Unearthing History – Our Mining Roots: Part I

This is the first post in a series that follow my Thompson ancestors from the lowlands of Scotland to Guthrie County, Iowa. 

Alexander “Sandy” Thompson

My Special Person

Do you have that one ancestor that you are drawn to? An inexplicable connection with one person in particular? Sandy is my person.  He’s the shadowy figure in the picture above, and my great-great grandfather. I knew little about him, his name and not much else….. but he called out to me from that photo. He wanted to share his story, and I was eager to listen.

Like our own lives, Sandy’s story does not begin with his own birth.  The generations that precede us leave an impression on our own lives. Our parents and grandparents shape the paths laid out before us, and influence the roads that we choose to travel.

Sandy was (at least) a 4th generation collier (coal miner) born in Scotland 160 years ago. To understand his story, we need to look back several generations and uncover the lives of his forefathers. Our journey begins over 400 years ago, when a collier didn’t have much to say about his destiny.  We will discover the obstacles his ancestors faced, and how changes in the mining industry over time and created new opportunities for Sandy’s generation.

The Slaves of Scotland’s Underground

Early coal mining was closely associated with salt-making.  A regular supply of coal was needed to keep salt-making a continuous operation.   Early coal and salt mines were located on large estates.  Getting coal was dirty work, but in the early days, the coal was near the surface.  The mines were shallow as the coal was easy to get at.  Families lived on the estates where they were employed, and usually the whole family was working together; fathers, sons, mothers and daughters.  Families working together was somewhat common until 1842, when Scottish Parliament put restrictions around women and children working in the mines.

As expected, early miners were part of the laboring class and largely snubbed by society.  James Barrowman in 1897 writes:

“The collier and his dependents were subjected to a measure of social ostracism, partly on account of the spirit of the times, which in a much greater degree than now regarded all labour as menial, but chiefly because of the solitary nature of the occupation.  Engaged in dirty and unattractive work, in darkness and alone, and dissociated from the activities of the outer world, the collier settled into that condition of separateness which is characteristic of the class to the present day.”

In the early 17th century, the demand for coal exploded.  Miners dug deeper to get the quantities of coal required to keep up with world demand.  New coal works were opening, and existing mines were expanding.  There was stiff competition between coal works – they all needed experienced miners to produce coal.  Owners were having a hard time keeping their workers in the pits. Colliers would be enticed to work at other mines for higher wages, or leave the trade altogether.  Scotland needed to keep existing workers in the mines and recruit more workers at the same time.

In 1606, Scottish Parliament passed legislation that basically enslaved existing miners. The collier became the property of the coal master – bound to both his master and his occupation.  Salters were given the same lot.  Both colliers and salters could not leave a company to look for work elsewhere – not without first getting permission from his employer.  If he left without permission, he could be reclaimed by his employer and forced to return. If he failed to return, he was considered a thief and punished as such. If the mine was sold, the workers were sold with it.

The coal companies had found ways to recruit new workers too. Thieves and criminals, as well as those considered “vagabonds” or “beggars” could be put to work in the mines.

A collier’s child wasn’t born into servitude, but they were encouraged to enter the field of work.  The coal masters would often attend the baptisms of miners’ children, and offer money in exchange for the guarantee of the child’s future work.

Imagine you are born into a mining family.  You worked in the mine, because what other choice did you really have?  Then, you left your employer to work for another coal company, or perhaps you wanted to do something different, or you wanted a better life for your family and future opportunities for your kids. You were found, drug back to town, tried and convicted as a thief.  You were sentenced to go back to work for your former employer in the mine. You might have paid some fines.  You were essentially convicted of stealing yourself, and you receive a sentence – which happens to be the same sentence that you were born into.

A collier had a life sentence. Once you were in, you weren’t getting out.

1st Generation – Thomas Thomson

Sandy’s great-grandfather was Thomas Thomson.  Thomas was probably born before 1770 and most likely born in Bo’ness as this is where we find him as a young man.  I do not know if his father was a collier, but it seems likely that he was born into a mining family.

Note:  I will be digging into Thomas Thomson again.  With more time and investigation, we might be able to discover a little more about him – maybe identify his parents.  I will write more on “Finding Thomas Thomson” later.  Keep reading and I will tell you what I do know about Thomas ………

Scotland Lowlands

Thomas’s Family

On March 21, 1791, 1 Thomas married Elizabeth Hamilton in Borrowstouness (known as Bo’ness) in the county of Linlithgowshire (now West Lothian). Bo’ness is a harbor town located on the Firth of Forth off the North Sea, about 16 miles northwest of Edinburgh.

At least four children were born to Thomas and Elizabeth – all born in Bo’ness:

  • John Thomson born June 1, 1793 2
  • Janet Thomson born December 18, 1795 3
  • James Thomson born September 16, 1797 4
  • Thomas Thomson born September 16, 1797 5

Reformations began around 1775, after Thomas was born.  In 1799, after working for nearly 200 years under laws of servitude, all colliers in Scotland were finally considered free.  No longer bound to one coal master.  No longer bound to one mine.  No longer bound to one occupation.

By 1800, Thomas was a free man with a young family, but life for a collier was grueling. We don’t know much about Thomas personally, but we do know quite a bit about mining life in 1800.  It was hazardous work that took a heavy toll on the body, both physically and mentally.  Entire families still worked together – but mining in 1800 was far more dangerous than the working shallow mines of earlier years.

What’s Next……….

Coal mining – 1800’s style.  What would a typical day look like for Thomas’s family? What hardships did they face? We’ll answer these questions when we look at early 19th century mining practices, and discover what tasks Thomas, Elizabeth, and children may have been performing underground.

  1. Bo’ness Parish Banns and Marriage Records, Parish Number 663, Reference 0050 0163, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  2. Bo’ness Parish Birth Record, Parish Number 663, Reference 0040 0195, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  3. Bo’ness Parish Birth Record, Parish Number 663, Reference 0040 0238, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  4. Bo’ness Parish Birth Record, Parish Number 663, Reference 0040 0263, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  5. Bo’ness Parish Birth Record, Parish Number 663, Reference 0040 0263, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk

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