From the Cradle to the Coalmine : Book Review

Image : girl pulling a coaltub, mid 19th century. Click to read Last week’s introduction to this post

Mining in Wales was the proverbial fuel for Britain’s industrial revolution. The Big Pit Museum, amongst other places in Wales, is there to commemorate, document and visualize the extravagance. It can’t be denied the industrial revolution brought progress and prosperity to the -henceforth- industrialized nations of 19th century Europe. But anyone who has read a bit of Zola, or Browning, has an idea already of the child labor that also helped fuel it.

From the Cradle to the Coalmine : The Story of Children in Welsh Mines by Ceri Thompson is a short, impactful and richly illustrated book published by the National Museum of Wales and Cardiff University press earlier this year. It is illustrated by photographs and other pictures, testimonials from interviews and historical documents such as diaries and reports, as well as lines from popular rhymes and songs. A timeline of historical events in the beginning of the book chronicles the years 1833-1972, from “Factory Act introduced to regulate the labour of children and young persons in the mills and factories of Great Britain. The act does not cover coal mines” (1833), via an 1860 “Coal Mines Regulations Act: minimum age for employment underground was raised to twelve years old”, the introduction of the eight hour working day in 1909, free health checks for new employees in 1947, free helmets supplied in 1956, to the 1972 “Wilberforce Award: adult wages to be paid at eighteen years old in the mining industry. School leaving age was raised to sixteen years”, the short timeline on p. XIV traces the history of dire working conditions worthy of press scandals and outrage.

Indeed, the book delves into the importance of press coverage – and the struggle for press coverage to be permitted – for the introduction of controlling bodies and investigative commissions which took baby steps over a period of more than a century, in their attempts to improve safety at work, recognize health risks, and develop social policies that gave children from poor families a chance of going to school instead of being put into work at a very early age. In the light of how long it took to achieve how little, by contrast with how effectively the industry produced goods and grew, one cannot but realise that these efforts were false.

As the author points out in the beginning, children have always worked, usually to aid the household of their own family and/or family production, for example in farms. But by comparison to these traditional rural jobs of the feudal age, in the 19th century, with the emergence of factory work and industrial mining, workplaces and children at work took on a markedly different look. And in the 19th century, the public opinion began to be polarized on the issue of children at work. Whilst factory owners would often argue that their factories helped families stay out of poverty by creating jobs, and that many a small child’s income made the crucial difference to whether or not a family could survive,
many others were strongly discomforted by the appearance of child laborers in industrial work places. The high accident rate in coal mines, and the spread of work-related pulmonary, skin and other diseases would not have painted a very comforting picture at all. It has to be said, as the author also writes, that many work-related diseases were not immediately understood to be work-related, and rather thought of as diseases relating to poverty more generally. It also took many decades, as the author explains, for it to be understood that a first-aid qualified individual (or preferably more than that) should be present in situ, in the event of accidents. And it also took a long time to convince the owners of coal mines that providing a certain amount of training for their new young employees would significantly reduce the risk of accidents and deaths. It is only in the 1950s that a clear rule was established as to how many hours of training an employee should have. In the 19th century for the first time, it became a prevalent view that children should not be working, and that special care should be taken to ensure the protection of children in work and to ensure they completed a minimum of school education.

The book presents a polyphonic body of evidence which gives personal voices to the drawn-out struggles between coal mine owners, workers, and social reformers. In part, it uncovers what should surprise no-one, that with every child protection act introduced, with every work safety regulation, whilst coal mines certainly pretended to accept and enforce the rules, they did not. Thus, even in the 1920s, twelve-year-olds are entering employment in coal mines – often without the parents‘ permission, indeed without their knowledge.

By the early 1980s, the entire coal mining industry ground to a halt – a mixed blessing, as many still argue today. What doesn’t go unnoticed with the ending of this book is that, though the mining industry was shrunk and shut down, most of the problems associated with child labor were simply left unsolved. The book ends with a note on child labor in mines and factories today, by no means a phantom of the past.