Extract from Mining District Report 1849 (part 2)

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

Comments on the Irish

There is no mining district in which, before the great influx of Irish, who have been brought in from time to time by the "strikes," it would have been more easy to establish one large benefit society, embracing the colliers, miners, and furnace-men, &c., of the whole district, after the manner of the excellent societies for the mining population of Germany (the Knappschaffts-casse), or the Merchant Seaman's Fund in this country. But the Irish are a comparatively fluctuating body, which would make any arrangement of that kind more difficult. In addition to which, they have lowered the habits of the Scotch portion of the population, and deprived them of the advantage they possessed of the higher average of instruction, which they owe to their having had an endowed parochial school in every parish for the last century and a half.


The cholera raged severely in this district during the last year. It commenced about Christmas, at a time of severe frost. The different mining villages were attacked very unequally, though apparently there was little difference in their external circumstances. Persons also of all ranks classes and habits were among the sufferers; and none of the medical men whose opinions I asked could venture upon any decided one upon the subject. Insufficient clothing, arising from the quantity of clothing in many families having been much reduced by the strike of the year before, and whiskey drinking, which had impaired the constitution, were undoubtedly in many cases the pre-disposing cause; and to these was often added the effect of crowded and ill-ventilated rooms, and neglect of personal cleanliness. General weakness of health, or neglect of first symptoms, were sufficient to account for many other cases.

Excellent efforts were made at all the great iron and coal works to meet and arrest the infliction. Districts were formed, with medical men appointed to each, charged with the duty of constantly visiting from house to house, to detect the first symptoms, Temporary hospitals were fitted up, soup-kitchens established, houses whitewashed, drains, &c., cleaned up and more added, water supplied where wanted. No expense was spared by the proprietors of the works, or by the parochial Boards. I visited the places where the deaths had been most numerous, with the proprietors or managers of works to which the villages were attached, all of whom manifested their usual readiness to afford me every information that could be required. If on so obscure a subject an isolated observation can be of any value, I may be allowed to record my impression that small and crowded houses (one room of from 10 to 12 feet square, containing, perhaps, six to eight people) were common, where the disease showed itself with the greatest violence. I am borne out in this observation by the " cholera statistics" of several villages, which were obligingly furnished to me by the persons interested. It was remarked to me in all the mining districts of Scotland that, as a general rule, the mining villages containing the best houses were most exempt from cholera; partly, probably, from their greater attraction for the most orderly and temperate families.

Ventilation and Plans

The injurious effect of badly ventilated pits upon the health of the people working in them was one of the prominent subjects of complaint put forward by the delegates of the Miners' Union in Scotland in 1844. The very absence of explosive gas in any large quantities in most of the collieries in Scotland, and therefore their comparative freedom from serious and overwhelming accidents by explosion, has tended in numerous instances to produce less care in regard to ventilation: and, therefore, according to a great mass of medical evidence which has frequently been before the public, the want of a sufficient quantity of pure air in many of the pits produces disorders which seriously affect the health and shorten the lives of the colliers working in them. On inquiry I was informed that the ventilation of several collieries which were complained of in 1844 had been improved, especially in the Lothians. Two or three of the proprietors of pits there that were at that time in a bad state expressed to me lately their satisfaction that their attention had been called to the point, and assured me that they had done their utmost in the interval to remedy it. The subject of the scientific ventilation of collieries in Scotland had not been generally studied until, comparatively, a few years ago. The late Mr. Ball, of Edinburgh, was, I believe, the first who turned his attention to it professionally as a mining engineer. He has been succeeded by Mr. John Geddes, of Edinburgh, and Mr. Neil Robson, of Glasgow. These gentlemen, with a very few others, have been the chief consulting engineers in Scotland on this subject. From them and some of the leading managers of mines I gather that there are in Scotland about 400 working coal and iron-stone pits, viz.:-

Ayrshire 100 pits.
Lanarkshire 150 pits
Renfrewshire 13 pits
Perthshire 15 pits
Fifeshire 53 pits
Dumfrieshire 5 pits
The Lothians 61 pits
Approximate total 379 pits [NB total actually 397]

"The depth may be taken from 10 fathoms to 178 fathoms, and the ' fiery districts' may be stated to be Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, and Sterlingshire." And the general impression seems to be that, although the ventilation of the mines in Scotland is now much better than it was, there are still several that are "badly laid out," and so ill supplied with air as materially to affect the health and endanger the lives of the people employed in them. Nor was any doubt expressed that underground inspection by a properly qualified officer of the Government would, in the manner I have pointed out, if had recourse to, not only meet with no opposition, but would, in all probability, very soon cause great and salutary improvements.

With regard to plans, I have, on previous occasions, drawn attention to the necessity of obliging all persons working mines to keep proper plans and sections, and I have given numerous instances of the public and private disadvantages and loss arising from the want of them. On this subject it was stated to me by a most competent authority, that about 20 years ago not one-third of the mines or collieries of Scotland had any regular plans. Now about four-fifths have them, made either by a professional surveyor or by their own people. In the remainder, accidents and losses are frequently occurring from the want of them, by their cutting into old workings, and committing errors of various kinds. Those who do not now keep plans are the smaller owners of pits, men of little capital and skill; and as their neglect occasions injury to others, they ought to be compelled to keep them for the general good. I have shown, in my Reports on the Mining Laws of the Continent, that no such neglect is there tolerated in a matter involving injuries to life and property to so serious an extent

Education of Oversmen

It would be even more easy to apply in the mining districts of Scotland a plan, such as I have already adverted to, for encouraging the superior instruction of oversmen, underground bailiffs, and persons of that class, to whom offices of responsibility are intrusted in the underground department of mines, than in Northumberland and Durham, or in the mining districts of England generally; because already the Scotch parochial schools are taught by masters of far superior attainments to the average of English schools, those few excepted which can yet have the advantage of being under regularly trained masters. The average progress also of the boys in the upper classes of the Scotch schools is much beyond that to be found in English schools. Indeed, there are few Scotch parochial schools in which there are not some boys of from 9 to 12 years old learning Latin, as well as being well advanced in the ordinary elements of instruction: and although, as far as my observation has extended, it does not appear that the children at the common Scotch schools remain longer than those at similar schools in England, (being usually taken away to labour at 9 and 10 years of age,) yet the Scotch children usually attend evening schools from time to time as they are able, or their education is carried on at their own homes by their parents after the day's work, until they have acquired the average degree of instruction prevailing in their own class of life. For such appears to me to have been the effect of the the fortunate distinction of Scotland, in having had a parochial system of education for the last 160 years, that, except in those particular localities where the Scotch character has been impaired by the too rapid increase and influx of population, the rising generation among the labouring classes is most anxious not to fall short of the standard of acquirement in the common elements of learning which prevails among the adults, their relatives, friends, and neighbours. It would, therefore, be more easy in Scotland, and in some of the mining districts there more than in others, to set on foot some arrangements by which the candidates for responsible employment in mines might be encouraged and enabled to arrive at a higher degree of qualification for those duties than they now possess: and that there is much need of raising their qualifications is allowed by all the intelligent mine owners and managers and persons interested in mines in that country, all of whom, I believe, are fully aware of the advantages likely to accrue in the working of their mines, from bringing a higher degree of knowledge to bear upon the subject.

In former Reports I have commented on the self-imposed restrictions of labour, which are so obstinately adhered to by a large majority of the colliers and miners in Lanarkshire. It is believed that this combination is not discouraged by some of the employers who raise coal for sale, under an impression that, by limiting the supply, they may keep up the price. But this attempt can scarcely be successful now that railway communications have so much enlarged the means of competition. To the iron masters, on the other hand, this combination causes a most serious loss, and has proved, as I showed some years ago it inevitably would be, a great source of mischief to the men as well as to their employers. The men restrict their labour, and consequently their earnings, by about one-third of what they might do as a fair day's work. The iron masters, therefore, are obliged to build one-third more houses, and keep one-third more horses, one-third more road-ways underground, and one-third more of almost all kinds of standing stock, in order to get the quantity of coal they require; and it is quite obvious, that when trade is slack and wages fall, there will be so many more men in the trade competing for the diminished quantity of money paid in wages. This has been the case for the last two years, and earnings continue at present much lower than they would have been had not such a superfluous number of hands been brought into the trade. The colliers, therefore, have contrived by their combination to deprive themselves of the benefit of high wages in good times, and to force down earnings still lower in bad times. Wages, I was informed, have not been so low for 15 years as they have been for the last two years. It is the more remarkable that this, combination should be so strictly adhered to by so many thousand men in Lanark-shire, because not only are the colliers of other mining districts in Scotland exempt from any such arbitrary interference with the right of every prudent or industrious working man to make the most of his strength skill and ability, but in the midst of this district itself there are several pits, the men of which refuse to submit to this injurious restriction of their powers and their industry. These pits belong to the Messrs, Baird, to the Messrs. Wilson, to Mr. William Marshall, to Messrs. Addie and Miller, and one or two others. The men at these are constantly and without difficulty earning from 10d. to 1s. 6d. a-day more than their neighbours living perhaps in the same village. In April last, while colliers who restricted their labour were earning only 2s. 6d. a-day, those who did not were earning 3s. 4d. a-day. The obstinacy with which this plan of restricting their labour is clung to by so large a majority of the colliers in this county is a proof of their intelligence being below the average of the labouring population of Scotland, and also of the want of good understanding that has so long prevailed between the masters and those in their employ in this district, and is the natural penalty of neglect in times past, which unfortunately not only falls on those immediately concerned, but entails its effects upon the community at large.

Among the signs of an improved feeling in this district as to all that concerns the well-being of society, is the revival, in a very good spirit, of the question whether the iron furnaces cannot be stopped on Sundays. Some of the leading iron masters, the Messrs. Baird and others, have long since followed this practice, their furnaces being stopped for eight hours on the Sunday. Others have not done so, on the ground generally, that the material they used was of a different nature, and would not bear the cooling without injury to the quality of the iron or to the furnace. Of late years, however, great improvements have been introduced into the mode of producing pig-iron, and the question of stopping the furnaces on Sundays has been reconsidered by many gentlemen who were before averse to it. The clergy, also, have again lately taken up the subject. The Presbytery of Linlithgow has appointed a Committee, and intend to urge the General Assembly to petition Parliament to give effect to their views by a general enactment. They have formally communicated their intentions and wishes to Mr. Wilson, proprietor of the Dundyvan Iron-works, in this county, of the Kinneil Works in Linlithgowshire, and of the Lugar Works in Ayrshire, and consequently representing perhaps nearly the most important and extensive interests in the iron trade of Scotland. In acquainting me with this movement, Mr. Wilson stated it as his opinion, "That the late improvements in the construction of furnaces, and in the machinery for blowing them, and particularly the introduction of the hot-blast, would enable furnaces to 'stand' for 12 or even 24 hours without injury. The rolling mills usually throughout the kingdom do suspend work on Sundays; but the Legislature might with propriety be called upon to pass an Act compelling the suspension of labour on that day in all blast-furnaces, rolling-mills, foundries, steam-engine manufactories, mines and collieries." I found that this opinion was shared by most of the leading proprietors of iron-works in Scotland, several of whom have already had no difficulty in carrying it into effect for some years past; and there cannot be a doubt that the practice, if general, would ultimately redound to the benefit of the iron masters them-selves, by contributing, together with all the other measures now in progress, to the moral elevation and the improved intelligence and conduct of the mining population.

One of the gentlemen interested in this district stated to me that, in his opinion, ''A great cause of the improving habits of our people had been the rule we have acted upon for the last few years, of not allowing them to crowd their houses with lodgers. Our policeman, in course of his periodical examination of the houses, reports to us if he finds more in a house than the number we allow in proportion to its size." This strict and frequent surveillance of the houses in the colliery villages has been adopted at several of the works, and has been found productive of much good. It has also given rise to an opinion, that it is desirable to establish well-regulated lodging houses in the mining villages for young men who come from a distance, and are therefore separated from their families, in which they can board and lodge at a reasonable rate, and be certain of quiet and comfort after their 'hours of work, instead of, as at present, being always liable to interruption and disturbance from children or from other lodgers.

It was satisfactory to observe that the necessity of paying more attention to female education has been much more generally recognized. Several schools in this district have now the advantage of well-qualified mistresses, whose intelligence, good manners, sense of propriety, and skill in management, will go a great way towards making up for the defects of domestic training often so evident in the general conduct and habits of the children, and especially of the female portion of them.

It is the more satisfactory to record and to give publicity to what has been already done, and what is still in progress or contemplated in this district, to .improve the state of society, because suggestions of improvement, from whom-soever proceeding, have within the last five years been more readily considered and carried into effect in Lanarkshire than in any other mining district of the kingdom in which there was an equal need, at the commencement of that period, of salutary changes. There was no portion of the kingdom in which, either by design or by inadvertence, the principle had been more completely acted upon, that employers had nothing to do with their workmen but to pay them their wages; that they contracted no responsibilities towards them beyond paying :them for work done; that it was the business of the workpeople themselves to provide what was necessary for their moral and religious, and social improvement, and that they would do so if left to themselves. The experience of 25 years was sufficient to exhibit the state of society that arises under such conditions, At the commencement of that period it would perhaps have been in vain to have argued that such a theory is at variance with Christian duty, sound philosophy, the lessons of history, with all that has been hitherto recognized as among the main sources of the progressive civilization of the world. But happily a very short experiment was found sufficient, not only in this county but in other parts of the kingdom, where large masses of the labouring classes had been rapidly collected and left to themselves, to show how quickly a mass of people under such circumstances will sink below the level of the surrounding population, in habits, manners, and morals, in affections towards those around them, and towards society and the state; to develop the mischiefs which they will inflict on themselves and their employers, under the instigation and guidance of leaders as ignorant as themselves; and to prove how absolutely essential it is to the harmonious working and to the progress of society that those placed in stations of influence should be unremitting in their endeavours to use their own superior knowledge, wealth, and opportunities, towards removing the obstacles to the moral progress of those below them in the social scale, and multiplying the means for their improvement.

Other Parts of Scotland.

In Ayrshire, the late depression of the iron trade has checked the increase of the mining population which had begun so rapidly a few years ago. I observed, however, no relaxation in the attention paid at the existing works mentioned in my previous Reports to the means now recognised as essential for producing a satisfactory state of society there. In the Lothians, where new colliery houses have been built, they are of a much improved kind, as at the Marquis of Lothian's, and some excellent specimens on the property of the Duke of Buccleuch. I understood that they were occasionally inspected, and those families who neglected the opportunity afforded them of living in cleanliness, decency, and comfort were threatened with being dismissed. Excellent gardens arc attached to these cottages, and also ground for recreation. The "temperance movement," was mentioned as having met with encouraging success, and that to it, and to the prompt means taken in the above neighbour-hoods, and in those of Sir J. Hope's, Sir G. Suttie's, the Tranent and other collieries, is to be attributed, under Providence, the comparatively light visitation of cholera in that district. It was satisfactory to hear from Mr. Andrew Cuthbertson, the lessee of a considerable colliery, that the houses attached to it, which I had a few years ago noticed as nearly the worst in Scotland, had been much improved since his attention had been directed to the subject. Admirable school-houses have also been built by the Duke of Buccleuch and Lord Lothian. At the new works on the Forth, to the west of Edinburgh, and at those in Fifeshire, the same attention has been continued that has long existed at most of the works in the latter county.


The Procurators Fiscal of Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire, Mr. J. Gair and Mr. J. Ramsay, to whose assistance I have been much indebted in enforcing the provisions of the Act in that part of the country, have, during the last year, obtained four convictions against three persons for employing women in the pits. Three of these cases occurred at collieries belonging to the Carron Iron Company, where the practice had long prevailed, and where there are still females ready to resume the occupation as soon as the vigilance of the managers is a little relaxed. The other case occurred at the Kennet colliery, in Clackmannanshire, in a pit accessible by a stair, as is the case at many collieries in that part of the country, and where, therefore, the opportunities of getting into them unperceived are greater. Evidence, also, of apparently a very credible nature, had been forwarded to me of a considerable number of females having been lately employed in a colliery near Dunfermline (Townhill), but that before they could be identified they had ceased to go down. I am convinced by the earnest assurances of the owner of the colliery (Mr. Christie), and of his manager, that they are fully persuaded that the information was unfounded, and that they will use their best endeavours to take care that the Act is strictly observed. At a neighbouring colliery a woman was sometime ago severely hurt in the pit, but the evidence taken by the Fiscal as to her having been at work there was contradictory. I have observed in this neighbourhood that every one has heard of females having been employed in his neighbour's collieries, but is quite convinced they have not been in his own. A great many were so employed in this county (Fifeshire) before the Act passed.

The clause of the Act forbidding the employment of boys under 10 years of age is, I believe, strictly enforced in that district by the vigilance of the working colliers themselves, who prevent each other from transgressing it, inasmuch as those who were to do so would obtain an unfair advantage in the quantity of coal "put out" An information was lately laid before the Procurator Fiscal of Clackmannanshire, but on producing the certificate of age it was found that the boy in question was above 10 years. It is, I believe, only in the portion of the Yorkshire coal-field where the seams are very thin (from 18 inches to 2 feet) that this clause in the Act is not generally attended to. I am in occasional communication with professional gentlemen in that district on this subject.