Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - In the Black Country

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THE pedestrian explorer of odd places in and about Staffordshire would, in the event of his approaching either Netherton, Rowley, Lye Waste, or Bromsgrove on a Saturday afternoon, encounter a spectacle that might rather puzzle him: a straggling procession of men and women and children, the majority of the former sober, but a few of them drunk, and one and all so scantily and shabbily dressed that their poverty-stricken state of existence is at once made known. Each of them is carrying a number of iron wands like a bundle of withies for weaving, but secured in the grip of a twist of iron wire, instead of by a green osier twig - rods of various lengths, from four feet to ten, and of different sizes, from that of a man's little finger to the thin end of a tobacco-pipe. The lighter loads are in the custody of children, chiefly boys, but some of them girls, and varying in age from seven upwards, each one shouldering its property, and trudging along at a sedate pace, with a countenance expressive of the practice of mental arithmetic under difficulties, the key to which was to be found in iron rods past and iron rods present; little old men and women, looking rather like adults growing down than children growing up; grizzled old handicraftsmen and women in pinafores; children used to fire and forge, hair-singed and smutty, and with their dimples showing like wrinkles with the grime of smithy smoke that traced them; youngsters [-291-] whose boots showed their upper leathers singed and scarred with falling chips of red-hot metal, and with hands that, according to nature, should not have advanced beyond the round and chubby stage, corned and bumped at the knuckles, and with the nails worn down like those of a file-grinder.
    The puzzled explorer would naturally be curious to ascertain of what kind of mothers such children could be born. There they are - the women who come toiling down the road, sometimes with a load of rods on one arm, and on the other a baby drawing nourishment from a breast so smutty and rusty-looking as to give rise to the idea that it must be gritty with iron filings. Women well able to carry such a double load, however. The size of their arms is prodigious. Here comes along one laden with baby and iron, a wizen-faced woman, lank as a plank and about as symmetrical, but whose bared right arm and the fist terminating it might belong to a prize-fighter-a brown fist with a broad thumb, and an arm with sinews standing out like tanned cord; and a muscle - for the woman, like the majority, wears her gown-sleeve "tucked up" as a male mechanic wears his shirt-sleeve - that bulges to the size of a penny-roll.
    Let the puzzled explorer bottle up his curiosity, and come this way again-say, to Lye Waste, on Monday, for an explanation. Let his visit be deferred until dusk of evening or later, and this is the picture that Lye Waste will show him. First, though, as to sound. Lye Waste is a village of considerable dimensions, stowed away and hidden from the main road ; but before it is reached, dark though it may be, you are made aware that it is not far off. The very air seems to tingle with a tinkling, not a loud banging and ringing of lusty full-grown hammers and anvils, but a kind of infantine [-292-] clamour of the sort, as though this was the nursery of hammers and anvils, and rare play was going on amongst the youngsters. Tink, tink, tink, thousands of hammers, thousands of anvils, and no more real noise than six Woolwich farriers might any day in the week be backed to make if they would but give their shoulders to it. Tink, tink, tink, louder still, and now you come within sight of Lye Waste Village and its thousand fires, and its cruelly hard-worked and badly paid colony of nail-makers.
    One of the quaintest sights that can be conceived, and well worth the contemplation of those who delight in discussing the "rights of women" and whose tender sensibilities are shocked that the gentle sex should engage in such masculine employments as setting up printing types or fixing together the tiny wheels of a watch. These are the tender-hearted souls who are scandalized by the knowledge that in France and other barbarous countries women frequently perform the drudgery here assigned to the commonest of labourers - street sweeping, brick and mortar carrying, &c. Did they never hear of the female blacksmiths of Staffordshire? There are not a hundredth part of them here at Lye Waste, which may boast of a thousand at least. You may count them any night, for there is no shyness or delicacy in the matter. Here in the village are rows and whole streets of smithy hovels, and the fronts are wide open, and there you may observe them. If you like to "stand" a can of beer, you may enter the smithy and have a chat with them-but idle only on your part. Time is too precious when a women, stripped like a man from wrist to shoulder, must face the forge for fourteen hours a day before a shilling may be earned.
    I cannot help repeating that, coming on it for the [-293-] first time, it is one of the strangest sights in the world. The streets of Lye Waste are narrow and not unclean; and, as before stated, by the side of every house is a smithy, and each one contains from two to five "stalls" or "hearths," as each fire is called ; and at night-time the light is so great that street-lamps are rendered a superfluity. By the ruddy glow that streams out from the numerous hearths, it would be quite easy to find a pin dropped in the middle of the street. Whole families work in these smithies. It is nothing uncommon to find a mother and her three lusty daughters, fully of marriageable age, stripped to their stays, and, with a kerchief over their shoulders, wielding the hammers and tugging at the bellows, and working away with a will, amongst the banging and roaring and spark-flying, and singing as merrily as larks, if not as melodiously. Children, too - the youngsters that the puzzled explorer met last Saturday. The rods they and their parents carried were nail-rods; and here they are, the small Vulcans, sweating over an anvil, set up according to their stature, making brads. Pale little wretches, most of them, the firelight betraying with cruel fidelity their haggard, unchildish faces, each one wistful and anxious with the consciousness that bread to eat must first be earned. It appeared odd enough to see the women standing in the smithy ashes with a big hammer in their fist; but it was infinitely more painful to watch these tiny brad makers, with a wisp of rag round their heads to keep the baby growth of hair out of their eyes, straightening their small backs and spitting on their palms before they grasped the hammer to make the most of the last "heat."
    The hearths or stalls are not the property of the nail- makers; they are rented at the rate of fourpence a [-294-] week each, the landlord finding the fireplace and bellows. I saw some "treadle hammers," connected with anvils, that struck me as being very ingenious, although the working of them must be cruelly hard work for a woman. As with other blacksmithing, there must be two hammers used on a piece of red-hot iron, a small one to polish and a big one to beat. In the instances I allude to, the big hammer was hung at a convenient height above the anvil, and connected with a treadle such as is attached to a knife-grinder's wheel on the ground~. I saw an old woman making nails in this single-handed fashion in a manner that would have been diverting were it not for the knowledge of how severely her old limbs must be taxed. She would bring a "heat" from the fire, clap it on the anvil, and with her left hand manoeuvring the nail about, her right hand striking it with the small hammer, she thrust out a foot and vigorously worked the treadle;. and as the big hammer worked up and down, clump-clump, her aged head kept time with it, till it seemed that the whole machinery was convulsed with the throes of dissolution, and must presently fly all to pieces.
    Part of the purpose of my visit to the Black Country was that I might accomplish that tremendous feat - as essayed with more or less success every day of their lives by about 350,000 of my fellow-creatures - descending into a coal-mine. The one I selected I had some previous knowledge of. Two years and a half before I had tramped to Locks Lane to behold a miracle. The Locks Lane pit - the deepest and most important in those parts - had suddenly "flooded," shutting in thirteen poor fellows, whose chances of rescue were scarcely worth a moment's consideration. This being Wednesday morning, so formidable was the body of water below [-295-] that it must be at least next Monday before there would be a possibility of reaching them, and by that time foul air, combined with hunger and thirst, would in all probability destroy them. Well, the miracle that I saw was twelve out of thirteen of these same miners- men and lads-brought up out of the bowels of the earth after more than a hundred and thirty hours dismal and hungry imprisonment there, and one and all of them not so far gone but that the best of nursing and medical skill could set them up again.
    Pit scenery does not alter much with time and season. There was the "hovel," or lamp shed, where I had seen the appalling figures lying on mattresses arranged on hastily brick-built banks, and warmly wrapped in sheets and blankets so brand new out of the draper's shop that the tradesman's "private ticket" was still attached to them. There never were sheets that looked so snowy white, because there never were sheets that gained so much by contrast with that which they enveloped. Sooty-black was but cream colour in comparison with the ingrained jet of the poor gaunt wretches in whose emaciated frames life feebly fluttered. But the black was more merciful than the white-the awful dead white round about their mouths, where tender hands had moistened pocket-handkerchiefs, and wiped them so that they might not swallow coal grit along with the driblets of water and weak tea that at present was all that the doctor dare administer to them. The hovel was restored to its legitimate purpose now; but as the door opened, it seemed to me that I could again see the beds, the great fire at the end, the miner nurses - all the nurses were miners - with the one who so jealously guarded the latchless door by sticking a pickaxe deep into the earth, just against the inside, every time any [-296-] one was compelled to leave or enter, and that other fellow - long life to him! - the wooden-legged nurse who, so that he might not make over-much noise in getting about his special patient, had muffled the end of his stump in an old woollen stocking. There were the pits mouth, too, and the enormous pumping-engine with its beam thick as a man's body, and long enough to reach from roof to roof across any back street in Bethnal Green, and which, when it is on its mettle, can raise, from a depth that three Fish Street monuments piled on each other would do little more than fathom, 550 gallons of water per minute. It was not on its mettle now, thank Heaven! It was doing its work at the leisurely rate of about six strokes per minute, which, considering I was presently to make acquaintance with the bottommost recesses of the gulf where lurk the watery deposits it is its constant duty to keep in check, I was thankful to see.
    I think that the majority of persons who never saw a coal-pit would at first view be somewhat disappointed at its external aspect. There is very little bustle at the shaft's mouth, and no more excitement or noise than one man and one horse can create. All that can be seen is a round hole in the earth of about twice the diameter of a large "loo" table, and above it is a great windlass, from which a thick wire rope depends taut into the black chasm. A smoke, evidently from burnt coal, comes up the pit in a faint cloud, and the hole is surrounded by a square wooden railing, about three feet in height. From the hole there is a line of narrow railway running down the slight decline to where the coal, as it is raised, is shot, and on these rails run the dumpy iron wheels that are affixed to the bottom of the cage or corfe, which is filled in the mine and raised to the sur-[-297-]face bodily. When I saw the corfe-full of coals make its appearances out of the black hole, I breathed a sigh of relief I wanted to know how we were to get down, and I saw plainly enough now. We should all - there were five of us - get into this commodious wooden box; and I quite fell in love with it on account of its tall protecting sides, and secretly "spotted" the part of the box in which I intended to stand, which was not the side where the rotten plank was and the hole through which came up protruding a fine piece of coal, just about the size of a man's boot. The banksrnan drew the load off a flat grating, like an ordinary area grating, of about six feet square, and suspended by a chain at each corner, connected with a bar overhead; and crossing again from bar to bar, at a height of about five feet, was another chain. When the banksman brought the empty coal-tub back, and was about to slide it on the grating, the person in authority said, "Never mind that; we are going down this turn."
    Then my eyes were opened. We were not to go down in the box, but on the naked, sideless grating, "holding on" by a chain that crossed about the level of my chin. True, there was not much smoke coming up out of the fathomless gulf; but a little goes a great way with some folks; and since I had had no experience either up a chimney or down a pit-shaft, it was not improbable that I might find the objectionable fumes potent enough to set me sneezing and gasping. One thing was certain - if I sneezed till I was in danger of dislocating the small bones of my neck, I dare not for my life's sake spare a hand for my pocket-handkerchief; and in this desperate frame of mind I took my stand with the rest, and next instant felt myself sinking.
    I should have mentioned that the square railing of [-298-] wood fixed round the pit's mouth was moveable; indeed, when the great coal-tub ascended, the machinery caught hold of the railing and lifted it up out of the way. When the perilous-looking little stage on which we crowded had sunk a yard or so, the railing, on self-adjusting principles, came down with a sounding noise that, to the untutored ear, was not a little alarming. Down, down, easy as sinking through water, with no particular inconvenience on account of the smoke, after one had inhaled a few mouthfuls of it; down, down, steady and noiseless, and in such pitchy darkness that for all that could be seen of the sides of the hole they might have been a mile apart, until the full distance of nearly two hundred yards was accomplished, and the machine slackened in its swiftness and gently touched the floor. My first impression was that the place was insufferably hot; but this was accounted for by the fact of the pit's furnace being only a few feet from the "pit's eye" - a devouring dragon of a fire-place that consumes I am afraid to say how much coal, but is well worth its food on account of its invaluable assistance in ventilating the pit. Still pitchy dark - for the back of the furnace was to us - and the "Butty" called out for lights. They came in the rough, for company was not expected. Something small and white, and about waist-high, was seen to approach us from out of the impenetrable gloom; and then there was the sound of striking a match, and the "something" turned out to be a bunch of tallow-candles that a man was carrying. Besides the "dips," he had a lump of moist clay, and by means of it he provided each of us with a "candlestick" - a ball of about the size of a hen's egg, with a candle stuck in it; for the Lock Lane pit is accounted so free from inflammable gases, that a hundred and [-299-] twenty men and lads who work it use naked lights, "Davy's" being used only by the "Butty" (manager) or his deputy in going into a working that has been lying idle, to test it.
    But we were not in any working. yet. This was merely, a "gate road "- a way by which the great coal tubs were dragged by the horse from the place where coal is got to the bottom of the shaft up which they are to ascend. The gate road is about twelve feet wide, with an arched roof about seven feet overhead. At distances about as far apart as street lamp-posts, "dips" of the same feeble capacity as those we carried were stuck against the wall with dabs of clay, yielding almost as much light from the red noses of their unsnuffed wicks as from the thin half-inch of flame that surmounted them. The floor of the "way" was carpeted with thick, moist-feeling coal dust, and the walls were shiny enough to reflect the light. It was not blackness everywhere. Clinging to the roof in countless places, and hanging from it in fantastic fashion, were masses of fungus, snowy white as sheep's fleece, but which turned to a disagreeable brown paste as soon as it was handled. I know this because I plucked a nice-looking piece and, to keep it clean, placed it in my cap; but a tickling at my ears soon gave me notice of its dissolution. After a walk of a hundred yards or so we came to a place where men were at work, and I got my first insight into the art and mystery of "coal-winning."
    It is necessary of course. My coal cellar and yours, dear reader, cannot be replenished without men invade the appalling depths where only this useful mineral is to be obtained; the demands of civilisation and progress, from the roasting of a goose to the fuelling of an ironclad, cannot be accomplished without it; but from a [-300-] simply humane point of view, coal getting is a horrible business. It is quite impossible at first sight to regard it as a means of earning bread, of which a man need be no more ashamed than though he were a carpenter or a grocer's shopman. The dungeon darkness, the slavish toil, the repulsive grime and nakedness - all seem so foreign to one's preconceived ideas of honest labour that it is hard to realise but that this must be something different. In no prison in England are men so vilely used, in a sanitary sense, at least. Oakum picking, treadmill turning, stone quarrying - compare either of these convict occupations with that of a man who is by trade a "pikeman" in a coal mine.
    The process is easily described. His work is to do the "holeing" for blasting, and he sets about it as follows He divests himself of jacket, shirt, everything except his flannel drawers, and he is naked from a liberally calculated waist upwards. He has a solid wall of coal to assail. He takes his pike, which is shaped like a road maker's pick, but is about half the size, and he lies down before the face of the wall, with his dim dip stuck in a bit of clay to light him, and commences his job. The height from the ground is a little more than from an ordinary chair seat to the floor, and he picks and picks until he works his way into the coal the length and breadth of his own extended form. He doesn't stop here; he has to cut in twelve or sixteen feet, until he is so buried under the coal mass he is undermining that all that is seen of him by his little twinkling light is his powerful arm swinging to and fro in the process of picking, and all that can be heard are the blows and the poor wretch's puffing and grunting as he goes on burrowing and burying himself. Sometimes he may be heard spluttering as well as grunting; but this is when he [-301-] falls on a "wet piece," and the sodden coal dust splashes into his eyes and mouth. It isn't as though he were at liberty to protect his face. He is huddled in all of a heap, with his head resting on one arm as with the other he wields the pick, and makes the chips fly. "Do they object to wet pieces?" I inquired. " They take it as it comes; they don't mind. Some of 'em like it because it's cooler." And here, by the bye, I may mention a rather curious circumstance connected with undermining of coal, as related to me by the person I was addressing, a mine manager of life long experience. Some few years ago there was a twenty weeks' strike amongst the colliers, and the pits were idle all that time. My informant was a "butty," an individual who contracts to get out coal at a certain rate. He had a contract "on" at the time of the strike, and lost several hundred pounds by it, by reason of its being discovered that when the twenty weeks closed pit was opened again nearly all the cuttings that had been made ready for blasting had "healed up" again, but by what wonderful natural process the healing had been brought about my friend was unable to tell me.
    Attached to the pick man's department of coal getting is a staff of what are known as "slack carriers." The "slack" is the small bits and chippings that the pick man accumulates about him as he makes his way under the solid coal, and the stuff accumulates so rapidly that it is necessary to remove it at frequent intervals, and this is the slack carrier's job. He is a boy. It is a modern mining law, I believe, that no lad under thirteen shall be employed at this work ; but there are objectors to this regulation on the score that, as a rule, boys of thirteen are "too big" for the business. If it might be done with the sanction of the Society for the Prevention [-302-] of Cruelty to Animals, it is a pity that a tribe of small and intelligent monkeys could not be trained to the work. It is a reproach to human kind that boys should be made to do it. A slack carrier is literally nothing else than a beast of burden. He wears harness, poor little chap! - a broad strap round his naked waist, to which is attached a chain passing in front and between his legs, and fixed to the slack box, which is a receptacle of iron. When the pick man is deep in his "cutting," it is then that the poor little drudge has to crawl as well as he is able into the black chink, pushing the iron box as he goes, or dragging it after him; and having by means of an iron shovel filled it with slack, drags it out again in the same manner. He bruises his head against the low roof, his knees are corned, his legs chafed by the shameful iron chain, his mind is deadened and brutalised by his constant slavery and the rough treatment of his taskmasters, but all this, we are told, is the proper apprenticeship to make him a "good miner;" and when the age of thirteen was fixed by law as the earliest at which a child might engage in the perilous and degrading work, there was a general outcry that thirteen was too late to begin, and that the new law would be fatal to the prime old fashioned miner breed.
    Besides the pick men and the slack boys there are many other branches of mine work, and whichever way we turned were to be seen perched up here, or grovelling there, men and lads, inky black and naked to the waist, but grinning contentedly through their grime, and pulling, and hauling, and shovelling, and picking with a lusty heartiness that bespoke their complete unconsciousness that their condition was pitiable. The great difficulty, as I was informed, is to compel them to take mere ordinary care for the safety of their own lives. [-303-] The very horses who work in the pit are provided with quaint-looking shields for their heads and faces, made of the stoutest bull's hide, so that they may, to some extent, be secured against having their brains knocked out by coal falling from the roof; but the miner, as a rule, works bare headed, or with nothing better than a flimsy cloth cap on his head.
    Only a day or two before my visit to the Black Country an event happened frightfully illustrative of the criminal negligence of miners when left to themselves, as well as of the brutish indifference of many of their number to the chances of a sudden and violent exit from life. The place where the accident in question happened is known as the Baptist End Pit, and is situated just by the village of Netherton. The said pit had been closed during several years, and preparations were made for opening it again. Concerned in these preparations were three men of the name of Hotchkiss-a father, son, and cousin. The elder Hotchkiss was foreman of the job, which was to descend into the pit and fix "air troughs." It was dangerous work, and the men knew it. They had worked down to a depth of three hundred feet, and at that point "choke damp" was to be feared - the terrible agent of death that approaches swiftly and silently, and may neither be tasted nor smelt, but to breathe which is as fatal to the senses as a dose of chloroform. But, in the words of the only surviving witness of the little working party, "the elder Hotchkiss was a reckless chap." There were "lash chains" wherewith the men might have made themselves fast to the bare grated platform of the skip on which they descended, and on which they stood to work; but the foreman disdained all such implements of precaution, and the three went down a hundred yards deep, [-304-] and with, perhaps, another hundred yards below them, to stand and work with no more security against falling than though they were mounted on a table-top.
    But this was not the full extent of the man Hotchkiss's wicked folly. Having, by means of lowering a candle, discovered the exact height to which the deadly damp had risen in the long disused pit, with a daring that even in a miner is scarcely credible, Hotchkiss deliberately, and with expressed intent, had the skip lowered until it was in such a position that the men could work with their bodies in the choke-damp and their heads out of it. Nor did his two companions see anything in the act sufficiently mad or outrageous to urge them to declare against it. Working thus up to their very necks in the jaws of death, the men continued for a few minutes, and then, in the witnesses' own words, "the damp popped up," and father and son slipped away into the abyss almost before the third man missed them, and in a few seconds lay crushed and dead at the pit's bottom. And now comes the climax of this instructive episode in the life of a miner. The man remaining on the skip threw himself down and across it, and halloed to the banksman to "hold;" but instead the latter allowed the skip to be lowered to the bottom of the shaft, and so, of course, further imperilled the poor fellow's life. The banksman explained to the coroner that directly after the word "hold" reached his ears he heard the men "drop" from the skip, and thought that all of them had fallen off and that he gave the engine-man the signal to hurry the skip to the bottom, hoping that if any of them were alive they would "crawl on to it."
    But certain evidence the banksman further volunteered provokes the suspicion that possibly he had misunderstood the cry that came up the shaft. He had [-305-] been at his post thirty-six hours unceasingly; nor did he speak of it as a something that might possibly astonish his hearers, or as being at all remarkable. "It is not exhausting work," said John Jones, the banksman, "but it is work that requires watchfulness and wakefulness, and when one comes to understand that it is the banksman who controls the engineer having charge of the sole means by which the sinkers in the "black damp" shaft might be raised or lowered, one does not feel disposed to controvert John Jones's last assertion. However, he declared that, although he had been on duty rather more than what a London bricklayer would call three days and a half, full time, he was both watchful and wakeful. The Government inspector, who was present, gave his opinion that not any of the colliery rules had been infringed, although at the same time he expressed his coincidence with the view taken by the coroner, that no man should be allowed to remain at his post so long a time as thirty-six hours; and so, with a verdict of "Accidental Death," the matter terminated.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874