14.5. Coal Miners

In the following, it is important to note that the high figures for wages usually given for “miners” only refer to the pit-face workers. The totality of the workers in each mining business had an average wage of about the half of the direct miners

.The wage levels of the miners and their working conditions were fixed by collective bargaining and strikes. The collective bargaining took place on each occasion that a new seam was opened, and also at the beginning of the year. The strikes were generally due to changes that the owners wanted to introduce in the general terms of the contracts, or when they really wanted to force down the salary level. 

It was generally accepted that the male miners had a high wage level and deserved it, due to the dangerous and physically tiring nature of their work, as well as the exactness with which they had to work. Their wages were about twice those of the agricultural labourers in the same region, additional to which they could take coals home for own use, and in some coalfields the married men could live in cottages rent-free. In the majority of families two sons of from 12 to 18 years old worked in or above the mine, which increased the family income by 100 %. In the long term the wages did reflect the movements in the agricultural wages (see the graph below, for the relationship in the Northumberland and Durham coalfield, which was the largest), although it is not clear if the miners’ wages were moved by the labourers’ wages, or vice versa. 

(Mitchell, 1984, Ch. 6, Wage Bargaining, Ch. 7, Wages) 

(Clark, Gregory; Jacks, David; Coal and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1869; University of California, Davis; http://gpih.ucdavis.edu/files/Clark_Jacks.pdf; Fig. 7, p. 46.)

It is very difficult to estimate the percentages of increase and decrease of the miners’ wages during the first half of the nineteenth century Great Britain. This is because the wages were negotiated between owners and workers with complicated contractual conditions, and also the negotiations were carried out per individual coalfield, and thus the final figures in each case were a function of the economic conditions of the coal extraction and of the relative strength of the negotiation positions of owners and miners. The principal expert, Church, gives a general estimation that the real wages of the coal-face workers – hewers – “fluctuated greatly” between 1830 and 1842, “but the average trend was stationary or slightly downwards”; from 1842 to the mid-sixties, there was a “general improvement of at least 50 %”. 

(Solomon, 2014, p. 22, pp. 49-55)

Church, The History of the British Coal Industry: Volume 3, 1830-1913, Victorian Preeminence, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986; pp. 570-574)

(Solomon, 2014, p. 65)

However, we do have a series of average figures from 1811 to 1838, from the book by J. Symonds, “Arts and Artisans ….”(p. 5), quoting information from William Dixon, owner of a large coal company.

In the important coalfields, the wages (pit-head workers) were: 

Northumberland   1831 21-24s., 1834 15-20s., 1843-6s. 18-24s., 1849 21s., 1861 31s.

Durham  1839 22s., 1846 22s., 1861 31s.

Staffordshire  1831-40 25s., 1844 21s., 1847 30s., 1848 24s., 1849 21s., 1860 24s.

Lancashire 1839 25s., 1849 20s., 1859 25s.

Yorkshire 1844-53 21s., 1853 24s. 

South Wales 1840 25s., 1845 17s., 1849 14s., 1860 18s.

(Bowley, 1900, pp. 108-9)

The main effect of the Industrial Revolution on the economics of the coal industry was to increase the amount of coal required by the country, and thus the number of miners employed. There were however, booms and slumps on the scale of a few years, which could lead to temporary adjustments in numbers employed or in wages.

(Mitchell, 1984, Table 5.3., p. 106)

Cobbett visited the coalfield in the area of Sunderland, in 1832, and found the living conditions very acceptable. “You see nothing here that is pretty; but everything seems to be abundant in value; and one great thing is, the working people live well …. The pitmen have twenty-four shillings a week; they live rent-free, their fuel costs them nothing, and their doctor costs them nothing. Their work is terrible, to be sure; and, perhaps, they do not have what they ought to have; but at any rate they live well, their houses are good and their furniture good; …. Their lives seem to be as good as that of the working part of mankind can reasonably expect.”

(Cobbettt, Rural Rides, II, p. 294; quoted in Thompson, 1963, p. 242)  

(But conditions in the North-East coalfield were better than those in the Black Country or in South Wales.)

The Industrial Revolution also improved the conditions of working life of the miners:

  • steam engines with fans, installed at the base of vertical shafts, to expel poisonous or potentially explosive gases upwards;
  • steam engines with metal cables, to bring up the miners in cages;
  • metal wire rope for bringing up the boxes of coal – before, the women had to walk up steps, with the coal baskets on their heads. 

“Simonin, however, provides a more detailed account of the changes in his book, Underground Life, written in 1869. He maintains that by 1860 the technology had advanced to the extent that in some collieries horses were used to draw the waggons on the underground railways in the main roads while in others the trains or trams were conveyed by locomotive engines or drawn by stationary engines (when working on inclined planes). In addition, some of the waggons, carts and trams used for carrying the coal were made of sheet-iron instead of wood and all types ran on four wheels. Simonin’s description of how the method of working mines had improved by 1869 is particularly enlightening:

“No more square-work or falls; no more narrow, winding, and badly-kept roads; no more conveyance on the backs of men: but a methodical setting off of stalls, or a regular system of working away the mineral by long-work, and a rapid conveyance along good roads on underground railways, either by horses or by engines. With all these improvements the cost of winning and raising the coal has been diminished by one-half, and the lives of the men have been less exposed to risks.”

Advances in the method of «dressing the ores» on the surface of metal mines occurred nearer the end of the nineteenth century. The process of riddling, bucking, cobbing and washing had been mechanized. Belts powered by steam engines moved the metal sieves back and forth to separate the rock and metal (riddling) and raised the hammers and anvils which crushed and pulverized the ore (bucking and cobbing). Water ran continuously with the aid of pumps over the metals to wash away dirt and impurities (washing). Machines performed the tasks which had employed hundreds of the young women and children on the surface of metal mines. The jobs of “riddlers”, “buckers”, “cobbers” and “washers” were becoming obsolete as mines modernized the dressing process.” 

(Tuttle, 1999, p. 233)

To this we can add the liberation of the women and small children from underground work (although on the other hand, this reduced the total family income). 

Miners, pit-face workers (shillings per week)

NationalNortheastStaffordS. WalesLancsWolver-

Miners (loaves per week)

NationalNortheastStaffordS. WalesLancsWolver-

Miners (shillings per week)

Miners (loaves per week)

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