Unearthing History – Our Mining Roots: Part II

This is the second post in a series that follow my Thompson ancestors from the lowlands of Scotland to Guthrie County, Iowa.  You can go back and read Part I if you missed it. 

In the early 1800’s, Thomas Thomson was a collier working in the industrial lowlands of Scotland.  He and wife, Elizabeth, were raising their young family in Bo’ness……… at least I think they were.  I haven’t found any death records for them yet, and the first national census wasn’t taken until 1841.  Assuming they were alive and well in 1800, what were they doing?

A Miner’s Life – Early 19th Century

In 1800, a miner was paid only for the coal he brought to the surface.  Coal hewers like Thomas needed help getting coal above ground, and hewers had to pay for help out of their own wages.  Employing one’s family kept more pay inside his own household.  It would have been keeping with tradition as well – we know that in early mining days, entire families were working together in shallow coal mines.

It’s reasonable to suggest that Elizabeth and children were working with Thomas in the mine.  It’s also reasonable to suggest Elizabeth was keeping house with the younger children.  In some pits, the women and young children were welcomed to work, while other pits forbid it.   The rules were set by each colliery.  Young children often went to school to learn basic reading and writing, but by the time they were 10 years old they went to work.

If the kids weren’t working for Thomas, they could be hired out to help other hewers and bring in outside income.  Children often took on the role of “provider” in their households.  This was the case when one or both parents died, were injured or not well enough to work.

Bo’ness was an area that accepted women and children working underground. Even much later in 1842, at a time when society was pressuring mine operators to keep women and children out, there were still companies in Bo’ness who employed women and children:

1842 Children’s Employment Commission Report, Robert Hugh Franks to Queen Victoria
Bo’ness Colliery, parishes of Bo’ness and Carnden, Linlithgowshire
Lessee: John James Cadell, Esq.

Males:                                                  Females:
Adults – 87                                          Adults – 30
Under 18 Years – 23                         Under 18 Years – 27
Under 13 Years – 20                         Under 13 Years – 20

No.216 – John James Cadell, Esq.:

There are at present employed below ground in our coal-pits about 200 men, women and children; full one-third are females.  No regulation exists here for the prevention of children working below.  I think the parents are the best judges when to take their children below for assistance and that it is of consequence for colliers to be trained in early youth to their work.  Parents take their children down from 8 to 10 years of age, males and females. 

Working Underground

Much of the following information (including illustrations and testimonies) was taken from the “Children’s Employment Commission” Report written in 1842 by Robert Hugh Franks for Queen Victoria.  The Coal Mining History Resource Centre, Picks Publishing and Ian Wistanley have made this report available, and have graciously allowed it to be shared.  If you find the information below interesting, you should get your hands on the entire report.  It offers a fascinating look into mining life from the perspective of the miners themselves.  It was written a little after the time period we are looking at, but mining didn’t change much between 1800 and 1842. I think it gives us an excellent idea of what Thomas and family were doing:

The typical work day was 12 hours, but often more.  Workers headed to the mine well before dawn, and returned home in the evening.  In the early 19th century, mines in east Scotland were not more than 600 feet deep (little more than 1/10th of a mile).  Once at the pit head, the workers would descend to the bottom using a series of ladders, stairs, or ramps.  In some mines, workers were lowered through the main shaft in cages or baskets that were drawn by horse.

Descent Using a One Horse Gin

Descending Into The Mine

Once at the pit bottom, workers might have to walk another mile or two to get to the coalface.  It was pitch black underground.  Miners moved and worked by the light of tallow candles and lamps.  The ceilings heights varied throughout the mine.  Sometimes less than three feet in height – forcing workers to walk doubled-over or crawl.  Drainage was also an issue. The paths were slippery, mucky, and frequently full of standing water.

Mining Tasks

Once they reached the coalface, workers would take on tasks according to their age and strength.   There were other odd jobs available, but these would have been the main tasks performed as a family unit:


This work was usually left to the men and older boys who had upper-body strength.  They used picks, hammers and wedges to cut the coal from the seam.  They often worked lying down on their sides, under shoddy roofs that were propped up with pieces of wood (to help protect them from falling rock).

No. 75 – Walter Pryde, aged 81 years, coal-hewer:

I have not wrought [labored] for six years.  Was first yoked to the coal work at Preston Grange when I was nine years of age; we were then all slaves to the Preston Grange laird [lord].  Even if we had no work on the colliery in my father’s time we could seek none other without a written license and agreement to return.  Even then the laird [lord]/landowner] or the tacksman [land manager for the lord] selected our place of work and if we did not do his bidding we were placed by the necks in iron collars called jugs, and fastened to the wall, ‘or made to go the rown.’  The latter I recollect well – the men’s hands were tied in face of the horse at the gin and made run round backwards all day….. There are few men live to my age who work below.  My wife is 82 and she worked at bearing till she was 66 years of age. 

No.97 – Arhicbald Muckle, 12 years old, coal-hewer:

Began to work at seven years of age; don’t like to work so long hours.  I go down at four in the morning, and don’t come up till six and seven at night; it is very sair [sore] work and am obliged to lie on my side, or stoop, all the time, as the seam is only 24 to 26 inches high.  There is much bad air below and when it rises in our room we shift and gang [go] to some other part and leave when the pit is full, as it stops our breath.  I take bread below; never get porridge; we canna [can’t] drink the pit water, as it is na guid [no good]; get flesh [meat] three times a week.  The pit is very wet and am compelled to shift myself when home on that account.  Never been to day-school since down, go to the night as often as the labour will allow; am so sore, fatigued.


Older children and women would take on the role as putter. They would collect the coal and place it in hutchies (carts with wheels) or slypes (basically carts without wheels).  The loaded carts, weighing between 336 to 1100 pounds, would be pushed or dragged to the surface.  If the pit had a mechanized lift (like a horse gin), the putters would move the carts to the pit bottom of the main shaft so that the coal could be lifted to the surface.  If there was no lift, the putters would move the cart to the surface themselves.  Many putters wore waist harnesses that were chained to the front of the cart.  The putter pulled the cart behind them, up the inclines towards the pit head.  If they were lucky, they had help from other putters who pushed the cart from behind.

No. 223 -Margaret Hipps, 17 years old, putter:

On short shifts I work from eight in the morning till six at night; on long ones until 10 at night; occasionally we work all night.  When at night-work, from six at night till eight and ten in the morning.  Only bread is taken below and the only rests we have are those we have to wait upon the men for while picking the coal.  My employment, after reaching the wall-face, is to fill a bagie, or slype, with 2.5 to 3 cwt. coal [280 – 336 pounds].  I then hook it on to my chain and drag it through the seam, which is 26 to 28inches high, till I get to the main-road, a good distance, probably 200 to 400 yards.  The pavement I drag over is wet and I am obliged at all times to crawl on hands and feet with my bagie hung to the chain and ropes.  I turn the contents of the bagies into the carts till they are filled; and then run upon the ironrails to the shaft a distance of 400-500 yards.  It is sad sweating and sore fatiguing work and frequently maims the women.  My left hand is short of a finger, which laid me idle four months. 

Margaret Hipps


No.130 Janet Duncan, 17 years old, coal putter:

I work sometimes very long hours; was going to work when I met you last night and now just come home; it must be 16 or 18 hours since; it is not usual for me to work so long 10 or 12 hours are the common time.  I do not like coal-work, it makes me stoop so much and being tall I am compelled to bend my legs double.  The carts I push contain three cwt. of coal, being a load and a half; it is very severe work, especially when we have to stay before the tubs, on the brae [brake], to prevent them coming too fast; they frequently run too quick and knock us down; when they run over-fast we fly off the roads and let them go or we should be crushed……….. I have wrought [labored] above in harvest-time; it is the only other work that ever I tried by hand at, and having harvested for three season am able to say that the hardest daylight work is infinitely superior to the best of coal-work.

Putting Using a Hutchie


The women who moved the coal to the surface on their backs were known as bearers.  Large baskets, called creels, or bags of coal would be strapped to their backs.  The bearers would ascend to the surface with upwards of 120 pounds on their backside, often negotiating ladders and stairs on their way up.  Literally back breaking work!

 No.1 – Janet Cumming, 11 years, coal bearer;

I gang [go] with the women at five and come up at five at night.  I work all night on Fridays, and come away at twelve in the day.  I carry the large bits of coal from the wall face to the put bottom, and the small pieces called chows in a creel.  The weight is usually a hundredweight.  I do not know how many pounds there are in a hundredweight [about 112 pounds] but it is some weight to carry.  It takes three journeys to fill a tub of 4cwt. [448 pounds].  The distance varies as the work is not always on the same wall, sometimes 150 fathoms, whiles 250 fathoms [900 – 1500 feet].  The roof is very low and I have to bend my back and legs and the water comes frequently up to the calves of my legs. I have no liking for the work, father makes me like it.  I never got hurt, but often am obliged to scramble out of the pit when bad air was in.

Janet Cumming – Bearer

No. 117 – Jane Peacock Watson, age 40, coal-bearer;

I have wrought [labored] in the bowels of the earth 33 years….. I have always been obliged to work below till forced to go home to bear the bairn [birth the child], so have all the other women.  We return as soon as able, never longer than 10 or 12 days, many less, if they are much needed.  It is only horse-work, and ruins the women; it crushes their haunches, bends their ankles and makes them old women at 40.  Women so soon get weak that they are forced to take the little ones down to relieve them; even children of six years of age do much to relieve the burthen [load].


The youngest of the children were put to work as trappers.  They were in charge of opening and closing trap doors to help with ventilation, and let the putters and bearers through as they moved the coal.

No.42 – Thomas Duncan, 11 years age, trapper:

I open the air-doors for the putters; do so from six in the morning till six at night.  Mother calls me up at five in the morning and gives me a piece of cake, which is all I get till I return sometimes I eat it as I gang [go].  There is plenty of water in the pit; the part I am in it comes up to my knees.  I did go to school before I was taken down and could read then.  Mother has always worked below but father has run away these five years. 

No.225 – David Guy, 7 years old, trapper:

I gang [go] at half five (half-past four) in the morning and come up at half six at night. I open an air door below; it is no very hard work but unco [extremely] long and I canna hardly get up the stair-pit when work is done.  Sister and brother work below and we all work for mother, as father was killed a wee while since (nine months ago) by a stone from the roof.

WOW, these people were unbelievably tough.  Literal work horses.

What’s Next………………..

We will meet John and family.  John is the oldest son of Thomas and grandfather to our Sandy.  We will take a look at the everyday hazards they faced  inside and outside the mine.




  1. Excellent material JaNelle …. really appreciate the invite to the blog. Always wanted to know more about the THOMPSON / THOMSON side of it all.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and for the feedback! I might not know much about them personally, but I hope to piece some of their story together by learning about what was going on around them. It is an interesting history – well I think so anyway!

  3. It definitely is an interesting story and continues to get better and better.

Leave a Reply