LIFE AND DEATH UNDERGROUND IN VICTORIA’S ENGLAND.
by ALAN GALLOP
We know somewhere remotely in our collective memories that kids worked down the mines, and women and ponies worked down the mines. For those of us who are both parents and miners the realisation of just what that meant perhaps doesn’t really impact in the way it should. This book smacks you right in the teeth with a reality of children’s labour in the pits. It doesn’t do this in a sudden impact, it takes you by the hand, almost like Marleys Ghost of Xmas Past and takes you back to then, back to the dark days in the pit villages of Yorkshire, when little girls and boys took their place in the dark, dangerous and unsavoury conditions of the mine.
In some ways I am reminded of Germinal, as gradually this child labour reveals itself to us, not with cautionary tales of death and blood, although there is too much in reality of that, but almost matter of fact. The way they in fact they experienced it, as an inevitable unavoidable part of their lives and the lives of their families. The youngest example cited is a three year old girl employed to hold the candle for her dad, a great many others were five and upwards. The book accompanies you from the early morning rising, through the drizzle of the cobbled street, to the pit head and down the shaft, it takes you with the young person in their work, in their toil. These were full workers in every sense of the word, not just some peripheral anomaly, they were in many way integral to the operation of the mines, certainly integral to the survival of the family from poverty or starvation. Did the pit folk love their children less then than we do now, if not then how could they allow them to work so early and so harshly ? The evidence of our own common sense firstly, but also the contemporary records revealed in this book demonstrate that the folks of our industry and communities were no less loving parents in those by-gone days than now, but there were no economic safety nets, no welfare benefits, all your kids worked or all your kids starved.
Alan Gallop has a great eye for detail and a great perceptiveness in drawing for us, from the sketches and outlines left by records and statements a touching history of child labour. The book had me in floods of tears, as the reality that this is no tale, this is as true as day, these were real little folk, still kids as we would know them today, but charged with a life reserved for few adults these days, this touches your senses. For days I couldn’t get the voices of those children out of my head, their work their fears, their games even in that foreboding place. It comes with many fascinating illustrations and photos.
This book tells a number of stories, obviously the story of child labour, but also it is a detailed story of Barnsley pit life and in particular Silkstone. It actually builds the story around the Husker Pit disaster, when 26 children died in a flooded mine shaft. The story of which shocked a nation, although actually unlike the vast majority of mine accidents of the period, Husker was a freak accident as such, of course the fact that it was kids who died was the fault of the prevailing social and economic system which employed children wholesale in all industry. When the prohibition on child and women labour underground was forced through parliament in 1842 it was not though chiefly through concern for the broken backs, and the death and injury, the animal like labour of the young’uns. Rather the outrage of the Victorian middle class drawing room was reserved for the obscene imagery of naked men working alongside semi-naked and scantly clad young females, and children and in the dark. It was this moral hypocrisy more than concern for the kids which rapidly got them and the fully mature mining women out of the mines. The resulting hardship and poverty was given little if any thought and no relief.
The book is overall a wonderful, shocking and moving experience. If I had criticism, it would be of the introductory chapter dealing with the decline of our modern coal industry. Alan has swallowed whole the ‘uneconomic, out of date, surplus to requirements, closed by the iron law of the free market’ crap which Tory and ‘Labour’ governments have peddled since the defeat of the 84/85 strike. Such arguments do not stand up to the light of day, and I am surprised a man of obviously great critical faculties such as Alan Gallop fell for them. However, that is another story really and another argument.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to pit communities, and it should be on every secondary school library shelf in all the former pit communities. Next time the topic is Victorian England and ‘the Great British Empire’ it might be interesting for modern kids to understand just how it was fuelled and by whom.
Today in Britain child labour has gone. World wide 250 Million children (young persons under 15) work . Up to 120 million children 5- 14 have full time jobs, and a further 130 million in part time employment. At least a quarter of the worlds poorest children, 600 million live in absolute poverty. Many of the kids world wide work in mining and quarrying and other dangerous employment. The answer now as then cannot be a simple knee jerk reaction, but a systematic root and branch redistribution of wealth and power from rich and powerful to poor and powerless. Decent wages, safety standards, shorter hours, paid education, pension rights for their parents and grandparents etc. as a prelude to raising the working ages and prohibition from all dangerous employment in the sensible road to tread. Closing down the sweat shops which employ the kids might make folk in the west feel a comfortable glow of liberal satisfaction, but to the kid starving outside the closed factory and watching his family starve too as the loss of the incremental supplement salary tiny though that was, tips the whole lot into starvation and death. The souls of the kids in the dark of the Yorkshire mines would seek a more sensible and considered solution.
Alan Gallop. Children Of The Dark. Life and Death underground in Victoria’s England. ISBN 07509 30942
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