The following is an actual account of London based Dr James Mitchell in the Summer of 1840. He was visiting the nearby village of Coxhoe in the course of his investigations into the employment of children in coalmines.
“Happening to hear through the open door of one of the houses the chimes of an eight-day clock, he paused to glance within and was struck by the shining cleanliness of the interior. A chest of drawers, with brass handles and ornaments, reached from the floor to the ceiling, a huge four-poster bed boasted a coverlet made up of squares of printed calico, brightly-gleaming saucepans and other tinware utensils were displayed upon the walls. His interest being noted by the occupants he was invited to enter. The man of the house, his shift at the local colliery just completed, was fresh from his bath and about to begin his meal of baked potatoes and grilled bacon which stood on the table, flanked by a jug of foaming beer. His wife, attentive to the needs of the breadwinner, hovered in the background, neat as a pin and happy to see her man safe home from his work”.
Start as a breaker boy, move on to door opener to control ventilation, then a driver of ponies returning full carts to surface and sending down empties, then to a hewer around age 20 and eventually ended up back in the breaker room as old age or disability/ill health took its toll on ability to work. Incredibly hot below so miners often worked in very little clothing, dusty and poor ventilation and light. Durham coal seams are lower than what we have here on the Coast and most men spent their days lying on their sides in pools of water, chipping away at the coal and loading their carts in this manner for 10-12 hours each day. Now the men were paid by the weight of the coal, rocks were extremely hard to see in the dark and if too many rocks found their way into your cart, your entire load was dumped and you had to pay the company a fine of several shillings, which was deducted from your days wages. Woman were often employed but the miners in overseeing this quality control and weighing process who acted as a neutral buffer between the coal hewers and the company and helped stop the miners being ripped off. This was an incredibly dangerous and debilitating occupation. The average lifespan of a Durham Coal Miner at this time was just over 30 years of age. Judging by accident reports from the time, it would have been the norm for William to expect to lose 2-6 men and perhaps colleagues from his mine in any given year. And that was just from single one off accidents, then come the events where multiple deaths occur at once such as collapses, explosions or floodings and drownings. These were not uncommon at all.
Eventually conditions for coalminers became so intolerable that the workers were driven to unite. Many decades during the 1800’s were full of strikes, lock outs, company housing evictions, riots, violence and further attempts to unionise. William and his forebears must have been deeply affected by all this turmoil during this unsavoury and unsettled period.
There is a wealth of further information available from the Durham Mining Museum and The Durham Record Office. If you are ever in Durham and get the chance, we thoroughly recommend you to visit Beamish, the Living Museum of the North for an incredible insight into the life of a Durham coal miner.