10 August 1842: Mines Act bans women and children from working underground

Child miners © Getty Images
After 1842, no child under the age of ten was allowed to work underground

We’re all for free enterprise here at MoneyWeek. But occasionally it’s nice to be reminded that when capitalism is allowed to run totally unchecked, you can end up with small children working in incredibly dangerous jobs for very little pay.

Thus it was in the Britain of the industrial revolution.

Coal fuelled the engines that powered Britain’s industry. And by 1841, there were over 200,000 people working the mines. Many of them were children, who would work shifts of up to 12 hours.

Children entered the mines as young as six, employed as ‘trappers’, standing in the dark by trap doors, opening them when minecarts came past. From there, they often progressed to ‘hurrying’ – pushing laden carts from the coal face to the shafts.

Accidents and disasters were commonplace. In 1820, six-year old Elizabeth Penry and 12-year old Annie Tonks died after an explosion at Cumgwrach colliery. That same year, 52 people died in an explosion in Wallsend ‘A’ pit, including five-year-old Samuel Lowry and seven-year-old Robert Bainbridge.

And in 1838, 26 children were drowned when the Huskar colliery near Barnsley flooded.

Although not generally badly treated, the health of the children suffered, few of them could read or write, and few of them went to church. As for their morals, the fact that much of the work was done in a state of undress grossly offended the sensibilities of the time.

Mines were “a nursery for juvenile vice which you will go far and wide above ground to equal”, said one witness to the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842. It is “scarcely possible for girls to remain modest in the pits, regularly mixing with such company and hearing such language as they do”, complained another.

The Commission presented its findings to Parliament. The result was the Mines and Collieries Act, which was passed on this day in 1842. It forbade any female, and any child below the age of ten, from working underground in the mines.