By Sandra McHugh
There it is in the 1881 census: John Hunter, age 13, coal miner. John Hunter, my great-grandfather, is the last in the line of almost three hundred years of coal miners.1 He was able to change collieries and, later in life, his job. This was possible because, by the time he was born, the servitude of the coal miners had come to an end.
The generations of coal miners in my family can be traced back to the birth of James Hunter in 1621. He was a coal miner, born in the town of Alloa, County of Clackmanannshire, Scotland. Alloa nestles at the foot of the Ochil Hills and has thrived over the centuries because of its location on the Firth of Forth and the many industries that were powered by coal. Today, Alloa’s economy is based on leisure and retail. 2
Coal became an important commodity in Scotland in the 1600s. 3 The rural areas were agricultural communities and coal mining provided employment. Entire families worked in the coal mines. While some children started working in the mines as early as four years old, the usual age of employment was around eight or nine years old. Both male and female children worked in the mines. 4
As a result of the economic importance of coal in the 1600s, new collieries opened up and, having no skilled workers, attracted workers from other collieries. The colliery owners who lost workers petitioned Parliament to take action.
The Parliament of Scotland in 1606 passed an Act whereby coal miners were bound to the collieries’ owners:
“no person should fee, hire or conduce and salters, colliers, or coal bearers without written authority from the master whom they had last served.”
This Act effectively ensured that coal miners and their families were bound to the colliery for life. A collier who deserted was considered to be a thief and punished accordingly. This Act also gave the coal owners and masters the powers to apprehend “vagabonds and sturdy beggars” and put them to work in the mines. A further Act of 1641 extended those enslaved to include other workers in the mines and forced the colliers to work six days a week.5
The process of emancipation only began with the Colliers and Salters (Scotland) Act of Parliament in 1775, which defined how the colliers could be freed by age-group. Once the father of the family was freed, the entire family was freed. But still, the process of complete freedom was only achieved with another Act of Parliament in 1799 that declared the colliers “to be free from their servitude.”6 For almost two centuries, colliers and their families had been legally bound to the colliery owners. Even after the Act of 1799, it was common for the children of coal miners to work in the mine. It was expected that sons and daughters would follow in their father’s footsteps, as their families needed the income that the children would bring.
In 1842, the findings of the Children’s Employment Commission outlined the dismal conditions under which children worked in the mines. It was a shocking discovery to learn that children, as young as five or six, worked as trappers, opening and closing the ventilation in the mines, and other jobs, such as carrying coal. The conditions were deplorable and there was a public outcry. On June 22, 1842, Parliament passed the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 (c. 99) with the objective of improving employment conditions for both boys and women in the mines. Males under the age of 10 were forbidden to be employed in the mines and boys who were not yet 13 years old were limited to 12 hours of consecutive work. In addition, these boys could not work more than 3 days a week, nor for two consecutive days. These rules applied even if a boy worked for different owners. With this Act, women were also forbidden to work in the mine. Women were then employed to work at the pit head, therefore not in the mine.7 The growing public consciousness of the miners’ conditions was a significant step to ensure that mining conditions improved, that working conditions were fair, and that safety became a prority.
1 Family tree in Ancestry. Common ancestor is William Hunter, coal miner, father of John Hunter.