The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in the UK was fuelled by coal; lots of it. The work was hard, dangerous, required very long hours, and prior to 1842, could involve the whole family. Health and safety was far from the minds of those demanding the constant production of coal: no safety equipment, hardly any light, little ventilation or heat regulation, and the ever-present danger from the build-up of gases.
[Images courtesy of the National Coal Mining Museum. Clicking on the images will enlarge them.]
If you think the person in the second image looks very small, that’s possibly so; children as young as six were employed as ‘trappers’, looking after the rudimentary ventilation doors. This practice came to end after the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act which prohibited the employment of boys under ten in the mines. The Act also forbade the employment of females underground. This occurred more on the grounds of public decency than anything else; as you can see from the illustration above, little was worn by the miners. I imagine the loss of income to mining families following this aspect of the Act, must have been considerable.
Yet in spite of all this, miners found the energy and time to write songs and sing them. Not while they worked of course, but maybe on Sundays (their only day off).
A.L. Lloyd Come all ye bold miners (2nd ed. publ. 1978)
A.L. Lloyd , a folk singer and collector, was one of the leading lights in the post-war folk music revival. Although he had a number of other interests, he is credited as being a founder of the study of industrial folk music. These songs were far cry from the music collected by Sharp and Vaughan Williams at the start of the twentieth century.
In his introduction to this edition, Lloyd says this:
These are rough songs, mostly made by rough men. Hardly any have much claim to poetic art. … Yet they are songs that have meant much to coal miners. Their very hoarseness is a virtue in as much as the voice that speaks in them of work and joy and disaster and struggle, is the voice of the miner himself or of someone sharing his life. … A ‘good’ song in this context is one that positively affects the community for whom it is destined, that makes for a clear reflection of circumstances, that aids understanding of common plight.
The Collier’s Rant
The first song in the collection is The Collier’s Rant. This is reputedly one of the oldest mining songs and originates in the North East of England. Unsurprisingly it’s in the Northumbrian dialect, but it’s still pretty understandable with its pitch black humour about the dangers of life underground.
Here’s the first verse:
As me an’ me marra was gannin’ te wark, We met wi’ the devil, it was in the dark. Aa up wi’ me pick, it was in the neet, Aa knocked off his horns, likewise his club feet.
[a ‘marra’ was a work mate]
I know this song well but hadn’t associated it with coal. The answer lies with its connection with coal transportation – not all mining songs are concerned with the travails of getting coal out of the ground. As the small woodcut shows, the River Tyne was used a lot by keel boats, getting the cargo out to larger ships.
This is much more of comic love song, perhaps designed to be performed rather than just sung when the fancy took them. Again it uses the language of the North East. Here’s the first verse:
Aa’s a broken-hairted keelman, and Aa’s ower heid in love Wiv a young lass in Gyetside an’ aa caal hor me dove. Her nyem’s Cushie Butterfield, an’ she sells yaller clay, An’ hor cousin is a muckman, an’ they caal him Tom Grey.
[yellow clay and pumice was used to clean stone doorsteps]
The Trapper Boy’s Dream
It shouldn’t be any surprise to learn there’s a large section in Lloyd’s book concerning songs about pit accidents and disasters. Mining today still has its dangers, but nothing compared to the perils of working in a Victorian-era mine. In his notes to this song, Lloyd gives the following information:
The explosion at the West Moor Colliery, Killingsworth, [in 1845] occurred between two shifts. The gas was ignited by the candle of a little boy who was allowed to proceed before the men. There had been a fatal explosion at West Moor in January of the previous year, but nothing had been done to improve safety.
His description of a ‘little boy’ makes me wonder whether the mine owner ignored the recently enacted Mines and Collieries Act. Here’s a couple of verses.
‘I thought that at my post I sat, upon my duty bent, When suddenly there came a sound as if the mine was rent: And then the earth rocked to and fro, and I strove for help to call For o’er my head a mass of coal hung ready to fall.
‘It swayed and tottered, still it hung, as held by secret power, and as I gazed such horrid faces round me seemed to lower. Grim demons looked with scowling eye, and nearer then they came. They smote and dashed me to the earth and turned my heart to flame.’
No recording to be found of this, but to close, here’s a song concerning a disaster nearly 100 years later. The explosion at Gresford Colliery, Wrexham in 1934 killed 266 men.