child labor in the coal mines -- 9/20/17

Today's selection -- from Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. Child labor in the coal mines:

"Some [coal-powered] factories began to operate round the clock, which at least had the effect of shortening overall hours from fourteen- or sixteen-hour shifts down to two twelve-hour shifts. The marvel of what these workers were doing -- working all night by light that had traveled to earth millions of years earlier and had been stored in darkness ever since -- probably wouldn't have impressed them, even if they had known about it. This is partic­ularly true because many of the factory workers were mere chil­dren. With coal power to substitute for adult muscle, and machinery to substitute for adult skill, factory owners found that children were not only adequate for many jobs but cheaper and far easier to discipline.

"The booming coal industry was a leader in the brutal treat­ment of children, and the steam engine just seems to have increased the ways children could be exploited. Although engines made it possible for the mines to press deeper, ventila­tion problems were increased. The common solution was the use of 'traps,' a system of doors in the mines that would keep air currents flowing fast enough to prevent the accumulation of deadly gases. The task of operating these doors was given to the smallest of children working under the most nightmarish condi­tions, and if these young workers didn't perform properly, the safety of the mine was at risk.

Young coal miners - UK

"A parliamentary commission that in the 1840s finally began paying attention to the scandal of child labor was astonished that there were not more mine accidents given that 'in all the coal mines, in all the districts of the United Kingdom, the care of these trap doors is entrusted to children of from five to seven or eight years of age, who for the most part sit, excepting at the moments when persons pass through these doors, for twelve hours consecutively in solitude, silence and darkness.'

"One eight-year-old girl described her day to the commission this way: 'I have to trap without a light, and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half-past three in the morning and come out [in the evening] at five and half-past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark: I dare not sing then.'

"The growing demand for coal prompted operators to expand their mines by following narrower coal seams, but because the new tunnels were often too low for horses or adults to pass through, children were used to haul the coal. The com­mission described the children's plight this way: 'Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet, and more than half naked -- crawling upon their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them -- they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.' The cruel treatment of children in the mines may have made it easier to tolerate their comparatively milder but more widespread exploitation in the coal-fueled factories."



Barbara Freese


Coal: A Human History


Basic Books


Copyright 2003 by Barbara Freese


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