Coal has been mined from the South Gloucestershire and East Bristol coalfield for centuries, since at least the 1200’s when coalmining is mentioned in various historic records. The earliest workings were small quarries and shallow pits where people dug the coal that was found at the surface. During the 1600’s and 1700’s there was an increasing demand for coal as it started to be used as fuel for baking and brewing, and by 1750 there were over 140 collieries in and around Bristol.
The industrial revolution created an ever-increasing demand for coal to fuel the rapidly developing manufacturing industries and metal works in Bristol and Kingswood. New coalpits opened, existing shafts were deepened to meet this seemingly neverending demand for coal, and fortunes were made in this dirty but profitable business.
Hole Lane Pit
Hole Lane Pit was located at grid reference ST678718, immediately west of Bath Road; it had a short siding connection, facing to northbound trains, which crossed Bath Road. A branch continued, following the footpath that now leads to Coombes Way, which then served a pit called Bullhall Pit, at ST675719, immediately to the west of the Midland Railway’s Bath branch railway line. These pits are shown on the 1882 Ordnance Survey map but are “disused” by 1904, havingsent the last load of coal by the railway in 1867. The tramway to Bullhall may have been built and operated by the colliery owners. When the Midland Railway route was built parallel to the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway in 1869, a bridge was provided crossing that line to maintain the access.
Former workshops for the coal works are to be found off the High Street, Oldand Common on the west side of the road. What may possibly be smaller workshops are on the other side of the road (eastern side) and are locally referred to as Tappets because they were probably used at a later date as workshops for boot making.
Golden Valley Colliery
Golden Valley included pits at Old Pit, Painters Pit and New Pit. The seams worked were the Millgrit, Rag, Buff and Parrot, the ate rat 1920 ft. In later years Old Pit was used as the pumping pit and Painters as the upcast shaft for ventilation and this can still be seen in Golden Valley along with some traces of mine shafts. The pit finally closed in 1898.
Children’s Employment Commission on Mines in 1842
The public were shocked to hear from the Royal Commission report in 1842.
In South Gloucestershire cases are recorded in which children began to work in the coal mines at six years of age. The commissioner Richard Waring reported for South Goucestershire:
‘The youngest boy I have heard is George Woodington who’s been working as a door-boy one year, so he is now only seven years and a half. This infantile labourer has never been taught his letters but attends a place of worship with his father. I went to the mouth of Easton Pit to see the colliers come up after work and saw the urchin of seven years and a half emerge from the hutch with his father, his white cheeks strongly contrasting with the coal dust smeared over them; he had a candle stuck in front of his cap like all the rest. The poor little fellow answered my questions cheerfully and seemed quite naturalised to his doleful vocation. There was something at once grotesque and revolting in the workmanlike demeanour of this collier.’
In some of the coal mines locally the seams of coal were so thin and the space for working so small that adults were not employed in hewing the coal. The work was carried out by young lads whose size suited the contracted space.
During the day, just half an hour was allowed for dinner according to Mr Samuel Long, Underground Manager of the Hole-Lane Coal Company in Oldland Common.
In South Gloucestershire the use of Corporal punishment was occasionally reported to Waring: ‘sometimes we do get a hiding’ or ‘they do hit us a clump or two now and then’.
‘Every person employed in a coal mine is from minute to minute exposed to many sources of danger that in spite of skill and unremitting attention the risk is constant and imminent. “It’s a life” says one of the witnesses himself a collier “of great danger both for man and child”. A collier is never safe after he swung off to be let down the pit.’
The California Colliery in Oldland was famous for its high-quality coal that was extracted from the Parrott Seam. This coal was particularly popular with blacksmiths because it had a low sulphur content. The mine was re-opened in 1876 on the site of an earlier pit, and a tramway linked the colliery with the route of the Dramway, which had been closed for a number of years. The tramway on the incline was operated by gravity and it was so steep that the weight of the full trucks going down was enough to pull the empty carts back up the slope.
California Pit was located at grid reference ST665714, immediately south of what is now California Road. A new 640 yards deep shaft was sunk in 1876 by Abraham Fussell on the site of an earlier shaft called Blowbottom, part of the Brook Pits group. He renamed it California to indicate profitable prospects comparable to the California Gold Rush of a quarter century earlier. At first it was not rail-connected, and it became disused, but in 1889 it was re-opened and a 450 yards long branch line constructed: it ran generally south-south-east across fields, to a point at Siston Brook (or Warmley Brook) near the present-day Sunnyvale footbridge. It turned north-eastwards down an inclined plane at 1 in 10 to cross the brook and join the main railway line. The inclined plane was self-acting, and was 150 yards long; the junction was known as Tramway Junction. The colliery was closed down in March 1904, following flooding.
A dramway was used to carry the coal to the river Avon where it went by barge tp Bristol or Bath. There were Wharfs at Londonderry Wharf in Willsbridge and Avon Wharf to the south of Bitton.
The lucky children from Bitton Parish in the early nineteenth century were those who worked with their families at pin making, hat making or labouring in the fields. Some like William Short worked at the Golden Valley Colliery where at the age of 11 he earned 4d a day carting a bushel and a half (about 80 lbs) of coal up a ladder using a girdle and chain as shown in the etching below. He said it hurt him at first but he got used to it. Coal dust would have filled his lungs and his knees would be scraped as he crawled through darkness with water dripping down from the tunnel ceiling to soak his ragged clothes. He first went to the pit with his father, John Short, who was also a coal miner. He helped to support a family with seven children, but his hard labour and the coal dust shortened his life – he was to die aged 26.
In 1841 there were eight boys under the age of 13 at the Golden Valley Colliery. They worked from five o’clock in the morning till one p.m., working a vein of about two and half feet. Most of them could read a little and attended Sunday-school. At the near-by Hole Lane Pit at Oldland Common about forty boys were under the age of 13, the youngest had started at the age of just 6. The Children’s Employment Commission, interviewed hundreds of children in coalmines, works and factories. Its findings, reported in 1842, were deeply shocking. Particularly heart rending is the account of John Harvey who was a carter in the Crown Pit at Warmley. He was described at the age of 13 as ‘half-fed, half clothed and stunted in growth. He seldom had as much as he could eat. He did not go to Sunday school because he had no clothes other than his work clothes. Sometimes he worked at night for the sake of getting an extra sixpence, where he went down at 10 o’clock in the evening and up at 6 next morning.’
We can’t be sure what the working conditions were like. Some sections of the Royal Commission were completed by none other than the coal mine owners themselves. One of the authors of the local section of the report was Samuel Whittuck, a wealthy landowner and industrialist who, at the time of the 1841 Census, lived with his family and five servants at Hanham Hall. Whittuck was hardly a reliable witness, being owner of the Soundwell pits. He reported about the children in the mines: ‘Their appearance was healthy, after the underground fashion, and they ran as lightly as bucks, on their road home.’
It is extraordinary that Whittuck should have been given the job of reporting on the conditions of his young workers as he clearly demonstrated how he was unconcerned about their welfare and safety. At the Soundwell Pit, the inquest into the deaths of five miners, where the rope broke as the men were being drawn up the shaft, was told by a rope maker giving evidence: ‘I never saw rope wear in such a bad condition in my life. I have seen better rope brought to my yard as junk’. The jury apparently censured the owner but was told by Whittuck: ‘So little do I concern myself with the works that I seldom go there’
Report on John Harvey from the Royal Commission
‘John Harvey 13 years of age a Carter in Crown pit (Mr Water’s): gets potatoes and butter or potatoes fried with bacon when he goes home from the pit; gets whatever he can catch; is always very hungry after work; seldom has as much as he could eat; does not go to Sunday school because he has no clothes besides what he works in; cannot read; never had a pair of shoes or stockings in his life.’
‘Sub Commissioner: this boy has evidently been stunted in his growth I should say more from want of sufficient food than any other cause. He states that he has rarely as much as he wants and subsequently acknowledged that he had sometimes gone without food for two or three days. He is straight and not badly proportioned but has altogether a melancholy and starveling appearance.’
‘These neglected beings turn out in the morning, taking with them a scanty bag of provisions, to be eaten in the bowels of the earth, where they toil out their daily dole of eight or ten hours then return to a comfortless home, taking their chance of a good meal, a bad one, or none at all. For a bed they are content with an old coal-sack laid upon straw, or occupy whatever portion they can secure of a family bed, which must suffice for three or four other inmates. Groveling in their habits, depressed in spirit and without any stimulus to improvement, these poor boys passively take such work, and wage, as they can readily obtain; and if they can satisfy the craving of hunger, seem to abandon all expectations of anything further, beyond the most sordid covering for their nakedness and a place of shelter and repose. Some of them will eagerly ask permission to work by night occasionally, as well as by day, for the sake of a small addition to their weekly pittance.’
‘It will be seen by the evidence that this half-fed and half-clothed lad—stunted in growth, so that his companion in carting, though two years younger than himself, is a full head taller—assists in drawing 2 cwt of coal a distance of 160 yards in a tub without wheels. I did not ascertain how many tubs are carted by these two boys, one pulling and the other pushing behind, during their day’s work but, judging from the general practice, I should say from 50 to 60.’
‘The other boy has a good and careful mother, who feeds him well, and keeps whole garments on his back; whilst Harvey’s father is represented to be a drunkard, and his mother an improvident slattern. The poor little fellow told me he had never in his life possessed a pair of shoes or stockings. There is but too manifest a deficiency in nutritious diet and comfortable clothing, in the case of large families, where few are old enough to earn even the smallest pittance, Still the colliers, as a class, are considered better off than the agricultural labourer, and I have every reason to believe this to be the fact.’ (E. Waring)
The Memories of A.J. Parfitt
There is a remarkable book by A.J. Parfitt, My Life as a Somerset Miner[i] in which he portrays in detail how he started work at the age of 13 in 1893 and graphically describes the conditions in the mines till 1930. At the time when he first started work in the pits, wages were low, and safety and health standards were totally inadequate. Later in his work at the pits he saw the Minimum Wage Act of 1912 implemented and then the revised Coal Mines Act and General Regulations which improved safety standards.
He left school aged twelve years and started work at a farmhouse, where he worked indoors for between twelve and fifteen hours a day, for which he received 1s. per week and three meals a day. He made up his mind to work at the local coal pit. He remembered going to the manager of the colliery who tested him out by leaving the room and locking it behind him from outside. The room had no windows, and he was left in total darkness. Finally, the door was opened and as he had made no fuss was told he could start work as soon as he produced his birth certificate.
On his first day of work he described how he descended into the pit:
‘Soon my excitement turned to one of fear, for upon stepping into the cage to be lowered the thought naturally came, what if the rope should break, and it sent the cold shivers down my back. When the banksman shouted down and the cage descended into a darkness that could almost be felt the sensation was indescribable. However, things went alright and I with other miners landed at the pit bottom or Coal House as it was called.’
His first job at the pit was as ‘doorkeeper’ to open and close ventilation doors.
After starting for a few months, as a ‘trapper’ or door keeper, he progressed to shovelling coal and moving it from the coal face with a guss and crook. He then dragged the coal typically for 30 yards on hands and knees.
He describes how the harness felt:
‘After a few hours my waist became red and sore with the constant strain of the rope and I was glad to put on my stockings to somewhat ease the smart of my poor feet. After some time, I put on my boots again, but it was hard work on an incline to struggle upward, until at last you had to give way to the inevitable and go bootless and grin and bear it. I was glad when it was time to take off the harness and proceed homewards, and when mother bathed my poor back it was torture. Day after day I had to endure the pain and torture until my sides and feet became encased with a hard skin so much that I could walk on cobbled roads and not feel the smart to my feet or the roughness of the rope on my sides.’
‘For eight years I was destined to wear that horrible apparatus. During that time I shed many a tear…..With eyes popping out of my head, I would pull and strain until the rope would cut into my flesh and then being unable to shift it, would sit down and have a good cry.’
In his book, Parfitt describes how early in his working life at the pits he worked nights. the difficulty of working during the night and how later on their working hours were reduced to eight hours. However, later in 1926 legislation was passed forcing them to work an extra hour. They normally descended the pit at 5:00am coming back up at 2:00pm. The carting boys had to remain after the men had left, in order to haul the coal that was left at the coal face. Parfitt complaining that it was sometimes six o’clock when he reached home said: ’Oh to enjoy the life of a collier lad’.
[i] My Life as a Somerset Miner, A.J. Parfitt, Radstock: Fosseway Press, 3rd ed. 2012
First Report of the Commissioners: Mines, Great Britain, Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment and Conditions of Children in Mines, 1842
South Gloucestershire Mines Research, www. sgmr.com, accessed 1 Feb. 2021
Killed in a Coal Pit, D.P. Lindegaard, Steve Grudgings & S Gloucestershire Mines Research Group, 2016.