Extract from Mining District Report 1845 (part 4)

by the Commissioner appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 5 & 6 Vict. c99, (Mines and Collieries Act 1842)  and into the state of the population in the mining districts


The colliery in question is that of the Duke of Portland, about a mile and a half from Kilmarnock (Ayrshire). It has been in existence many years, and has for the last forty years been under one management; that of Mr. Guthrie, of Mount, his Grace's agent. It employs about 120 families of colliers. These, instead of being crowded together in long rows of cottages, of 50 or 60 each (where the contamination of bad example quickly spreads to the whole, and the difficulties of the well-disposed in keeping their homes neat, and their children clean and well behaved, are increased), are separated in groups of five or six houses, at a distance of three or four hundred yards from each other, each with its plot of garden-ground. No dogs or poultry are allowed to be kept, and other arrangements are made for comfort, propriety, and cleanliness, around the houses.. Where so few are collected together there is obviously a better chance of order and harmony, and a mutual regard for each other's convenience and comfort Things offensive to the feelings and habits of the best among them are more easily kept down; and what is reasonable and judicious is more readily established by the force of a sound public opinion. Substantial comfort, order, and cleanliness, prevailed within and around these cottages.

The next circumstance, greatly in favour of the moral advancement of the community, is the length of time that the children remain under domestic control. Elsewhere the ordinary habit is, that as soon as the collier's son can support himself by his earnings he receives his own wages, and disposes of them as he pleases. At 12 or 14 he can earn 7s. or 10s. a-week, and at 17 he earns men's wages. After paying the parents for board, &c., the rest is usually spent in idleness. The early relaxation of domestic discipline, and severing of family ties, that results from this habit, may be readily inferred. The least difference of opinion, or attempt by the parent to exercise his proper authority, is apt to be followed by the son removing from his roof, and boarding with some one else. At this colliery of the Duke of Portland, on the contrary, the practice of the children has invariably been to allow their parents to receive their earnings until they marry. When this event occurs, the custom is, that the parents of the bride and bridegroom unite in furnishing the house and storing it with meal and other provisions; the bride also provides a chest, which the future husband fills; and they begin life in their own house, surrounded with everything that they can require. This excellent and creditable regulation implies a full degree of mutual confidence between parents and their children. The former become the savings' bank of the family earnings. The latter pay to their parents an affectionate tribute in allowing them to remunerate themselves in some degree for the cost of bringing them up, and to add to the fund destined to aid them in old age. This union of family interests, and the proportionably long continuance of the good care and training under the parental roof, is the foundation of many of the advantages enjoyed by this collier community which I have yet to mention.

The school, which has existed between 40 and 50 years, is attended by 120 children ; giving an average of one for each family. During about six months in the year there is an evening school for the young colliers, all of whom can read and write. Some will attend the school on those days, when, from one cause or other, they are not wanted in the pits. The school is open also on alternate Saturday afternoons, to afford them an opportunity of carrying on their own improvement. The whole of these families of colliers, old and young, attend church very regularly, and, in their Sunday attire, could not be distinguished from the most respectable persons of the middle classes. Whether in the pits (where, in some works, there is so much violence and foul language), or elsewhere, their conduct among themselves, or towards other people, is described to be that of civilized, considerate, and prudent men. They can well afford to educate their children, as their habits of work are steady, and their earnings good. They were earning, on 10th January, 3s. 6d. a-day for nine hours' work. Their wages had been raised four months previously by the voluntary act of the manager, as the price of coal had got up. In addition to their wages in money, they have houses and coals free. The " darg " amounts to a fair day's work for an able-bodied man. The elder men take a longer time to get through it, or they are assisted by the younger. All work steadily six days a-week, whenever the demand requires them to do so. The average wages per fortnight being £2 2s. for a single man, and the "off-takes" for oil and sharpening picks being 3s., the net rate of wages was, on 10th January, 19s. 6d. per week.

A strong instance of the decline and final abandonment of habits of intemperance is shown in the case of these colliers, and is in part directly traceable to the removal of the temptation. About 15 years ago the pits were near a public house. When those pits ceased to be worked, and new ones were opened at a greater distance, instances of intemperance diminished. Six years ago the public house was bought up, and converted to some other purpose, and since that time drunkenness has entirely disappeared. Beer or spirits are now purchased like any other part of the family supplies, and kept in the house for ordinary use, and consequently are no longer a source of irregular, extravagant, and selfish expenditure

Truck in any form is unknown at these works. The wages are paid fortnightly; generally, either one of the children is sent for the money, or the wife receives it on her way to the Kilmarnock market No sums are ever asked for in anticipation of the wages, or required, unless occasionally a loan for the purchase of a cow or a fat bullock. In the latter, one or more families join; they kill and salt it for winter store. Arrestments of wages are very unusual; not more than six have been received at the office in the last six years.

Several benefit societies are supported by these colliers. Two, to which their payments amount to 4s. per month, are for relief in sickness. Another, at 2d. per week, is for the support of aged men and widows. The sum raised annually is met by a similar sum from the manager. Twenty-two widows are now on the fund, and receive 2s. 6d. a-week each. The subscriptions to the Funeral Society amount to 3s. for each member per annum. The doctor receives 1s. per head per quarter. Every family contributes to the support of the school.

Instead of the contracts with the men being fortnightly or monthly, as is usually the case, the colliers here are engaged by the year. This is an important feature in their condition, and is, doubtless, very instrumental in producing the tone of satisfaction and steadiness that prevails. It draws closer the bond between master and servant, and makes the latter feel confident of being undisturbed in the possession of a quiet and comfortable home, as long as he conducts himself well. It counteracts the roving tendency imputed to the colliers as a body, and by attaching them to the place and to their employer brings them more closely into contact and harmony with society around them. It is much to be regretted that in some parts of the country, where the habit of engaging for a year existed, the disputes and distractions that have arisen out of the colliers' Union have caused the masters to discontinue it, in order to enable them to discharge refractory men more readily.

Under the combination of favourable circumstances above described, not only has this collier community been in the enjoyment of a marked degree of comfort and well-being, but a number of their sons have been fitted, by their good education and good conduct, for other occupations, in which they are successfully making their way. No less than 36 young men, from these 120 families, have within the last 15 years been able to find openings for themselves in other employments more profitable and agreeable than that of colliers. Some have raised themselves to the middle ranks of society. The following remarkable list was furnished to me of the progress and present vocation of these young men, all of whom are the sons of colliers belonging to these works:-

"Within the last 15 years, three of our colliers' sons have gone into the ministry; three have become schoolmasters; two are nautical engineers - one of them chief engineer on board a Government steamer; one is in the Excise; one is clerk at these works; one is a shipping agent at Montreal; two are apprentices to apothecaries; one is in a grocer's shop; one is a clerk in a warehouse in Glasgow; two are managers of neighbouring collieries; three are check-clerks in iron-works; one is a precentor; two are railway engineers; one commands a timber ship; six have emigrated to Canada, and six to America, with their savings, and are doing well."

The creditable advancement of nearly 40 sons of colliers, within the short space of 15 years, to such situations as have been enumerated, is a striking tribute to the value, not only to these particular families, but to the community at large, of an honourable, humane, and enlightened system of management, such as that pursued at these works, and of the opportunities of education there afforded. What would have probably been the present condition of these young men had their lot been unfortunately cast among other communities of colliers, where, instead of the decencies and the discipline of a respectable family, they would have been familiar from their earliest years with dirt and discomfort, intemperance and extravagance, self-will and ignorance ? If their fathers, accustomed to perpetual wranglings with their employers about payments in truck, unfairness in regard to weights, or struggles about wages, had united in a combination to restrict their own earnings, and thereby reduced their ability to clothe and educate their families ? Had these young men not been brought up as they were, or been prepared by a substantial education for different and higher employments, they would have all become colliers; consequently there would have been 40 more men competing for work in an already fully stocked market; their competition would have tended to bring down the earnings of all belonging to these works; they would also, probably, all have married, and some of them would already have had children working with them in the pits, who would in their turn augment the number of colliers. As it is, the competition is relieved by the total amount of their own number and that of their children, and they themselves are placed in spheres of life more desirable and far more conducive to their general welfare.

In addition to the success of so many of their sons, the parents have the satisfaction of providing a resource for themselves against old age by subscribing to the fund above mentioned, and by their own accumulations in the mean time. Of the 120 heads of families, upwards of 50 have money in the savings' bank; seven have built houses. Two of these had given up work, and were living upon their receipts for rents; which amounted to £50 per annum to each. Eleven keep milch cows; several keep pigs; and all have a small garden. Many supply themselves with a stock of meal from the neighbouring farmers, instead of buying by retail in small quantities; and almost all were said to pay ready money for everything.

An observant person, who had lived sixteen years among these colliers, said he had never seen a more intelligent, or a better behaved set of men, and that their general conduct was most creditable. I should be inclined to say, from my own observation, that they were living as respectably and happily as any members of the labouring class in Great Britain. They are a community of whom any proprietor or employer might justly feel proud, especially if, by his own equitable and well-considered regulations, he has laid the foundation of their moral and physical welfare. In answer to remarks upon the satisfactory state in which they were living, it was most gratifying to hear them say, with much feeling, "We owe it all to our good master." "We have had a good master." Let this state of things be compared with that which arises where it is said, "We have nothing to do with our people but to find them employment. They must take care of themselves." The vexation, trouble, and loss, caused to all parties by pursuing that theory is, perhaps, beginning to be acknowledged. The weaknesses and the passions, especially of the imperfectly instructed, which this theory puts out of sight, are not slow in making themselves known. Where, on the contrary, superior intelligence and superior power fulfil their functions, in directing with a friendly hand those whom passion or ignorance would be apt to lead astray, the satisfaction, the ease, the individual and general advantage, are conspicuous, as in the instance now under review. It is an individual and a national gain when a community of men of the working classes can be pointed to, such as these 120 families of colliers, who are not only living rational, contented, and happy lives, but, within the last fifteen years, have sent out near 40 of their sons to mingle with, and rise into, that great body of superior artisans and the middle classes, whose skill and character contribute so essentially to raise us in the scale of nations.

As these coal works have been in existence for many years, the houses were built long before any consideration began to be given to the disadvantages to a family of having only one room. They are consequently almost all single houses, and deficient in many conveniences, internal and external, which they ought to have. No ill effects, however, in a moral point of view, were said to be here directly traceable to this improper crowding of families. The tendency is acknowledged to be bad; and, if no ill consequences have actually ensued, it must be attributed to the many good influences at work among this community, and is another proof of what is apt to be too lightly regarded, namely, the supremacy of moral causes in forming and supporting the character of the labouring population. The improvement of the houses and their out-buildings, the enlarging the gardens, and setting on foot a well-selected circulating library, may be well worthy of attention.

Other works in that neighbourhood are conducted in the same spirit, and with favourable results.

The same good understanding between employer and employed does not, unfortunately, prevail in the principal coal works near Ayr; arising, I believe, from the force of circumstances, and not from any disinclination of the proprietors to consult the real interests of the men. Disputes and disturbances having been recent there, it is undesirable to enter upon the subject of the condition of the colliers in that district on the present occasion.

The manufacture of iron, which has hitherto existed only to a small extent in Ayrshire, is about to be carried on there on a large scale. Messrs. Merry and Cuningham, the proprietors of the Carnbroe works in Lanarkshire, are making preparations at Glengarnock, which will probably lead to the erection of nine furnaces. The Messrs. Baird, and the Messrs. Wilson, the two largest Lanarkshire iron-masters, have also lately taken leases of mineral property in Ayrshire. It is earnestly to be hoped that in bringing together suddenly a large manufacturing population into these hitherto quiet and retired rural districts, the experience of the state of things in Lanarkshire will not be lost sight of; and that the difficulties and disorders that have taken root there, in consequence of the neglect, in the first instance, to consider the moral wants of a people, and the omission to guard against those circumstances which inevitably lead to their moral degradation, will operate as a solemn warning in the present instance. The houses now being built by Messrs. Merry and Cuningham are large and substantial, and conveniences are provided for which are elsewhere deficient. But they are open to the objection of being built in rows, facing each other; and too many are crowded together upon a small space. Nor have they any garden ground attached. Thus the worst features of a crowded town are transferred to the country; and as the future inhabitants will naturally be collected from all parts, without much attempt at selection, whatever of bad character, had habits, and bad example, may be imported, will be mixed up in close juxtaposition with the better materials, and tend to corrupt the whole. To decent well-conducted families of working men such close neighbourhood with persons of a contrary description is painful and injurious; and, in reference to the interests of their children, particularly so. Small and separate rows give opportunities for selection, and enable a proprietor to keep together the better part of those in his employ; an act of consideration for their well-being which would not be thrown away. Their example also would be preserved for the rest, instead of being lost, and almost inevitably deteriorated in the crowd. It is to be hoped that a school and a church will soon exert their powers to prevent the civilization of the people declining, in proportion to the increase of their numbers, and of the wealth which they are instrumental in producing.

I observed with great regret that among the first houses built at these works was "a store." I was informed that there was no intention of paying wages in truck, or of compelling the workpeople to deal, or of infringing in any manner the provisions of the Truck Act But the fairest possible management cannot do away with the objections to the principle of an employer keeping a store. It gives him an advantage in the market over those who refuse to make a profit out of the expenditure of their workmen's wages. It opens the door to unfair dealing with the workman in spite of the most upright intentions of the master. It is a constant source of complaint and ill-feeling. The assumed benefit to the wives and families of thoughtless and extravagant men is obtained at the cost of the above-named disadvantages. It is a source of profit unworthy of the position held by a large capitalist. In as far as it approaches the principle of paying wages in truck, it is forbidden by the law. By monopolizing the supply of the ordinary articles of consumption to large bodies of people, and thus closing the avenues to employing profitably, in small retail shops, the little savings of the more thrifty and industrious workmen, it checks the disposition to save; and in this manner, and by preventing other persons of small capital bringing their supplies to meet a demand, it obstructs the growth of the middle class precisely in those localities where its presence is most needed.