Working Below Ground


We fixed ourselves in the basket, standing with our hands grasping the chain, the word was given and down we glided with a smooth and scarcely perceptible motion through a duct about six feet in diameter


Having seen all the operations connected with the coals above-ground, I was determined before I left Whitehaven to descend down one of the pits and see the wonders below.

A gentleman of the place, who had himself frequently made the experiment, and who from his knowledge was well able to satisfy the questions and hesitations of a novice, kindly consented to bear me company. The William Pitt mine was the scene of my adventure, the last opened and said to be the best planned work of its kind, and the most complete in all its conveniences of any in the kingdom. The shaft leading down to it is near the foot of the hill which flanks the town to the east. Having equipped ourselves in a dress suited to the dirtiness of our expedition, we repaired to the spot, and I took a peep into the black and bottomless bole with shrinking from my determination to go down.

Power of steam
The coals are drawn up in baskets, 13 cwt. at a time, by the power of steam. The shaft is divided into three parts, one for the ejection of water, one for the operations of the engine, and one for the basket. Preparatory to our descent, our guide, one of’ the stewards, cried out: “Coining down,” to the people below, a warning which is also attend-end to by the man at the engine, who moderates its speed when anyone is about to descend. The voice was answered from the depths below by a strange, hollow distant, but loud cry, which rather thrilled through my marrow-but I had now advanced too far in the business to retreat with honour.

We fixed ourselves in the basket, standing, with our hands grasping the chain, the word was given, and down we glided with a smooth and scarcely perceptible motion through a duct about six feet in diameter, and wooded all round. I kept my eyes fixed on the aperture above, which contracted as I fell, till at a vast depth I was obliged to look down, as my head grew dizzy, and small pieces of coal and drops of water struck with unpleasant force against my face. As we descened lower all became darkness, the noise above or heads grew gradually more indistinct till it died away, and a dreary silence ensued, broken only occasionally by the grating of the basket against the Walls. At length, after a descent of five hundred and seventy-six feet, I heard the voices of men below me, and presently perceived two dim lights.

The shaft bottom
These were at the High Eye, formerly the bottom of the shaft, on a level with which is a great extent ot workings. I asked no questions here - ” steady the basket ” cried our guide, and in a moment were again in utter darkness. In a quarter of a minute more I heard other voices below me - the basket stopped, and we soon found ourselves on our feet at the bottom, six hundred and thirty feet from the light.

I could here distinguish nothing but a single candle, with the obscure form of a man by it - all round was pitch dark, not a ray of light reaching the bottom from the mouth of the shaft. Before we proceeded to explore the mine, we were recommended to remain quiet a little in order to ~o11ect ourselves, and while we, were thus striving to be composed, my nerves were momentarily shocked by a combination and succession of strang noises, among which the loud clank of the chain, as the empty basket dashed to the ground, was particularly offensive. 1 never saw the object, and had no notice of its approach till its infernal crash always came to make me jump out of myself. While we were conversing here on the possible accidents that might occur in ascending or descending in the basket, we were told of a poor woman who lately had an extraordinary escape.

Caught in the basket
It was her business to attach the chain to the basket, and while she was in the act of doing this, her
Hand became somehow entangled, and the man at the engine setting it in motion before the proper time, she was pulled from the ground before she could extricate herself, and dragged up, as she hung by one arm, to the top of the pit, with no injury but a slight laceration of her band.

I had not become quite reconciled to the clank of the chain when we were summoned to go on. From the foot of the shaft we proceeded through a very long passage cut through rock, with the roof arched, and like the sides faced with bricks in a similar manner, an enormously expensive precaution, but absolutely necessary to prevent the falling down of loose fragments of stone.

I cannot describe scientifically, or with any d e g r e e of clearness and certainty, all the methods of proceeding that have been adopted in laying out these vast subterranean works, and indeed such an account is scarcely called for, as the mine no doubt very much resembles in its general plan many others that have been often described .

In its present state, so far as I could ascertain as I groped my way through the darkness, it appeared, in the meeting and crossing of its numerous passages, to resemble the streets of a city’
- and of a city of no mean extent, for we sometimes walked for nearly half a mile w it h o u t turning, between walls of coal or rock.

Walls of coal
To the right and left of the long lanes are workings, hollow spaces, five yards w i d e. and twenty deep, between each of which is a solid column, fifteen yards wide and twenty deep, is left for the support of the roof, so that only one third of a bed of coal is taken away.

Mr Pennant observed that these columns appeared to him to be stores for future fuel, but they are left standing merely from necessity, and no material portion of them could be removed without danger to the great superstructure which they tend to uphold.

The coals are dragged from the workings in baskets one at a time, by horses, and carried to a place of general rendezvous, where by means of a crane they are placed on to the trams, nine of which bearing a burden of nearly six tons, are drawn by a single horse to the shaft. A tram is a square board supported by four very low wheels, and a horse drags nine of them with their full cargo along an iron railway, without any apparent effort.

Air circulation
The ventilation of the mine in its remotest corners is said to be as perfect as is necessary, though I confess that in some places I felt no little difficulty in breathing. The air is rarified by heat from a large fire kept constantly burning, and the current directed to the various work-ings through conduits formed by boarded partitions placed about a foot distant from the walls. Doors are placed at intervals in the long passages, which stop the air in its course, and force it through the conduits in the workings to the right or left.

A current of air circulating through a multiplicity of foul and heated passages and chambers must necessarily become languid ‘in its motion and impure in its quality as it gets remote from its source; but though I had occasionally to complain of S 0 m e obstruction in the freedom of my respiration, our guide declared that he n e v er felt the slightest invonvenience. I am not, however, inclined to generalise on the authority of this person’s perception of the agreeable or disagreeable, for in the midst of every kind of abomination that could be offensive to the eyes, and nose of a man, who felt as a man, he walked along as if he had no senses, or senses quite distinct from my own, with the most profound unconcern.

Debased and profligate
The sensations excited in me as I was descending down the pit did not readily subside, and 1 wandered about the mine with my mind very much upon the alert, and under an indistinct apprehension of some possible danger which gave intensity. to my interest in everything that I heard and saw. A dreariness pervaded the place which struck upon the heart - one felt as if beyond the bounds allotted to man or any living being, and transported to some hideous region unblessed by every charm that cheers and adorns the habitable world.

We traced our way through p a s s a g e after passage in the blacket darkness, sometimes rendered more awful by a death-like silence, which was now and then broken by thebanging of some distant door, or an explosion of gunpowder, that pealed with a loud and long report through the unseen recesses of the mine, and gave us some idea of its vast extent. Occasionally a light appeared in the distance before us, which did not dispel the darkness so as to discover by whom it was borne, but advanced like a meteor through thegloorn, accompanied by a loud rumbling noise, the cause of which was not explained to the eye till we were called upon to make way for a horse, which passed by with its long line of baskets, and driven by a young girl, covered with filth, debased and profligate, and uttering some low obscenity as she hurried by us.

We were frequently interrupted in our march by the horses proceeding in this manner with their cargoes to the shaft, and always driven by girls, all of the same description, ragged and beastly in their appearance, and with a shameless indecency in their behaviour, which, awe-struck as one was by the gloom and loneliness around one, had something quite frightful in it, and gave the place the character of a hell.

Disfigured and abused
All the people whom we met were distinguished by an extraordinary wretchedness; immoderate labour and a noxious atmosphere had marked their countenances with the signs of disease and decay; they were mostly half naked, blackened all over with dirt, and altogether so miserably isfigured and abused that they looked like a race fallen from the common rank of men, and doomed, as in a. kind of purgatory, to wear away their lives in these dismal shades.

I was much affected by the sight of the first individual whom I saw in one of the workings. He was sitting on a heap of coals, pausing from his labour, at the extremity of a narrow cavern, as gloomy a prison as ever was beheld. When we approached him he looked up, and showed a countenance which might have been that from which Sterne drew his portrait of a captive.

He was an old man, and suffering had so added to the effects of age in his looks, that it was truly pitiable to see so worn and wasted a creature still owing to hard labour the support of his cheerless life. He was naked down to his waist, and exposed a body lean and emaciated; his hair was grey, and his face deeply furrowed and seamed with lines made by streams of sweat that had trickled down his blackened skin - a figure expressive of m o r e wretchedness and humiliation than I ever saw before in a human being.

Fortunate man
This man was considered a very fortunate person, for be had worked forty-two years n the mines and never met with an accident. Few of the miners had served a third of ;his time who could not show some marks of the dangers of their employment, either from the firing of hydrogen or the ran of fragments or rock or coal. The coal is sometimes so loose and shattery that it cannot be safely worked without more caution than is often practised by the miners who, if they escaped injury for one day, are apt to forget on another that there can be any danger.

One class of sufferers in the mine moved my compassion more than any other; a number of children who attend at the doors to open them when the horses pass through, and who in this duty a r e compelled to linger through their lives, in silence, solitude, and darkness, for sixpence a day.

When I first came to one of these doors I saw It open without perceiving by what means, till, looking behind it, I beheld a miserable little wretch standing without a light, silent and motionless, and resembling In the abjectness of Its condition some reptile peculiar to the place, rather than a human creature. On speaking to It I was touched with the patience and uncomplaining meekness with which It submitted to Its horrible imprisonment, and the little sense that It had of the barbarity of Its unnatural parents. Few of the children t h u s inhumanly sacrificed were more than eight years old, and several were considerably less, and had barely strength sufficient to perform the office that was required of them.

Screams of terror
On their first introduction into the mine the poor little victims struggle and scream with terror at the darkness, but there are found people brutal enough to force them to compliance, and after a few trials they become tame a n d spiritless, and yield themselves up at least without noise and resistance to any cruel slavery that it pleases their masters to impose upon them. In the winter-time they never see daylight except on a Sunday, for it has been discovered that they can serve for thirteen hours a day without perishing, and they are pitilessly compelled to such a term of confinement, with as little consideration for the injury that they suffer as is felt for the hinges and pullies of the doors at which they attend. As soon as they rise from their beds they descend down the pit, and they are not relieved from their prison till, exhausted with watching and fatigue, they return to their beds again.

Surely the savages who murder the children which t h e y cannot support are merciful compared with those who devote them to a life like this.