YMHC #2 : Junior mining occupations in 19th century british coalfields by G. Solomon

The second issue of the series Young Mining Historian Corner is online!

In this issue, Guy Solomon (The Open University) presents a research about junior mining occupations in 19th century in north-east England, based on a strong quantitative analysis of wage data. 

Go to the Issue #1: Opening


by Guy Solomon (The Open University, guy.solomon@open.ac.uk, @Guy_S_Solomon)

Coalmining was much more than a job in nineteenth-century Britain. The extraction of coal placed geographic limitations on those it employed, which in turn led to the creation of social and cultural structures centred on the pit. Coal communities were frequently rural, often isolated, and regarded as fostering a particular sense of community and comradery. Robert Colls has argued that miners began the nineteenth century “as something of a ‘caste’”, and whilst influence of the deskilling of the trade lies outside the bounds of this post, it is within this evolving culture that social studies of the nineteenth-century industry must be located [1]

An extension of this socio-cultural background is the creation of human capital. Coalmining in this period (particularly in certain regions) was renowned for resisting outside labour and recruiting primarily from the kin networks of those already working in the trade. This changed significantly during the nineteenth century, as demand for coal increased rapidly with the pace of industrialisation.
Historians have long been aware of this complex interplay between economic, social, and cultural pressures. And as a result, there has been significant research into the role of child and adult labour in collieries of this period. But by employing a new source base (consisting of approximately 30,000 fortnightly pay entries drawn from two north-eastern collieries – Wylam Colliery and Townley Main Colliery – between 1852 and 1856), it is possible to further investigate progression through junior mining occupations.

General structure

Mining in the north-east of England was regarded as technically and technologically advanced in this period. One important aspect of this was its highly specialised structure. Unlike elsewhere (such as the rapidly developing south Wales coalfield), each worker had a very focused task. This specialisation applied to both adult workers and those employed in the junior grades. With the introduction of legislation in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, minimum age limits were set on underground employment. Henceforth, boys started work aged ten, though up until 1842 it had been common to start boys underground at much younger ages throughout all the major mining regions [2].

Junior roles underground

Collieries could not operate without the labour of young and adolescent boys. Not only did they form a vital part of the workforce in terms of the labour they provided, but the long process of training and education in the internal workings of the pit was very desirable for producing future adult workers. Generally, a boy was first introduced to underground work in the north-east as a trapper. This involved being stationed at a trapdoor in order to regulate air flow and allow the passage of coal (being transported in tubs by older workers employed in a haulage capacity). Alternatively, he might start out ‘on the switches’: directing tubs on the main road in and out of the mine known as the rolley way [3]

The traditional progression from trapping was to driving. Drivers were responsible for transporting tubs to and from the coal face by the rolley way. This work centred around leading the pit ponies, which required a degree of physical strength not involved in trapping work. The ponies were known to sometimes panic underground, and the boy was therefore required to keep them under control [4]

From driving, boys usually progressed to putting. Putters performed a similar role to drivers, but often transported the tubs of coal by their own strength rather than horsepower [5]. They worked in the tightest spaces, moving full tubs of coal from the hewer (the main adult workers) at the face to the driver at the rolley way. Often, this was done by two boys working together; either one older (a ‘headsman’) and one younger (‘a ‘foal’), or two boys of the same age (‘half-marrows’), but boys could undertake this work alone if they were physically strong enough (a ‘tram’) [6].

In practice, this progression was far more complex than this broad structure implies. Many boys and adolescents worked in other junior roles; most commonly water leading and helping up, which often involved a mixture of adult and child labour. Water leading was usually undertaken at night and involved removing water from the coal face, whilst a helper up was employed to aid putters move tubs through a particularly problematic dip in the road [7] The availability of these types of work was very variable between collieries; those particularly liable to flooding (such as Wylam) were required to devote more labour to water leading in order to function. Similarly, the number of trappers in a pit was directly related to the number of trapdoors, which could vary depending on a number of factors [8]

How did junior workers progress?

Progression in the pit was strongly influenced by age/physical maturity. But it was also reliant on experience and skill. Acquiring these traits was a gradual process, learned on the job. In the north-east, this manifested in a considerable degree of cross-occupational working. Boys would undertake work in more senior roles when this was available; it was generally preferred for a younger boy to step up- rather than an older boy or man to step down- to fill a labour shortage [9]

There is significant evidence of those employed in junior grades working in multiple roles at both Wylam and Townley. Of those employed in trapping work at Wylam, 27 percent of the fortnightly entries did not total the entirety of that individuals’ income; in other words, they were also undertaking work in other roles in the colliery. This is much the same story for drivers (indeed, there may well have been some overlap, as those employed primarily as trappers often undertook driving work), with 20 percent of fortnightly entries failing to account for the total value of that individual’s labour. This was slightly less pronounced for both of these occupations at Townley, but still nonetheless present; at eleven percent and ten percent respectively. However, the most prominent manifestation of this practice was with regards to putting. Approximately one third of putting entries at Townley showed evidence of that individual also working in another role. At Wylam this was even higher, at 47 percent.

Progression in practice

An example of this type of progression is the work of Henry Purvis, who first appears in the Townley records in July 1852, working as a putter. Unfortunately, he cannot be located in census records, so his exact age is unknown. His first opportunity at hewing work came in March 1853, where he (in partnership with an unspecified number of others) produced 84 tubs of coal in one fortnight. This practice of undertaking hewing work in a group- alongside his regular putting- persisted through the first four instances of this work, but these fortnights were spaced out throughout the next five months. From the September of that year, Purvis undertook more regular hewing work (seemingly by himself) alongside his putting, but this was generally minimal in terms of the quantity of coal produced, and therefore contributed little to his earnings.

So far, Purvis’ employment history appears to be one of linear progression; from putting, to occasionally hewing in a group, to occasionally hewing as an individual. The next logical step would be a further increase in hewing work. But progression in the pit was not necessarily this simple; Purvis returned to occasional group hewing in April 1854, and then almost entirely to putting from the July of that year. Regardless, he was likely still aiding his hewer whilst working as a putter and therefore accumulating further experience of this work, but his opportunities to work as a hewer in his own right seem to have declined.

This changed in mid-1855. Purvis is recorded as hewing in a group again, followed by a couple of instances of double working (a step above group hewing where the relationship between hewers was formalised in the colliery records), all whilst still primarily working as a putter. From December 1855, his primary employment changed from putting to hewing; he undertook limited putting work in four of the next ten fortnights, but the majority of this period was spent working as a hewer. His last instance of putting work was recorded in the middle of May, and his earnings (barring one instance of shift work) were all from hewing thereafter [10]


In conclusion, junior labour was vital to the operation of a colliery in this period. Progression was complex, but it equipped the boy/adolescent with the skills to be successful as they moved through underground mining occupations. By examining detailed records and reconstructing the employment histories of named individuals- such as those which constitute the database utilised here- we are able to investigate the mechanisms that governed this system in significant depth.


[1] Colls, Robert. The Pitmen of the Northern Coalfield: Work, Culture, and Protest, 1790-1850, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), 10.

[2] Buxton, Neil K. Economic Development of the British Coal Industry, (London: Harper Collins, 1979), 131-2.

[3] Greenwell, George Clementson. A Glossary Of Terms Used In The Coal Trade Of Northumberland And Durham. 3rd edition. Facsimile [n.d.], (London: Bemrose, 1888), 69, 88.

[4] Church, Roy A. The History of the British Coal Industry. Volume 3, 1830-1913: Victorian Pre-Eminence, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 194–95.

[5] In some places, records specifically mention ‘putting by horse’, which was similar to driving work but off the main rolley way- Thomas Burt notes in his autobiography that this was becoming increasingly common around this period. Burt, Thomas, and Aaron Watson. Thomas Burt, M.P., D.C.L., Pitman & Privy Councillor: An Autobiography, (London: T. F. Unwin, 1924), 52, 53.

[6] Strange, William. The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Collieries of the United Kingdom: Carefully Compiled from the Appendix to the First Report of the Commissioners, With Copious Extracts from the Evidence, and Illustrative Engravings. (London: William Strange, 1842), 46.

[7] Burt and Watson, 92; Greenwell, 46.

[8] For a very detailed contemporary account of the factors which influenced ventilation, see: William Hopton, A Conversation on Mines, &c., between a Father and Son; to Which Are Added Questions and Answers to Assist Candidates to Obtain Certificates for the Management of Collieries, a Lecture on the Atmosphere- Its Changes and Explosive Gases, Tables of Calculations, Rules of Measurements, Etc., Etc, 5th edition, (Manchester: Abel Haywood, 1873)

[9] Hewers were generally paid a special rate if they were required to undertake other work than hewing, and managers were usually keen for boys to undertake more taxing work.

[10] Shift work was work paid for by the day, and could involve several tasks: Greenwell, 75.

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