Working in the coal mining industry

Working in the coal mining industry
Coal mining in Scotland dates back to the middle ages when powerful monasteries
held rights to quarry ‘Carbonarium’. The Forth basin developed as a popular place
for mining and by the beginning of the 17th century coal heughs and trenches had
appeared at places such as Carriden and Grangemouth. The foundation of Carron
Iron Co increased the demand for fuel in the area and transport was made easy
with the opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal. As a result more and more coal
mines were established in the Falkirk area and these provided employment for
many local people.
Working in the mines
Up until the Industrial Revolution mining techniques were fairly simple. Quarries,
trenches and ‘in gaun een’ were built in order to access the seams of coal
underground. ‘In gaun een’ or ‘in going eye’ was the name given to a tunnel bored
into the side of a hill. This type of mining often led to cramped conditions where
miners had to lie on their sides or on their backs to hew out the coal from the
Coal production, however, increased substantially with the advent of steam power.
Steam engines were used to pump water out of the pits and as technology
improved, mines were sunk deeper into the ground. Men women and children were
sent down these deep mines to hew out the coal and carry it to the surface.
Usually the men would work at the coal face while their wives and children (known
as bearers) carried the coal up to the pit -head. The earliest method of taking coal
to the surface was for the bearers to carry the
load on their backs in a basket. They had to
climb a series of ladders to reach the top of the
pit and it is estimated that some women and
children climbed the height of a modern
skyscraper two or three times a day! In other
mines women and children acted as putters,
which involved pulling or putting a hutch full of
coal to the shaft, where it could be
mechanically wound up to the surface. Small
children were also used as trappers where they had to ventilate the pit by opening
and closing the air doors.
Women workers at Redding Pit, circa 1890
Up until 1799 miners were bound to a specific pit. Once a collier started work at a
mine he was tied to it for life, he could not move to another mine without written
permission of the colliery owner. Women and children continued to work
underground until 1842 when the government banned women and boys under the
age of 10 from work down the mines. As a result women then took on surface jobs
such as the role of a picker where they separated stone from coal on moving
conveyors. They were sometimes also known as pit-head lassies.
Over time, jobs inside the mine developed to
cope with the amount of coal that was being
produced. A brusher had the sole duty of
repairing any damage to the roofs and sides of
the passages inside the mine. Ponies began to
be used to haul the hutches of coal, so a driver
was needed to take the animals through the
underground tunnels. At the pithead a
banksman unloaded the coal and sent the
Men at the pit head,
empty hutches back down the shaft to be filled
Castlecary Mine, 1924
again. In many pits, miners were paid according
to how much coal they produced so coal
companies employed a weighman. The job of the weighman was to weigh the
coal as it came out of the mine and to keep a tally of each miner’s work. After 1860
Check weighmen could be appointed by unions to ensure the miners were paid
Health and hazards
Most miners suffered from ill health caused by dust inhalation, malnutrition and
unhygienic living conditions. Mining families usually lived in company run villages
where the houses were small and cramped. In the mining village of Standburn the
houses lacked basic washing facilities up until 1920 when James Nimmo & Co
erected a village bathhouse.
Working in the mines was a dangerous job and
accidents were common. Heavy loads falling on
miners could cause serious injuries and roof
collapses were a constant threat. Gas was also a
major hazard as it could cause an explosion or
poison the miners. In 1895, 13 miners were killed in
a gas explosion at Quarter Pit in Dunipace. As pits
were sunk deeper, the danger of flooding also
East Row in Standburn, 1930s
increased. In 1923, 40 men were killed in the Redding
Pit Disaster when the pit flooded, trapping the miners. After 1911 it was made
compulsory for mines to have rescue stations and train men in rescue techniques.
Firemen were also employed in the pits to try to ensure the safety of the miners. It
was their responsibility to check the mine for gas before the miners went to work
and make sure that the men were supplied with props to support the roof. Despite
these efforts mining was still regarded as one of the most dangerous occupations
in Scotland until the mid 19th century.
You can find out more about mining and the people who worked on them through
books and primary sources in the archive. Mining from Kirkintilloch to
Clackmannan & Stirling to Slamannan by Guthrie Hutton has information on local
mines. You can find out about photographs, objects and archives held by Falkirk
Archives & Museums by searching our Collections Browser on our website