North East HistoryPART 7

The first safety legislation: North East coal mines, 1800-1850

Lord Ashley who later became Lord Shaftsbury
Lord Ashley

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Without coal, Britain’s Industrial Revolution would have been impossible, The steam engine could not have operated without it; the iron industry demanded it. Coal was in fact at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution. In this North East History series, Audrey Marshall takes a look at the issues of safety and eventual legislation for coal mines in the North East between 1800 and 1850.

It was a long struggle before legislation began to be envisaged as the means of making the mines safe. There were as yet no really effective factory acts, and the spirit of ‘laissez faire’ was still very strong. The hopes of the Sunderland society were rather centred around technical improvements, and one of the results of their efforts was the invention of the Davy lamp.

Unfortunately, these good people, at this time at least, genuinely believed that mine owners would voluntarily make their mines safe if only someone would tell them how. They had a lot to learn about the hard realities of the situation. However. In spite of all this, they did the miners a real service in that they played an important role in awakening public interest.

Legislation was needed: Jude and Mather

Gradually, as the benefits of factory legislation became apparent, those interested in mining safety began to realise that this could only be achieved through government interference. Two of the most outstanding local men of this mind were Martin Jude, a union official, and James Mather, a local philanthropist.  Jude was a strong advocate of legislation, and although the union was never really strong enough at this time to make effective demands in this direction, he himself did much useful work in contacting and gaining the support of influential men. It was he who first Induced Mather to take an interest in the question of mining safety. Mather himself had at first no experience of mines whatsoever, but with the help of men like Martin Jude and also by his own determined efforts, he ultimately acquired an extensive knowledge dangerous workings of the mine.

He went down into the most dangerous mines himself to see at first hand the conditions under which miners worked. When accidents occurred, he was often one of the first men down with a view to discovering the cause. What he saw in the mines convinced him of the need for legislation. And he determined to spare no efforts to achieve it.

The South Shields Committee

Following the explosion at St Hilda’s colliery, South Shields in 1839, in which 51 people died, the South Shields committee was formed under the leadership of Mather. This body of men over a period of three years, thoroughly and in a most scientific manner, investigated the causes of accidents in collieries. They were particularly well fitted to the task since they were all.

men of ability and activity [and] many of them…practical chemists.”

In their report, which they published in 1843, they expressed their conviction that many improvements regarding safety were possible, and that in order to secure the adoption of such improvements:

“Legislation and government inspection would be of great value.”

The report of the South Shields Committee was an important instrument in making the public aware. of the need for legislation, for according to Fynes.

“through the report, Mr Mather brought the influence of the scientific world to bear upon the British public.”

Doctor Murray endorses this saying.

“to my simple understanding, Mr Mather has demonstrated clearly the necessity for legislative interference.”

Government investigation: Lord Ashley

Before the publication of this report, however, and largely through the efforts of Jude and Mather, Lord Ashley became interested in mining conditions and he determined to press for government inquiry. Since all the existing factory legislation was concerned with child labour, it was this aspect of mining that Lord Ashley decided to concentrate on. In 1840, to pacify his persistent demands, an investigation was undertaken to look into the conditions of employment of children working underground. The following year it was decided to include women working underground in the inquiry.

It was the report of this Commission, published in 1842 which finally put the whole horrifying picture before the public. It was a masterly document, being both clear and comprehensive, and containing. Much heart rending evidence given by children. of four years upwards.

By far the most remarkable feature of the whole report, however, and certainly that which made the greatest impact upon the public, was the inclusion of pictures to illustrate the appalling nature of the work. This was a complete innovation in government reports, and it created quite a stir in Victorian society, as indeed it was calculated to do.

The beginning of legislation: a bill was introduced

On 7 June 1842 when the report was only one month old and public interest and indignation were at their height, Lord Ashley seized the opportunity to introduce into the House of Commons a bill, which would give some protection to boys working in mines and would prohibit the employment in them of women and girls. He easily convinced the Commons when he told them:

“It is not possible for any man, if he have but a heart in his bosom, to read the details of this awful document without a combined feeling of shame, tears and indignation.”

In his references to the findings on the northern coal mines, he agreed that they indeed stood out in almost every respect in favourable contrast with other districts.

However, he went on to point out that even in this district, children of five or six years old were commonly employed in places where they were:

“compelled to pass through avenues not so good as a common sewer.”

The response from coal owners to legislation

At first the northern coal owners were uncertain whether or not to support the reformers. Naturally. In view of the “favourable contrast” between their mines and those in other areas. It seems likely that any government interference would hamper their competitors more than themselves. For a while therefore, Buddle was sent to observe the progress of Lord Ashley’s bill, with a tentative view to giving it support. However, when it was suggested that inspectors should be appointed to enforce the new legislation all traces of support were rapidly withdrawn.

Opposition in the Lords

Although the bill passed the Commons without a division, it met with fierce opposition in the Lords. It was most bitterly attacked by Lord Londonderry, Lord Lieutenant of Durham, a powerful coal owner, who was primed with ‘facts’ by Buddle. He completely disagreed with the findings in the report on children in coal mines. In particular, he objected to what the report had to say about the trappers, that is, that they were doomed to:

“a life, for the most part, passed in solitude, damp and darkness.”

In contrast to this, Lord Londonderry found the trapper.

“generally cheerful and contented, and to be found, like other children of his age, occupied with some childish amusement – as cutting sticks, making models of windmills, waggons etc, and frequently, in drawing figures with chalk on his door, modelling figures of men and animals in clay.”

He went on to accuse the Commissioners of collecting their evidence from “artful girls and ignorant boys”, and of putting questions which suggested their answers. He defended the coal owners, asserting that:

“there is no set of men in the world who do more justice to the men employed by them.”

Since he had a strong vested interest in the rejections bill, of course, his opinions could hardly be accepted as unbiased. However, his was not the only vested interest in the Lords, and so, although he failed to get the bill thrown out altogether, he and his friends did succeed in heavily amending it. For instance, a clause which was to give inspectors the power to report on the conditions of the mines, was omitted.

The bill duly became law as the Coal Mines Regulation Act (1842). This act prohibited the employment of women and girls underground, and (more relevant to the northern mines) of boys under 10 years old. It left the important problems of enforcing good ventilation, safe lighting and the registration of plans of mine workings untouched.

However, now that’s the reformers had secured one piece of legislation they had no intention of letting the matter rest.

Further progress

Mather and Jude now approached Mr TS Duncombe, MP for the borough of Finsbury and succeeded in gaining his support. He told them:

“I will lose no opportunity of pressing on Her Majesty’s Government the necessity of attending to the ventilation of mines.”

In view of this, the miners themselves had a petition drawn up, and sent to Mr. Duncombe for presentation to the House of Commons. The Pitman’s Appeal, as it was called, was movingly paraphrased by ‘the local poet’, perhaps a sign of mounting public interest. It reads.

Think on us…

In June 1847, Mr Duncombe introduced a bill which embodied the principle requests of the Pitman’s Appeal. These were for the appointment of inspectors empowered to enforce safety who would enter and examine each mine at least four times a year without notice, registered plans of all collieries and notification of all accidents.

Naturally, the bill was opposed by the coal owners in the Commons, but otherwise, support for the miners was growing, as witnessed by some of the speeches made on their behalf. Mr Wakley, the member for Finsbury, for instance, observed rather pointedly that:

“the interests of the poor are always staved off. But if one noble Lord was blown out of a coal pit instead of hundreds of miners, not only would a measure have been once introduced, but I doubt if the matter would not be mentioned in the speech from the throne.”

Then Mr P. Howard, the member for Carlisle told the coal owners that they should:

“set not the houses but their mines in order [and] that the principle of inspection having been assented. In the case of factories should now be extended to mines.”

The coal owners began to realise that they were fighting a losing battle, but were determined to delay matters as long as possible. With this in mind, they handed a signed statement to the government, in which they declared that they were ready to enter into negotiations with the government in order to devise the best remedies that could be found for preventing accidents.

This proved to be a successful move in that the bill was withdrawn for the time being. However, even the coal owners now realised that it was only a matter of time before the question arose once more. Public opinion was by this time wholeheartedly behind the miners, and so the matter was not allowed to rest, so that in 1850 the government was at last induced to introduce its own bill which passed into law as the Mines Regulation Bill with little opposition from the coal owners, except as might be expected from Londonderry.

the 1850 Act was limited in its scope. For instance, it did nothing to limit hours, nor did it make any specific demands in the way of safety measures. In fact, it did little but appoint four inspectors, Mathias Dunn, Herbert Mackworth, Charles Morton and Kenyon Blackwell, who were to send in a report on the conditions of the mines and machinery every six months.

However, the Act of 1850 occupies most important place In mining history in that It was the forerunner of a series of acts which did eventually provide for specific safety measures as were found to be necessary on the evidence of the government’s Inspectors Report.

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