HL Deb 24 June 1842 vol 64 cc538-44
The Marquess of Londonderry,

in presenting a petition from the owners of coal mines and others interested in the collieries of the counties of Durham and Northumberland, begged to call their Lordships' attention to the exaggerated impressions which the high colouring that had been given to the hardships of the mining population in the report of the commissioners, and by the discussion which had taken place elsewhere, had produced on the public mind. On the part of the petitioners and himself, he denied that such inhuman practices as had been stated prevailed, at least, in the collieries of Durham and Northumberland; and the whole was mingled with so much exaggeration, that he trusted, before their Lordships consented to legislate on the subject, they would take pains to separate the true from the false, and consider well before they passed any enactments calculated injuriously to affect the interests of this important branch of national industry. Now, who were the commissioners, and what were the feelings with which they probably entered on the inquiry? He would read to their Lordships some correspondence which he had received on the subject. [The noble Lord read a letter reflecting, in strong terms, on the character, opinions, and occupations of the commissioners who had inquired into and reported upon the condition of the persons employed in mines and collieries.] It appeared, therefore, the noble Lord continued, that these gentlemen came to this inquiry fresh from the factory commission, with all the prejudices which that commission was likely to excite, and with an expectation and desire of finding similar oppressions amongst the miners to those which they had found] amongst the manufacturing population. Their instructions were, to examine the children themselves, and the mode in which they had collected their evidence—communicating with artful boys and ignorant young girls, and putting questions in a manner which in many cases seemed to suggest the answer, was anything but a fair and impartial mode— calculated to elicit evidence on which the House could rely, and on the basis of which it should proceed to legislate. Again, he thought the manner in which the report had been accompanied by pictures of an extravagant, and disgusting, and in some cases of a scandalous and obscene character, was not such as should have been adopted in a grave publication, and was more calculated to excite the feelings than to enlighten the judgment. The noble Marquess then proceeded to vindicate the collieries of Durham and Northumberland from the charges included in the report, and from the charges brought against the coal-owners generally the other night by a right rev. Prelate. Indeed, the report itself would prove this, and he begged to call the attention of that right rev. Prelate to the following extracts from that report, which he thought would convince him that from these accusations the northern collieries at least were free. The noble Lord read a long extract, setting forth, amongst other things:— Benefit societies exist in all the collieries, the advantages of which many pitmen avail themselves of. They are of various orders; relief funds, women's boxes, Odd Fellows, United Order of Foresters, &c, all tending to the same object. In the Lambton colliery great attention has always been paid to the relief fund, and it is always in a very efficient condition. Lady Durham contributes one-sixth portion of the gross amount of subscriptions paid. It only remains to say, that in the family of a pitman they receive kindly treatment, and such generally as their sex would require. In their habits they partake much of those which prevail in the House. Cleanlines and sobriety are much more common traits than the reverse. The young are more feminine than females in a manufacturing community. In the hour of distress they display all the gentler feelings and all the alacrity to useful action which evince themselves in more refined circles; and their social feelings and affections are as strong. Much, too, that had been said about the vice and immorality that prevailed in collieries was greatly exaggerated, especially as related to Scotland. Much had been said about education, but they must remember the necessity which existed for employing the children, and the difficulty in those districts of the country of youths getting any employment, however educated, except in the collieries. On this subject he invited their Lordships' attention to the following communication from another of his correspondents. [The noble Marquess read a communication, dated Pensher, June 14, 1842; and signed "John Buddle," describing the superior advantages of a practical education in collieries to a reading education, and stating, that at Shina Row a library had been established for the colliers, but not one ever came to it. The noble Marquess continued,] The object of the petitioners, it must be remembered, was not to prevent any interference which humanity rendered essential, but to prevent any rash and hasty alterations under the excitement of exaggerated statements which might tend to strike at the root of a branch of industry in which, in the two counties to which he referred, a capital exceeding 10,300,000l. was invested. He would next call their Lordships' attention to the replies which had been given by those whom he represented to the statements in the Report of the Commissioners.* These gentlemen called on Parliament not

* THE FOLLOWING WAS THEIR STATEMENT. Coal Trade Office, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, May 25, 1842. "The commissioners appointed to investigate the nature of the employment of children in mines have added to the digest which they framed of the mass of evidence collected by the sub-commissioners, their opinions, expressed in such general terms, that upon a mere perusal of it the public might imagine that instances of the gross mismanagement therein detailed were to be found in some of the mines within the great northern coal field of Northumberland and Durham; whereas nothing could be more erroneous than such a conclusion. "The contracts of hiring and serving between the coal proprietors and those employed by them in the mines within those districts are invariably written or printed, and all of them nearly in the same form—are drawn up with great care, so as to enable the magistrates to decide what the intention of the parties must have been when these agreements were signed; and, as an additional security to the workmen, generally contain the following clause:— “‘Lastly—It is here mutually agreed that in case any dispute or difference shall arise between the said hereby contracting parties relative to any matter or thing not hereby provided, that such dispute or difference shall be submitted to the decision of two viewers of collieries; one to be appointed by the said owners, their executors, administrators, or assigns, and the other by the said hereby hired parties, of the other part; and, in case of their disagreement, to the decision of a third person, to be chosen by such two viewers; and the decision and judgment of such two viewers or umpire—as the case may happen—shall be conclusive between the parties on the matters referred to them. Provided always, and it is hereby declared, that nothing herein contained, shall extend, or be construed to extend, to alter, prejudice, lessen, or otherwise affect the legal remedies and powers which by law belong to masters and servants, in their respective relations to each other, or to magistrates having jurisdiction in case of dispute or difference between them. "In the ventilation of these mines great expense is incurred in order to render them perfectly healthy, and a regular system of inspection is established, so as to guard, by all the practicable means that experience can suggest, against the danger of explosion. Females are not employed either above ground or below, parish apprentices are never engaged, nor is it likely that it can take place, as it could only be done in the present state of the law with the express sanction of the magistrates. The stipulated labour of the adults is not in any case excessive, nor is any power retained by the employer of making it so. "As to the solitary confinement of children employed as trappers, that is, if applied to this district, a gross exaggeration. Under these circumstances the coal proprietors of Northumberland and Durham request the attention of the public to the following observations upon the commissioners report, which they trust may assist the Legislature in determining whether any law, founded upon just principles and of general application, can be framed, so as to afford additional protection to an industrious and deserving class of the labouring population of the kingdom." The following were the answers and observations to the chief statements in the commissioners' report:—
  1. 1. The lowest age allowed in the Durham and Northumberland collieries, by the agents and managers, for boys to be taken into the pit, is eight or nine years. When children of a less age are taken into the pit as trappers, it is done clandestinely by their parents, and the instances are rare — this is the exception, not the rule.

to legislate on this subject until the present excitement had been allowed to subside. That prayer, he thought was as reasonable as it was fair. He must also express his hope that Parliament would not legislate on the subject until some further inquiries had been made. He thought that the

  1. 2. Very few boys under eleven or twelve are employed as drivers; up to that age they are employed as trappers.
  2. 3. No females are employed in the northern collieries. (See Mr. Leifchild's Report, page 556, article 254; and also Dr. Mitchell's, page136, article 164).
  3. 4. The work people of every description are hired and paid by the proprietors, as it is not customary to employ contractors in these collieries.
  4. 5. It is not the custom in these collieries to bind apprentices; no such practice is known.
  5. 6. The utmost attention is paid to the drainage and ventilation of the mines, and every care that the nature of the work will admit of is taken by the superintendents of the mine, and the proprietors spare no expense to secure the safety and comfort of the work people of every class.
  6. 7. As the trappers only remain in the pit during the time of drawing coals, they are rarely more than ten hours in the pit, except on the main rollyways, or horse roads, where they necessarily remain during the time the pit is working, which seldom exceeds twelve hours.
  7. 8. This is a very erroneous and exaggerated statement. The working trap doors are all placed in the principal passages, leading from the bottom of the pit to the various works, so that an interval of seldom more than five minutes, but generally much less, passes without some person passing through his door, and having a word with the trapper. Neither is the trapper deprived of light by any means general, as the stationary lights (lamps) on the roily and tram ways are frequently placed near to the trapper's seat,
  8. 9. The trapper's employment is neither cheerless, dull, nor stupifying; nor is he, nor can he be, kept in solitude and darkness all the time he is in the pit. (See the former answer.) The trapper is 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, &c., and frequently in drawing figures with chalk on his door, modelling figures of men and animals in clay, &c. Where double doors are placed, there are always two trappers together.
  9. 10. Boys of six years of age are never employed as putters; they must first go through the intermediate stage of trapper and driver,
  10. 11. This observation does not apply to this district, in which females are never employed,
  11. 12. Does not apply to the Durham and Northumberland collieries.
  12. 13. Answered by No. 7.
  13. 14. Night working, or double shift;, is now very rare. It is believed that no case of it exists at present in the Durham and Northumberland collieries,
  14. 15. The labour of the day is by no means incessant and continuous. A pause or halt in the putter's work almost invariably takes place every time he brings his tram to the crane or platform, where his single load is attached to the horse train, to be taken to the bottom of the pit. It is during those intervals that the putter rests and eats his provisions.
  15. 16. It is only in a few collieries that this time is allowed for meals. As to the complaints of fatigue, the same may be made of every other description of bodily labour. Let any one who is accustomed to see those boys returning home from their day's work, say whether their gambols and playfulness do not prove anything rather than being overworked and jaded with their employment.
  16. 17. This statement is perfectly erroneous. Persons, in authority, as part of their duty, are in the habit of interfering to prevent the "ill usage of younger children by their elder companions." Unless they did so, and exerted that authority to suppress the usage alluded to, the discipline of the pit's crew could not be preserved, and. of course, it

parochial clergy, who had he believed instructed the right rev. Prelate who brought forward this report (the Bishop of Norwich), would do more good if they examined into the state of the schools and called at the houses of these people. He hoped that the right rev. Prelate would look through the whole of the report. He was sorry to see a statement that had been made elsewhere; but he would say for the coal owners of the north, that there was no set of men in the world who did more justice in every way to those who were employed by them. He therefore must repudiate the accusations which had been brought against them. All this required much more consideration than the enthusiastic advocates for the education of the labouring classes in the heat of their zeal were disposed, or even capable of giving to the subject. They did not seem to be aware that our fields could not be ploughed, our mines wrought, nor our ships sailed by the vise of the pen alone. The national community might be compared to a great machine or manufactory, all its wheels

would be impossible to conduct the work with regularity, and the whole would fall into confusion. 18. It rarely happens that the boys, especially the trappers, are employed more than four or five days in the week; and from the superabundance of trappers at most collieries, they scarcely average three days, so that abundant opportunity is left for healthy recreation and education. 19. This is essentially correct. Regular surgeons are attached to each colliery, and in cases of accident, surgical aid is afforded gratis, and the patients are paid subsistence money during the rime they are off work.—(See Mr. Leif-child's Report, 50, p. 5 art. 237.) 20. This allegation does not apply to the seasale collieries in Durham and Northumberland, as every department of the mining operations, particularly as regards the machinery, is placed under the superintendence of competent officers. The underground establishment consists of overmen, with their deputies, to superintend the working operations, and their first duty every morning is to visit all the working places before the men are permitted to go in, to see that they are safe or unsafe to be entered with naked lighted candles; also to place props for the support of the roof, brattice the boards, and see that all the trap-doors, &c, are right. The wastemen to keep the air courses right, and the roily-way men to attend to the roily or railways. In ascending the shaft, the number of persons to be drawn up at once is regulated by the onsetter, he being always present, and is made responsible. In descending, the duty of regulating the number devolves on the banksman, who, like the onsetter, is made responsible; and good and sufficient ropes for the men to ride on are always provided. It is the banksman's duty to prevent any person in a state of intoxication going down the pits. Above ground, the machinery is placed under the charge of a chief engineer, who has as many assistants as may be requisite to keep all the machinery in good and sufficient repair. 21. The working of the trap-doors is generally entrusted to boys, but properly constructed trap-doors close themselves, so that the trapper's duty is merely to pull them open with his string, and unless they are wilfully propped open, they must, from their construction, like a well hung gate, shut themselves. But maimed old men are generally made the keepers of important trap-doors, and it is the duty of the overman, at the close of each day's work, to

and parts must be duly proportioned to enable it to move smoothly, and the requisite proportion of education would always be supplied without making all this stir and effort about it. If it should preponderate, the equilibrium of society would be destroyed. The noble Marquess concluded by moving that the petition do lie on the Table.

The Bishop of Norwich

would postpone his observations in reply to the noble Marquess until the bill was before their Lordships.

Petition laid on the Table.