Child labour at the colliery

Following a number of disasters involving children, whether caused by them or not, the Collieries and Mines Act was passed in 1842. Among other things, this prohibited the employment of females and boys under the age of 10 from working underground. I wanted to understand how this might have affected Andrew’s Kindred. The earliest comprehensive data on occupations is the 1841 census. I wanted to explore the interplay between work and school, but no information is recorded as to which children were scholars and I was confined to comparing work and no work. It should be noted that my samples are small and it cannot be claimed that my analysis has any national or regional significance. Nonetheless, it does say something about the communities in which my coal mining forebears lived and worked.

I first looked at Bagworth, in north west Leicestershire. There were no females with colliery occupations, but 2 boys aged 9 were described as “collier”, with 6 more aged 11-14. There is no distinction in the 1841 census between above and below ground, so it is possible that some of the boys worked on the pit bank.

Next, I looked at Moira. The table below shows the numbers of boys employed at the various collieries and with no occupation. Three boys aged 8 and 9 were employed at a colliery.

Update:  The top table is for Bagworth.



Again, there were no females working at a colliery, but there was an alternative in lace work, so I counted up those in lace work and those not in work. No girls under 10 were employed, but there were 23 girls aged 5 to 9 in the village. 10 girls aged 10-14 were employed, 15 of the same age group were not employed. Clearly, the numbers in work will depend upon demand for labour, so, even if all children were available for work, there may not have been enough openings for all.

In Oakthorpe there were no females and no boys under 10 at a colliery.

Moving to another coalfield in Shropshire, I also looked at Lawley Bank, home to my Brown coal mining kindred. Boys under the age of 10 were employed: 2 (7 and 8 years) colliery; and 2 boys aged 8 were a stone miner and a brick maker. Among boys aged 10 were 9 at a colliery and 9 not in work.

A quick survey of the Brownhills part of Norton Canes, Staffordshire, found no boys aged 14 or younger employed at a colliery. In all there were 23 boys in that age range.

In general, then, it seems that 10 was considered the right time by some families or collieries to put their boys to work, and that few sent younger boys to work. It might be that parents were aware of the risks to both boys and men from reading or hearing about mining disasters and had mostly adopted a policy of not sending boys under 10 to the colliery, or it might have been that colliery owners adopted such a policy.

Child labour in Brownhills 1861

For comparison I revisited extensive analysis of my home town of Brownhills, currently in West Midlands, but at the time of the 1861 census was in Staffordshire.  I wonder if the low numbers of girls in work reflects limited opportunity in the area rather than more wealthy areas where servants lived in.



There were no females engaged in colliery work. There were 3 boys engaged in colliery work, all aged 9, but there was also an 8-year-old “door minder”; I wonder if this was another term for “trapper”, a boy below ground operating a sort of door, which aided ventilation and helped avoid build up of flammable gas. The other 3 were respectively, “coal miner” (2) and “coal miner’s boy”. If, as the census definitions suggest, these boys were working below ground the colliery was in clear breach of the law, even if the management had been deceived about their true age.

A key step towards improving conditions for children was the Children’s Employment Commission 1842. It found that in Staffordshire two of the worst practices were absent, that is no women or girls were employed below ground and there were few child trappers because most of the mines were too small to require that type of ventilation. (1)


At the time of the Commission, many girls were employed at the canalside or as “bankswomen”, but by 1861 this had died out in the Brownhills population. Following the Commission, the Children’s Employment Act of 1842 prohibited boys under 10 and all females from working below ground, and in 1860 the age limit for boys was raised to 12. Nonetheless, it appears from the 1861 census that 15 boys from Brownhills aged just 10 or 11 years were employed below ground. In the table above, the “Coal miner’s labourer”, could also have been below ground.

(1) Cannock Chase Mining History Society, 2005, The Cannock Chase Coalfield and its coal mines, p36.

I will explore this topic more, but, for now, that’s all folks.

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