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.
There was an ongoing need for legislation in connection with flooding, lighting and ventilation of mines yet there was no real movement in this direction until factory legislation had passed the experimental stage.
One reason for this was that it was naturally much easier to impose legislation on the factories, which was a comparatively new idea than on the much older industry of coal mining.
Perhaps the most important reason, however, was that the collieries were generally situated in remote areas away from the towns, the miners themselves forming a distinct and separate class from the rest of the industrial community, so that very little was known of them and the conditions. under which they worked. The ignorance of outsiders about mines and miners is reflected in Cobbet’s remark after a visit to Newcastle in 1832, when he said:
“Here is the most surprising thing in the whole world; thousands of men and horses continually living underground.”
Mining accidents were often concealed
The state of affairs suited the owners admirably, and so, perhaps naturally they did all in their power to perpetuate it wherever possible, therefore, mining accidents were concealed. In fact. This usually proved quite easy for them since they had:
“enough influence to prevent publication or report of accidents, and often had the active assistance of the coroners.”
Even the law was on their side. For instance, until 1815 it was not necessary to hold inquests at all on miners killed underground.
Because of this.
“accidents in the smaller collieries are usually unheard of to any extent [since] it very rarely happens that in them more than two or three persons are killed at a time, and this is rarely reported except in the neighbourhood.”
An investigation of parish registers, however, brings many such accidents to light, since:
“A great many persons go upon the parish in consequence of injuries, which no one ever hears of.”
A government inquiry set up in 1834 soon discovered after applying to the Registrar General for details, that only rarely had coroners kept proper records of mining accidents and that in very many cases no inquests had been held at all. After much careful investigation, they produced their report which stated that:
“…we believe from the inquiries we have made that deaths from explosion frequently occur in mines which are concealed from the knowledge of the coroner and the public.”
Effects were often minimised
Naturally, of course it was impossible to conceal large scale accidents in which many lives were lost, such as those at Felling in 1812, Wallsend in 1835, Heaton in 1813 and South Shields in 1839. Even in the case of accidents such as these, however, it was still possible, in the then state of the law, to minimise both the effects and the causes of them outside the neighbourhood.
For instance, inquests had to be delayed until the bodies were recovered, if ever. And this often took a considerable time.
When the Heaton inundation occurred, it took upwards of nine months before the bodies were “brought to bank”. Time enough for public interest to die down somewhat. Again, in a general disaster, such as those quoted above. It was sufficient to hold an inquest on just one body, which meant that only one death would appear in the coroner’s record.
Even the cases which did demand an inquest, however, were far from satisfactory to anyone interested in fairness or justice. According to a man who had himself been a coroner in Newcastle, the unsatisfactory nature of coroner’s counts was due to three main factors:
“that those who could give the information required were themselves the victims…
“that the majority if not the whole of the evidence [was] obtained from interested parties [and] a reluctance on the part of the coroner to affix responsibility to the persons who are, or ought to be, responsible for the security of their workmen.” (Fife)
Coroners’ reports and the Wallsend explosion
Naturally there was nothing that could be done to remedy Fife’s first point. It was indeed unfortunate that the most valuable witnesses often died. However, to come to his second point, when ordinary miners did survive a disaster their evidence was often ignored if it conflicted in any way with that given by viewers or overseers. At the inquest on the Wallsend explosion, for instance, John Bell, a hewer for 19 years testified that on the day previous to the accident
“the mine was in such a dangerous state that the Davys ‘fired’. [and] that he and his five companions. were obliged to leave their work. Before leaving they extinguished their lamps except one man who reduced his to a small speck while they got their clothes”. (Fife)
Bell’s evidence was confirmed by another hewer, Thomas Rutherford, and the coroner himself, after examining the six Davys admitted that they had, in fact ‘fired’. However, the deputy overman, John Moor and Edward Coombie, counter testified as to the safe condition of the mine on that day. This clearly conflicted with the evidence of Bell and Rutherford, together with that of the fired Davy lamps, but no further examination was made on this point, and the verdict was found to be:
“Accidental death, arising from an explosion of inflammable air; but how or in what point of the mine it originated there is no evidence to show.”
Even if one is prepared to accept this and to overlook the evidence of Rutherford and Bell, one must still wonder on what grounds the jury saw fit to add that they:
“must express their full conviction that there had been no want of due care and precaution on the part of those who have the direction and management of the mine.” (Fife)
Who was to blame?
This deep concern to clear the owners and managers of any suggestion of blame was in fact common practice at inquests on victims of coal mines disasters regardless of evidence to the contrary, and it is to this that Fife’s third Point refers.
At the inquest on five victims of the Haswell explosion in 1844, for instance, the jury brought in a verdict of “accidental death” and then “at the coroner’s suggestion” they added that “no blame was attached to anyone.”
Neither coroners, nor juries seemed to have any conception of what their real task should be, that is:
“not merely to ascertain the immediate cause of death but also whether it has been the result of negligence or carelessness, and to impose penalty on such parties.”
The most probable reason for that reluctance to blame the mine owners. or their agents is that generally the juries were composed of men more disposed to sympathy with the owners than with the miners.
Mathias Dunn, one of the first government inspectors of mines, bears witness to this when he wrote of:
“the very frequent occurrence of persons being placed upon the jury who are directly or indirectly interwoven with the influences of the colliery proprietors or his agent.”
An instance of this occurred at the inquest of the victims of the Haswell disaster in 1844. Fynes quotes the jury as:
“being composed of farmers and shopkeepers in the neighbourhood. “
Not conducive to real justice
Quite apart from the natural sympathy which existed between the owner and his agents on the one hand, and the coroner and jury on the other, the state of the law itself was generally not conducive to the execution of real justice. In first place, the verdict had to be confined to either “accidental death” or “manslaughter” so that although:
“it often happens that… great blame is attached to persons having charge, yes, it is not that species of misconduct which would nationally call for verdict of manslaughter [and so] the defendant escapes with a verdict of accidental death.”
Secondly, it was not at all clear who was in fact responsible for the safety of a mine. Technically, the man in charge was the viewer, but it was difficult to hold him totally responsible since he was not often given a free hand to spend as he might wish on, for instance, ventilating shafts or winding gear. Commonly, he was given strict instructions to keep the costs as low as possible. In addition to this, viewers were frequently employed at two or three collieries:
“any one of which requires their sole and not divided attention, as they, [the viewers] seldom, if ever from observation, know the actual state of any one of them”.
This tended to create a state of affairs whereby the viewer became “too important” to shoulder his responsibility for safety, but rather delegated it to others. Fife deplores the fact that:
“colliery agents and viewers sometimes pay more attention to self-aggrandisement than they devote either to the safety of the mine or the interests of their employees.”
Doctor Clanney also expressed concern about this in a letter to a friend. He wrote:
“I feel hurt at the conduct of the viewers as they continue to sacrifice good principles at the mercenary shrine of self interest, and willingly see hundreds of their fellow creatures hurled into eternity.”
All this meant that the general state of the mine was left to the under viewer and indeed, in many collieries these were very capable and intelligent men. Unfortunately for their own protection, they tended to work to the letter of the upper viewers instructions, rather than to act on their own observation and judgement. A much more satisfactory arrangement would have been for each pit to have one really competent viewer wholly responsible for its day to day condition. Fife appeals for such clarification of responsibility, when he writes.
”let the owners engage the superintendents with an understanding that in cases where negligence is proven they ought to be the responsible parties.”
This would give viewers a vested interest in the safety of the mine and encourage greater vigilance securing it. If they were careless or neglectful, it would then be perfectly clear to coroners and juries where to place the blame. However, as stated previously, part of the trouble was that coroners and juries were peculiarly unwilling to attach any blame to the owner or his agent, quite apart from any difficulties in doing so.
A need for legislation
In view of this, and of the unwillingness of owners to radically improve their mines, any move towards securing greater safety had to come from outside. The public had to be made aware of, and to care about the appalling conditions under which miners worked. Fortunately, there were a small number of responsible men who were determined to do just that.
A group of them, including Doctor Clanney and Rev John Hodgson, who lost a large number of parishioners in the Felling disaster, founded the Sunderland Society in 1813. This society made the first breach in the wall of concealment, which surrounded the disgraceful conditions in coal mines and brought them before the public eye.