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In transcribing the following article I used the online version available from the Hathi Trust, using ABBYY OCR software to produce the following text, because the Hathi Trust mixes material from right and left columns. This description of a late-Victorian visit to a coal mine has several points of interest, not the least of which are the powerful images of men and animals working in dangerous claustrophobic conditions created by the skilled Margery May (fl 1989-1895), whom dictionaries of Victorian and twentieth-century illustrators complete omit. Christopher wood’s Dictionary of Victorian Painters notes that she exhibited a single painting at the Royal Academy. It is of course possible that she exhibited and published under a married name. She certainly has created some of the most powerful images of strong men at work in mines. Walker, the author of the essay, does not mention that she accompanied him down the shaft, but the illustrations suggest that she did..
Walker's essay is interesting on several counts. First of all, he opens with the usual description of the ways coal and smoke have changed the British environment, and he also points out the large extent to which to which mines and factories have increasingly absorbed the countryside. Next, Walker includes a brief geological explanation of the origins of coal — a topic that 40 years earlier might have been too controversial because threatened once orthodox beliefs about the comparatively short age of the Bible — after which finally gets around to describing a specific coal mine. His discussions of the nature and amount of work required to mine coal, the care of animals, and the status and economic security of the miners themselves, whom he presents as members of a working class elite who are well-housed and have enough spare time to cultivate gardens contrasts dramatically with earlier discussions of mining and miners. Perhaps the most dramatic difference between this 1888 description of coal miners and those forty or fifty years earlier appears in Walker’s description of them as important participants in the nation’s politics: “The collier is certainly rising—and rising fast—in the social scale. He is no longer typically the brutalized man he was. He is now an educated and often thoughtful person as indeed he has need to be.. . . Their trade organizations have become a great power, and if wisely led their just rights are secure. In their exercise of political power they may perhaps for a time throw a mighty weight into the scale of democratic progress.” A result, certainly, of the recent Reform Bill’s extension of the right to vote. — George P. Landow
The Valley of Desolation by Margery May. Headpiece for the following article from The English Illustrated Magazine [Click on images to enlarge them.]
MONG the differences which sever the England of our forefathers from the England of to-day none are more noticeable than the comparative non-existence of that rural seclusion which they knew, but which the cosmopolitan influences of railways and modern material progress have destroyed for us. The country is no longer sacred to Ceres, but has become, as it were, the appanage of the town; and among the hedge - rows and cornfields we are constantly reminded that we are still in the midst of a busy toiling hive, and that our country life is fast assimilating itself to the life of our towns. Where this change is to end we cannot yet see, but nowhere is it more marked than in the North of England, where the presence of coal and iron has concentrated the centres of our manufacturing industries.
The traveller from the South of England to the North must needs traverse one or more of the great coalfields; and it is probably, in many cases, almost with a shudder, if he be a lover of green fields and blue skies, that he enters upon the region where disorderly mounds of black or burning rubbish, the hideous erections which mark the site of a coal-pit, and the volumes of black smoke which rise from points studded over the landscape, blot and mar the fair face of Nature. For the coalfields of England have been, and may perhaps be again, among its loveliest regions. Bounded by the bold and bleak moorland, which rises huge and wild along the axis of the Pennine Chain, by the Limestones of Wenlock, by the Welsh Hills, or by the rugged Pentlands, the Coal Measures form the first slopes of the lower ground; and spreading out with gentler in clination across the intervening plain, disappear, perhaps, under the crags of the Magnesian Limestone, the undulations of the New Red Sandstone, or the waves of the blue sea. It has been, much of it, the forest land of England. The forests of Sherwood. Charnwood, of Dean, and many others, have flourished over the surface of the coal-fields, and have been associated with the picturesque legends of outlawry and the pleasures of woodcraft. Much, no doubt, of the charm of its scenery is lost and gone for ever, but it is not all lost either for the present or the future. Not to speak of such spots of love liness as the Forest of Dean, where the pits are hidden among the surrounding oaks, or Coalbrookdale, where the wooded Severn heights look down on the patriarchal works that nestle in the hollows, there is much beauty left even where desolation seems to have laid most heavily its withering hand; and those who live in these black regions have, perhaps, as much loveliness within reach as is to be found elsewhere. The strong sandstones of the Lower Coal Measures are very remarkable for the boldness of their configuration, and, especially on the eastern slope of the Pennines, go to form some of the finest bits of scenery we possess, such, for instance, as the stretch of country of which Wharncliffe Crags is a well-known point. The beauties of both the mountain and the Magnesian Limestone country are in nearly all cases within reach, and in Durham the latter formation has the additional charm of constituting the coastline, full of sea-washed rocks and caves, and lovely denes and glens stretching landward from the shore. Here we are in the midst of pits, yet these spots are mostly quite secluded and unspoiled. Finchale Abbey and Lambton Castle, deep down in the valley of the winding Wear, still preserve their solitude and their repose; Castle Eden and Old Seaham nestle undisturbed on the sea-shore, and venerable Durham still retains its picturesqueness, not withstanding the surroundings which have sprung up in a decade, to sink again almost as quickly as they have arisen.
One fortunate circumstance, which the ordinary railway traveller perhaps hardly realises as he traverses for miles and miles a mining district, is that our English coal-fields are mostly narrow, so far as their polluting and destroying influences are concerned. The beds of coal slope upwards towards the moors where they, one after another, come to the surface, exposed by the denuding forces which have swept away coal-fields greater probably by far than the detached remnants which remain to us, and which constitute the most important part of our national wealth. It was, of course, at the outcrop of the coals where they were first worked in some instances in Roman times, and at every subsequent period. The recuperative powers of Nature have done much to restore the face of the country which has once been riddled with these old mines, and in Yorkshire, especially, the slopes are fringed and barred with long plantations, marking the position of ancient workings of iron and coal, and giving to some of these uplands a more clothed and wooded aspect than they possessed before the ground was broken by the miner's toil.
The tide of labour and activity has receded somewhat from these ancient mines, but it is concentrated along a strip of country some five or six miles, perhaps, in width, where the coals lie at a moderate depth — that is up to a depth of about one thousand feet from the surface. Beyond this line a few more adventurous undertakings may seek to reach the treasure at greater depths, but for the present the great majority of the collieries are situated within this comparatively narrow tract. But it is not with the landscape, in which coal-pits form a disturbing element, but with the coal-pits themselves that this paper has to do. We may regret that coal-pits should spoil a pretty country, but we are not at all prepared to efface the coal-pits even if we had the power. We English people love our firesides too well not to pardon much to the sources from whence they derive their brightness, and many will take an interest in the places themselves, and in those whose lives are bound up in them. We shall endeavour then to conduct our readers into a colliery district, and there to show them some of the sights and scenes peculiar to it, and something also of the lives of men and beasts deep down in the recesses and the darkness of the mine. And, since we must make a choice, let us turn our steps to Yorkshire and see what we may find to interest us in the old Dane-land for whose people Mr. Ruskin has pronounced so decided a preference.
The Yorkshire coalfield is part of the great central coalfield of England. The county boundaries have no reference in this case to the geological structure of the country, but they mark a clearly-defined ethnographical division which severs with sufficient distinctness the Yorkshire folk from their brethren of Derbyshire. The central coalfield is itself only a portion of a much more extensive one, embracing Lancashire and North Staffordshire, and, perhaps, all the districts lying to the south as far as Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire. Geological science has been gradually accumulating evidence which, although far from complete, seems to indicate with sufficient clearness the configuration of land and sea at the time when the coalfields were being laid down, and a brief reference to this subject may be of interest in passing. Imagine (map in hand) a continent extending over our northern ocean from Greenland and Iceland to the Faroë Islands and to the west of the Connemara country in Ireland, stretching back by Donegal to Kintyre and along the Highland line to Aberdeen, including the Old Red Sandstone country of Forfar shire, and thence to the Naze in Norway, and, it may be, to the Hartz in Germany. Again, fill in more land in Cumberland, in the Isle of Man, in Wales, and stretch a ridge of mountains from Wenlock to Charnwood Forest and still further eastward. Such a rough outline will surround an inland sea, into which great rivers will be pouring their waters, and where they will be forming their deltas, and on the bottom of which are living, in the clear, deep water the corals, crinoids, and molluscs of the Mountain Limestone, while nearer the embouchures the grits, sandstones, and shales of the Millstone Grit, and the Yoredale Rocks grew and grew through age-long periods filling up the shallow sea. Coal Age, with its wondrous flora flourishing over the growing deltas, which were inter mittently subsiding and burying in sand and mud the accumulated vegetable remains of years, which would again accumulate afresh at each successive pause in the subsidence, till, at last, they were finally overwhelmed and buried, countless fathoms deep, to be stored away until our own day. The separation of the various coal fields (though they may have been to some extent contemporaneous but distinct depositions) is of later date, since which time denudation has been busy wasting the upheaved and exposed portions which doubtless once overlaid the Millstone Grit of the Pennine Chain and the Mountain Limestone of Derbyshire.The Yorkshire coalfield, in accordance with this theory, rests on the slopes of the grits of the York shire Moors, and dips gently away to the eastward. Its seams of coal rich, though not so numerous as those of some other districts, and they bear a close analogy s to corresponding ones in Lancashire. The portion which has been reached lies between the moors and the railway from Sheffield to Pontefract and York.
Every one knows the external appearance of a colliery. The framing which supports the large pulleys over the drawing shaft, the sheds and engine-houses, the sidings with their train of waggons, and in the background the workshops and other buildings are familiar objects enough. These things are seen at a glance, but the thing around which they are all grouped, the shaft itself, is naturally not visible till we are beside it and look down into its murky depths. Shafts or pits are the highways from the mine to the surface. They are made just large enough to allow of the small trucks of coal, inclosed in iron cages, being drawn up them, the usual size being from twelve to fifteen feet, diameter. Large and powerful machinery is employed at the deeper pits to raise the coal to the surface in large quantities and at a high speed. For instance, at the Park Gate t Pit of the Aldwarke Colliery, near Rotherham, 1,600 tons of coal are raised in ten Then came the hours by one engine from a single shaft more than 400 yards in depth, the distance - being traversed in forty-eight seconds; inother words, a load of three tons is raised during each minute of the working day. The Ashton Moss Colliery, near Manchester, is the deepest in England, being not far short of 1, 000 yards, but it is exceeded by several shafts in Belgium.
Taking our place in the cage, we are dropped smoothly but rapidly into the gloom of the shaft, the darkness soon becoming complete. The sensation experienced by strangers descending a pit is very much akin to being carried up in a balloon, and if the movement is very rapid a feeling of sickness and giddiness is often produced. Arrived at the pit-bottom it is some time before the eye accustoms itself to the comparative gloom, and, although spacious arches are fairly well lighted, the the men employed about the bottom seem weird, dusky-looking beings, moving hither and thither in the dark caverns which open out on either hand. After some minutes spent in a sort of underground office, provided with a barometer, table, and desk for become accustomed to the amount of available light, and he will be ready to proceed on his journey. He will find narrow gauge railways running into the recesses of the mine, sometimes worked by engine-power, transmitted through ropes, and sometimes by horses.
The Pit Bottom by Margery May. (This illustration occupies a full page in the midst of the article.)
One of the first places usually visited by strangers is the underground stable. A long and wide gallery is divided off into stalls to the number, perhaps, of thirty or forty. The stables are fairly comfortable, and arranged on a special plan to facilitate dealing with so large a number of horses. The bedding is now usually of Dutch peat, which is a great improvement on the sawdust formerly used. The horses and ponies do not appear to suffer from the darkness to which they are condemned, but, on the contrary, are frequently remarkable for the sleekness of their coats and their comfortable proportions. Of course their condition varies a good deal at different collieries, but in the main they are well tended and well fed, and if they could express their grievances, would probably complain more of the monotonous and heating diet of Indian corn, to which many colliery managers from motives of economy condemn them, than to other hardships. They usually remain down for life unless a strike or some special reason causes them to be brought up. They flourish however below, and live, as a rule, to an advanced age. They become exceedingly sharp and intelligent in the performance of their work, and in many cases hardly need the supervision of a driver. They are especially acute as to the whereabouts of pro visions intended for human consumption, and the unwary driver who considers his jacket pocket a sufficiently safe place wherein to bestow his dinner is apt to find a four-footed thief has taken an early opportunity of transferring the viands to a place of greater security, being, in fact, altogether inaccessible. A curious instance of the intelligence of these creatures may be mentioned. At a small colliery, near Barnsley, the ponies, though working daily underground, were stabled at the surface. Many of them knew as well as the human beings the hour when the day's work came to an end, and without guidance would make their way at top speed to the shaft, then take their place in the cage and stand quiet and motionless while they were drawn to the surface. We do not know whether they displayed the same alacrity and intelligence when going to work; if so, they must oftentimes have been teaching a silent lesson to their drivers.
Every mine must have two shafts, and a circulation of air very similar to that of the blood in the human body. The air is conducted into the inmost recesses of the mine by different sets of roads, one set being devoted to the fresh-air current passing in wards, the other to the vitiated air returning from the working places. These currents are produced by artificially destroying the equilibrium of the columns of air in the two shafts, either by rarefying the air in the upcast by means of heat, or by exhausting it by machinery. The return airways and the exhausted portions of the mine are called the “waste,” and the care of them and the maintenance of the ventilation is confided to an experienced official called the master wasteman, who has at his command a staff of men to keep the air passages free and open. The air is divided and distributed into the different districts of the mine, and is so conducted as to sweep away any noxious gases which may be given off either from the coal or the exhausted workings.
We now proceed to conduct our travellers into the recesses of the mine, and since the details we propose to give differ widely in almost every colliery, we will take a trip into a district in the silkstone seam at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery, from whence so many London fires draw their supplies, and which may, therefore, have a special interest to some of our readers who may toasting their toes by the cheerful blaze. In a wide and lofty arch, and with a jerk, such as would not be such as one sees on the underground rail railway, we find way, we find ourselves between two lines of rails: narrow gauge lines they are, but not narrower than some of the railways up into the slate quarries of the Welsh mountains. On one of these stands a long train of small waggons loaded with coal just come out of the workings, and each carrying seven hundredweights. They are called in Yorkshire technically “corves” which is derived from the Teutonic korb, a basket, these waggons having succeeded to the name and uses of certain wicker baskets in use before rails were introduced. And here we may notice some peculiarities of nomenclature employed in coalpits, a subject which would afford a most interesting study to the philologist. The terms in Yorkshire are many of them Teutonic words now lost in common parlance, while in Northumberland and Durham, curiously enough, many terms are of nautical origin, showing the close connection which must once have existed between the two callings of the coal-miner and the sailor.
Undercutting a Thin Coal by Margery May.
To return from our digression. On the other line (of which we have already spoken ) is a train of empty corves, some seventy or so in number, and into one or two of these, which have been cleaned and provided with rough seats in the shape of blocks of wood, we will, with your permission, step, and take our places for the first stage of our journey. Our conductor gives a signal and immediately a rattling of ropes and wheels is apparent, such would not be approved of on a regular railway, we find ourselves in motion. As we leave the shaft arches we feel that we are leaving behind us a comparatively light and cheerful place, and as we plunge into the black darkness, which is broken only by our own dim safety-lamps, we cannot but feel (though we may not express it) some such sentiment as Dante about saw writ over the portal of his Inferno :
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
But now we are moving quickly, and from which were — gloomy gallery to dark cavern we travel on till after some five or six minutes we see lights in the distance and we feel the train passing over the points of a siding and then The coming to rest. Here are men and horses engaged in working the traffic and dividing the trains, for we are in the roughest element in a pit and their work is about the hardest, but it is considerably less severe than it used to be when the coal had to be dragged in sledges along the bare floor of the mine.
The coal-hewer, or collier, is the important personage for whose convenience the whole organisation of the pit exists. He is the ultimate end of all things. Without him the others’ occupations are all gone. His work demands experience, skill, and strength. It is often most severe and exhausting, but not by any means invariably so, and the majority of colliers do not work much harder than other laborious employments require, and have a considerable reserve of energy on their return home for anything which may be stirring.
In order to work the coal to advantage it is laid out in faces, each collier having a separate portion allotted to him. His business is to detach the coal so as to produce it as large in size as possible, small coal being of verv little value. To do this he must undermine it, and when this is done to a depth of three or four feet for some yards in length the coal above begins to detach itself from the roof, and break off from the solid coal along a line at the back of the groove which has been undercut. It now requires to be propped up till the collier is ready to let it down. If the coal is too strong to fall unaided powder is used, and now in places where the use of powder is considered dangerous caustic compressed lime takes its place. Coal-cutting machines have been in use at Whamcliffe Silkstone Colliery for many years, but they have not as yet been largely used in collieries generally. They seem destined however to be much more important in the future than they are at present, and will relieve the collier of much of his hardest wrork. His lot will then not be so pitiable a one as it is popularly supposed to be. The sentimental idea of the horrors of working underground once got rid of, the collier’s work is not without its recommendations. The hours are short, the conditions if work and the temperature of the mine are equable; he is independent of weather, and he is well paid. To the danger of accident he is certainly exposed, but, according to statistics, his calling is not so fatal as some others carried on in open day, and in proportion to the numbers employed the ratio if accidents is decreasing.
The collier is certainly rising—and rising fast—in the social scale. He is no longer typically the brutalized man he was. He is iow an educated and often thoughtful person as indeed he has need to be. There are, of course, far too many of the grosser sort left, but the better men are gaining ground. Their trade organizations have become a great power, and if wisely led their just rights are secure. In their exercise of political power they may perhaps for a time throw a mighty weight into the scale of democratic progress. But time will probably correct and experience modify the crudeness of many of the theories now current among them, and save them from the rocks and quicksands into which socialistic doctrinaires will doubtless seek to lead them : but whether for good or for evil the miners of this country are now become one of the great factors in the accomplishment of its destinies.
Returning to the upper air, daylight at first strikes almost as strange as the darkness had done on our descent. The pit top is a busy scene. The unloading of the cages, the screening, cleaning, and sorting of the coal, the shunting of the waggons, the engines and machinery working all around present a most confusing sight to the unaccustomed eye. The various secondary operations of a large colliery are in themselves considerable. There is the shop for the enginewrights, the blacksmith’s shop with its steam hammer, the joiner’s shop, the sawmill, the waggon shop, the storehouse filled "with every conceivable article of ironmongery and drysaltery—ropes, chains, indiarubber, and so on; a mill and granary for corn and fodder, and last, but not least, a large room where the safety lamps are cleaned, trimmed, and lighted.
The colliery is usually surrounded by a number of cottages where a good many of the workmen live. These vary very much as to accommodation and comfort, the newer houses being generally commodious and well arranged. The colliers have each a garden plot which they cultivate with much success, and a few even provide themselves with frames, and rough greenhouses where they grow hot-house flowers and sometimes grapes. The chief officials are usually better housed, and occupy a somewhat higher social standing than the rest of the colliery colony. At their head is the manager, who holds a Government certificate and who is responsible for the safe working of the mine. He must be a man of some attainments, in fact, he needs to know a little of most things in order to deal with all the exigences of his calling. Besides being a mining engineer he must also be something of a civil engineer, for he may be called upon to make a railway or construct a reservoir. He must be a mechanical engineer for he has to supervise and arrange engines and machinery. He must be an accountant for he has his staff of clerks b; a farmer, for the colliery has land;an architect, for he has to build engine-houses, cottages, and workshops;a lawyer, for he has much to do with leases and their provisions: a valuer and a surveyor. To these others may be added, but they are enough to show the great variety of accomplishments which the colliery manager needs to be possessed of. His lieutenants are each in charge of special departments, the details of which they manage, reporting daily to the manager. The underviewer takes charge xmderground, the bank inspector al>ove. while the engineer superintends the workshops and machinery.
We have now given some account of a colliery as it is to be found in Yorkshire, and although we have by no means exhausted all that is interesting about it, we must have exhausted the patience of our readers who will think we have lingered long enough in so black and uncouth a region, so wTe will now bring our essay to a conclusion, and seeing them safely bestowed in the London express wish them a pleasant journey and good-bye.
In a Refuge Hole by Margery May.
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Related Material (homepages of the following subjects)
Coal, Coal Mining, and Social and Political History
- Child Workers in a Coal Mine (from G. W. M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London)
- Pit-Ponies in Coal Mines
- Testimony Gathered by Ashley's Mines Commission (1842)
Walker, G. Blake. “A Peep into the Coal Country.” The English Illustrated Magazine. 6 (1888-89): 566-74. Hathi Trust online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 15 January 2021.
Last modified 16 January 2021