gas, as you must do, and distribute it, and drive it away, a'nt so safe and easy a matter, without a chance of a bit of an explosion or two. The worst time of all is when an up-hill heading is united to another heading, for then you're almost certain to have a rush down of the gas, and if there's an uncovered light in the way, you're sure of an explosion. Well - then, don't have a light in the way, on such occasions; make the juncture of the two headings in !

the dark. That's easy said; and so we're ordered, and so we ought to; but to get men to do it, that's the job. Besides, if it was all being done in the dark, a boy might come running that way with a lighted candle in his hand, a-singing 'Susannah' - and then where are you?

"You want to know if there's no authority, and no order down in the mines - nobody to walk about and prevent accident from carelessness? Well - there's the butty, as gives out the work; and there's the doggy, who is always a-walking about to see it done. But what's one man to miles and miles of darkness underground, with gas or bad air everywhere, and roof and walls always liable to fall in? The overlookers have enough to do to take care o' themselves, at times. Some years ago - 1838 about - at Tamworth - a butty coming to his work in the morning, walked right into the pit's mouth with two candles in his hand; and only t'other day, in one of our mines here, a doggy had his head blown off with the wild fire.

"It doesn't come of drink, this carelessness of the miners; it's just in our nature not to care - that's all. We do drink and eat too, a good deal; but not in the mine. Our dinners there, are not much, except on particular days, when there is a feast; but when we come up from the pit, we have hot suppers at night in our cottages. The doctors say that a miner needs to eat near three times as much as a mechanic who sits at his work all day; and we do eat three times as much. We're not a drunken set o' people; only on Mondays there's a many drunk, and not very handsome-like on Tuesdays. We mostly lie in bed and sleep half Sundays. Some of us are tee-totallers - but a werry, werry few. The Marquis o' Hastings, who's a great coal-owner, once told a collier that he knew a miner who had never drank a quart of beer in all his life, put together, yet he had lived to the age of ninety, - if he had but ha' drunk a quart of ale a day, he'd have lived for ever!

"After I had been an under-goer three years, I had a large piece of coal fall upon me from the roof in one of the workings which broke my leg. My mother was dead, and I was not married at this time, because the girl I should ha' married, took up with somebody else; so I went to my sister to be nursed. She and her husband were going to live at Durham, and persuaded me, when I was well, to go along with them. I soon went down into the pit again, and used to earn five shillings a day. It was here that happened one of those very bad explosions I told you of when you first spoke to me about this last business. The one I now speak of was in the Willington Colliery."

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.