A Description of Whitehaven's Coal Pits


'The cold-blooded tyranny and profligacy of the coal pits'

There are several passages into the mines by inclined planes, and six shafts; three, at considerable distances from each other, on each side of the town. The mines comprehend a connexion of workings from six to seven miles in extent east and west, and from two to three miles on the transverse line.

The whole of the town is undermined, without the least danger as is supposed, to its security; and the workings extend under the harbour and seven hundred yards under the sea. Six hundred people, of various descriptions, are employed under ground, and more than a hundred horses.

I was surprised to see so few men labouring at the excavations, till I learned the quantity of work that a single individual can perform. A man can separate five tons of coal in a day, and this is not extraordinary exertion. Twenty score of baskets, each basket containing 13cwt. of coals, are drawn up from each of the six pits each day, which, calculating six days in the week, makes the annual quantity of coals separated from the mines amount to 486,720 tons.

Lowest wretchedness
In one’s admiration of these vast results of industry and contrivance, one may spare a thought on the condition of the people employed, who are sunk into a state of the lowest wretchedness and wickedness. I have no disposition to indulge in any affectation of fine feeling, or to signalise my philanthropy by any idle sentimentality about the ordinary hardships incident to the labouring classes. The wants of society make it unavoidable that some of us should suffer under disgusting and unwholesome occupations. We must have coals, and men must be found to dig them, in
contempt of evils that embitter and shorten their lives. But if, in consideration I of the general good of the community, it is not fit that we should regard partial misery with too keen a sensibility, it is not necessary that we should run into the opposite extreme and view with total indifference the condition of those who are toiling and suffering for our advantage.

Can nothing be done?
The people in the mines are looked upon as mere machinery, of no worth or importance beyond their horse power. The strength of a man is required in excavating the workings, women can drive the horses, the children can open the doors; and a child or a woman is sacrificed, where a man is not required, as a matter of economy that makes not the smallest account of human life in its calculations; in consequence of the employment of women in the mines, the most abominable profligacy prevails among the people.

One should scarcely have supposed that there would be any temptations to sin in these gloomy and loathsome caverns, but they are the scenes of the most bestial debauchery.

If a man and a woman meet in them, and are excited by passion at the moment, they indulge it, without pausing to enquire if it be father and daughter, or brother and sister, that are polluting themselves with incest. In recording this shocking fact, I speak from authority that is not to be doubted.

Children sacrificed
Great God! and can nothing be done for the redemption of these wretched slaves? Is it unavoidable, that while they give up every blessing of life, they must sacrifice soul as well as body? These dismal dungeons are certainly not fit places for women and children, the removal of whom would be an act of humanity not dearly paid for, though it should wring a few pounds from the hard economy that rules the service. The estimation of which women are held is one test of the civilisation of a people; and it is somewhat scandalous, in a country of gallant men, to see them sacrificed to the rough drudgery of coal mines.

If there were nothing but the filthiness of their occupation to complain of, it would be no extravagant refinement to feel that their sex should preserve them from it; it is not a little offensive to see them changed into devils in their appearance but it is afflicting indeed to witness the perversion that takes place in their moral character. They lose every quality that is graceful in woman, and become a set of coarse, incentious wretches, scorning all kinds of restraint, and yielding themselves up, with shameless audacity, to the most detestable sensuality. Their abominations are confined during the day to the dark recesses of the mines; but at night they are cast up from the pits like a pestilence, to contaminate the town. We must have coals, as I have said, but we may have them through the intercession of a little humanity and liberality, without this lavish waste of morality.

Slavery at home
I have already adverted to the hapless condition of the children confined under ground, and I willingly say a word or two more in their behalf. Such an abuse of them is, without doubt, in the highest degree disgraceful to those who command their services, and calls for execration from every mind that is open to any feelings of kindness and charity. We have lately raised a cry that will save thousands, in a distant country, from the pains and the ignominy of a miserable slavery, and should not behold with unconcern any thing that bears the stamp of slavery at home.

I am not comparing the injury done to these children to the wide-spread mischief of the slave trade but they may both be referred to the same kind of cold-blooded tyranny; and a man torn from his country and his home, and forced under the lash of a taskmaster, in a foreign land, has scarcely more reason to complain of injustice and cruelty than a child thus dragged from the light, from all the natural joys in which childhood delights, and buried in a dark solitude for 13 hours a day.

Brutalised by vice
One might have imagined, that in this country at least children might be committed to the care and protection of their parents without apprehending any material or extended abuse. But among people broken down by poverty, or brutalised by vice, the moral affections become cold and dull; and there are multitudes of wretches who, for bread or gin, are ready to sell their children to any kind of misery. The victims immured in these mines prove the fact; and in further confirmation of it one might adduce the wretched little slaves of chimney-sweepers, a numerous class of beings most infamously oppressed, whom it is not too serious to call a reproach to the country.

The law will not allow a man to starve his child or to flog it to death, but he may cast it from his care with impunity, and devote it to a servitude that does cruel violence to its nature - either sends it to an early grave, or, if it lives, leaves it to struggle with the torments of an enfeebled constitution.

Noble proprietor
Surely some legislative interference is required to restrain so barbarous and unwarrantable an exertion of power - to prevent the exposure of children to loathesome and unhealthy occupations, at least till they are of an age to give their consent. The cries of the little beings condemned to the mines have never, I imagine, reached the ears of their noble proprietor, and if he should hear of their condition through my means, and secure their release, I shall have been accessory to an act of charity that I shall remember with pleasure through life.