Sybil/Book 3/Chapter 1

The last rays of the sun, contending with clouds of smoke that drifted across the country, partially illumined a peculiar landscape. Far as the eye could reach, and the region was level, except where a range of limestone hills formed its distant limit, a wilderness of cottages or tenements that were hardly entitled to a higher name, were scattered for many miles over the land; some detached, some connected in little rows, some clustering in groups, yet rarely forming continuous streets, but interspersed with blazing furnaces, heaps of burning coal, and piles of smouldering ironstone; while forges and engine chimneys roared and puffed in all directions, and indicated the frequent presence of the mouth of the mine and the bank of the coal-pit. Notwithstanding the whole country might be compared to a vast rabbit warren, it was nevertheless intersected with canals crossing each other at various levels, and though the subterranean operations were prosecuted with so much avidity that it was not uncommon to observe whole rows of houses awry, from the shifting and hollow nature of the land, still, intermingled with heaps of mineral refuse or of metallic dross, patches of the surface might here and there be recognised, covered, as if in mockery, with grass and corn, looking very much like those gentlemen's sons that we used to read of in our youth, stolen by the chimneysweeps and giving some intimations of their breeding beneath their grimy livery. But a tree or a shrub—such an existence was unknown in this dingy rather than dreary region.

It was the twilight hour; the hour at which in southern climes the peasant kneels before the sunset image of the blessed Hebrew maiden; when caravans halt in their long course over vast deserts, and the turbaned traveller bending in the sand, pays his homage to the sacred stone and the sacred city; the hour, not less holy, that announces the cessation of English toil, and sends forth the miner and the collier to breathe the air of earth, and gaze on the light of heaven.

They come forth: the mine delivers its gang and the pit its bondsmen; the forge is silent and the engine is still. The plain is covered with the swarming multitude: bands of stalwart men, broad-chested and muscular, wet with toil, and black as the children of the tropics; troops of youth—alas! of both sexes,—though neither their raiment nor their language indicates the difference; all are clad in male attire; and oaths that men might shudder at, issue from lips born to breathe words of sweetness. Yet these are to be—some are—the mothers of England! But can we wonder at the hideous coarseness of their language when we remember the savage rudeness of their lives? Naked to the waist, an iron chain fastened to a belt of leather runs between their legs clad in canvas trousers, while on hands and feet an English girl, for twelve, sometimes for sixteen hours a-day, hauls and hurries tubs of coals up subterranean roads, dark, precipitous, and plashy: circumstances that seem to have escaped the notice of the Society for the Abolition of Negro Slavery. Those worthy gentlemen too appear to have been singularly unconscious of the sufferings of the little Trappers, which was remarkable, as many of them were in their own employ.

See too these emerge from the bowels of the earth! Infants of four and five years of age, many of them girls, pretty and still soft and timid; entrusted with the fulfilment of most responsible duties, and the nature of which entails on them the necessity of being the earliest to enter the mine and the latest to leave it. Their labour indeed is not severe, for that would be impossible, but it is passed in darkness and in solitude. They endure that punishment which philosophical philanthropy has invented for the direst criminals, and which those criminals deem more terrible than the death for which it is substituted. Hour after hour elapses, and all that reminds the infant Trappers of the world they have quitted and that which they have joined, is the passage of the coal-waggons for which they open the air-doors of the galleries, and on keeping which doors constantly closed, except at this moment of passage, the safety of the mine and the lives of the persons employed in it entirely depend.

Sir Joshua, a man of genius and a courtly artist, struck by the seraphic countenance of Lady Alice Gordon, when a child of very tender years, painted the celestial visage in various attitudes on the same canvass, and styled the group of heavenly faces—guardian angels!

We would say to some great master of the pencil, Mr Landseer or Mr Etty, go thou to the little trappers and do likewise!

A small party of miners approached a house of more pretension than the generality of the dwellings, and announcing its character by a very flagrant sign of the Rising Sun. They entered it as men accustomed, and were greeted with smiles and many civil words from the lady at the bar, who inquired very cheerfully what the gentlemen would have. They soon found themselves seated in the tap, and, though it was not entirely unoccupied, in their accustomed places, for there seemed a general understanding that they enjoyed a prescriptive right.

With hunches of white bread in their black hands, and grinning with their sable countenances and ivory teeth, they really looked like a gang of negroes at a revel.

The cups of ale circulated, the pipes were lighted, the preliminary puffs achieved. There was at length silence, when he who seemed their leader and who filled a sort of president's seat, took his pipe from his mouth, and then uttering the first complete sentence that had yet been expressed aloud, thus delivered himself.

"The fact is we are tommied to death."

"You never spoke a truer word, Master Nixon," said one of his companions.

"It's gospel, every word of it," said another.

"And the point is," continued Master Nixon, "what are we for to do?"

"Ay, surely," said a collier; "that's the marrow."

"Ay, ay," agreed several; "there it is."

"The question is," said Nixon, looking round with a magisterial air, "what is wages? I say, tayn't sugar, tayn't tea, tayn't bacon. I don't think it's candles; but of this I be sure, tayn't waistcoats."

Here there was a general groan.

"Comrades," continued Nixon, "you know what has happened; you know as how Juggins applied for his balance after his tommy-book was paid up, and that incarnate nigger Diggs has made him take two waistcoats. Now the question rises, what is a collier to do with waistcoats? Pawn 'em I s'pose to Diggs' son-in-law, next door to his father's shop, and sell the ticket for sixpence. Now there's the question; keep to the question; the question is waistcoats and tommy; first waistcoats and then tommy."

"I have been making a pound a-week these two months past," said another, "but as I'm a sinner saved, I have never seen the young queen's picture yet."

"And I have been obliged to pay the doctor for my poor wife in tommy," said another. "'Doctor,' I said, says I, 'I blush to do it, but all I have got is tommy, and what shall it be, bacon or cheese?' 'Cheese at tenpence a pound,' says he, 'which I buy for my servants at sixpence. Never mind,' says he, for he is a thorough Christian, 'I'll take the tommy as I find it.'"

"Juggins has got his rent to pay and is afeard of the bums," said Nixon; "and he has got two waistcoats!"

"Besides," said another, "Diggs' tommy is only open once aweek, and if you're not there in time, you go over for another seven days. And it's such a distance, and he keeps a body there such a time—it's always a day's work for my poor woman; she can't do nothing after it, what with the waiting and the standing and the cussing of Master Joseph Diggs,—for he do swear at the women, when they rush in for the first turn, most fearful."

"They do say he's a shocking little dog."

"Master Joseph is wery wiolent, but there is no one like old Diggs for grabbing a bit of one's wages. He do so love it! And then he says you never need be at no loss for nothing; you can find everything under my roof. I should like to know who is to mend our shoes. Has Gaffer Diggs a cobbler's stall?"

"Or sell us a penn-orth of potatoes," said another. "Or a ha'porth of milk"

"No; and so to get them one is obliged to go and sell some tommy, and much one gets for it. Bacon at ninepence a-pound at Diggs', which you may get at a huckster's for sixpence. and therefore the huckster can't be expected to give you more than fourpence halfpenny, by which token the tommy in our field just cuts our wages atween the navel."

"And that's as true as if you heard it in church, Master Waghorn."

"This Diggs seems to be an oppressor of the people," said a voice from a distant corner of the room.

Master Nixon looked around, smoked, puffed, and then said, "I should think he wor; as bloody-a-hearted butty as ever jingled."

"But what business has a butty to keep a shop?" inquired the stranger. "The law touches him."

"I should like to know who would touch the law," said Nixon; "not I for one. Them tommy shops is very delicate things; they won't stand no handling, I can tell you that."

"But he cannot force you to take goods," said the stranger; "he must pay you in current coin of the realm, if you demand it."

"They only pay us once in five weeks," said a collier; "and how is a man to live meanwhile. And suppose we were to make shift for a month or five weeks, and have all our money coming, and have no tommy out of the shop, what would the butty say to me? He would say, 'do you want e'er a note this time' and if I was to say 'no,' then he would say, 'you've no call to go down to work any more here.' And that's what I call forsation."

"Ay, ay," said another collier; "ask for the young queen's picture, and you would soon have to put your shirt on, and go up the shaft."

"It's them long reckonings that force us to the tommy shops," said another collier; "and if a butty turns you away because you won't take no tommy, you're a marked man in every field about."[1]

"There's wus things as tommy," said a collier who had hitherto been silent, "and that's these here butties. What's going on in the pit is known only to God Almighty and the colliers. I have been a consistent methodist for many years, strived to do well, and all the harm I have ever done to the butties was to tell them that their deeds would not stand on the day of judgment.

"They are deeds of darkness surely; for many's the morn we work for nothing, by one excuse or another, and many's the good stint that they undermeasure. And many's the cup of their ale that you must drink before they will give you any work. If the queen would do something for us poor men, it would be a blessed job."

There ayn't no black tyrant on this earth like a butty, surely," said a collier; "and there's no redress for poor men."

"But why do not you state your grievances to the landlords and lessees," said the stranger.

"I take it you be a stranger in these parts, sir," said Master Nixon, following up this remark by a most enormous puff. He was the oracle of his circle, and there was silence whenever he was inclined to address them, which was not too often, though when he spoke, his words, as his followers often observed, were a regular ten-yard coal.

"I take it you be a stranger in these parts, sir, or else you would know that it's as easy for a miner to speak to a mainmaster, as it is for me to pick coal with this here clay. Sir, there's a gulf atween 'em. I went into the pit when I was five year old, and I count forty year in the service come Martinmas, and a very good age, sir, for a man what does his work, and I knows what I'm speaking about. In forty year, sir, a man sees a pretty deal, 'specially when he don't move out of the same spot and keeps his 'tention. I've been at play, sir, several times in forty year, and have seen as great stick-outs as ever happened in this country. I've seen the people at play for weeks together, and so clammed that I never tasted nothing but a potatoe and a little salt for more than a fortnight. Talk of tommy, that was hard fare, but we were holding out for our rights, and that's sauce for any gander. And I'll tell you what, sir, that I never knew the people play yet, but if a word had passed atween them and the main-masters aforehand, it might not have been settled; but you can't get at them any way. Atween the poor man and the gentleman there never was no connection, and that's the wital mischief of this country.

"It's a very true word, Master Nixon, and by this token that when we went to play in —28, and the masters said they would meet us; what did they do but walk about the ground and speak to the butties. The butties has their ear."

"We never want no soldiers here if the masters would speak with the men; but the sight of a pitman is pison to a gentleman, and if we go up to speak with 'em, they always run away."

"It's the butties," said Nixon; "they're wusser nor tommy."

"The people will never have their rights," said the stranger, "until they learn their power. Suppose instead of sticking out and playing, fifty of your families were to live under one roof. You would live better than you live now; you would feed more fully, and he lodged and clothed more comfortably, and you might save half the amount of your wages; you would become capitalists; you might yourselves hire your mines and pits from the owners, and pay them a better rent than they now obtain, and yet yourselves gain more and work less."

"Sir," said Mr Nixon, taking his pipe from his mouth, and sending forth a volume of smoke, "you speak like a book."

"It is the principle of association," said the stranger; "the want of the age."

"Sir," said Mr Nixon, "this here age wants a great deal, but what it principally wants is to have its wages paid in the current coin of the realm."

Soon after this there were symptoms of empty mugs and exhausted pipes, and the party began to stir. The stranger addressing Nixon, enquired of him what was their present distance from Wodgate.

"Wodgate!" exclaimed Mr Nixon with an unconscious air.

"The gentleman means Hell-house Yard," said one of his companions.

"I'm at home," said Mr Nixon, "but 'tis the first time I ever heard Hell-house Yard called Wodgate."

"It's called so in joggraphy," said Juggins.

"But you hay'nt going to Hell-house Yard this time of night!" said Mr Nixon. "I'd as soon think of going down the pit with the windlass turned by lushy Bob."

"Tayn't a journey for Christians," said Juggins.

"They're a very queer lot even in sunshine," said another.

"And how far is it?" asked the stranger.

"I walked there once in three hours," said a collier, "but that was to the wake. If you want to see divils carnal, there's your time of day. They're no less than heathens, I be sure. I'd be sorry to see even our butty among them, for he is a sort of a Christian when he has taken a glass of ale."


  1. A Butty in the mining districts is a middleman: a Doggy is his manager. The Butty generally keeps a Tommy or Truck shop and pays the wages of his labourers in goods. When miners and colliers strike they term it, "going to play."