Unearthing History – Our Mining Roots: Part III

This is the third post in a series that follow my Thompson ancestors from the lowlands of Scotland to Guthrie County, Iowa.  If you missed earlier posts, links to Part I and Part II are located at the bottom of this page.

 Note: I made a correction to the birthdates of children of Thomas and Elizabeth Thomson in Part I.  I had originally listed their baptism dates instead of their birthdates. 

Picking Up Where We Left Off

We previously learned of Thomas Thomson and family.  Thomas was a coal miner in Bo’ness, Scotland.  He and wife, Elizabeth, were raising four kids.  We are ready to take a look at the next generation……………….

Thomas Thomson to John Thomson

Introducing John Thomson & Family

By 1813, the family had moved to Larnarkshire, just one county over – to the southwest.  Thomas and Elizabeth’s oldest son, John, was now a young man.  John married Mary Miller on February 21, 1813.1  He was just 19 years old at the time, and Mary about five years his senior.  Mary was the daughter of James Miller, a furnace keeper, and Ann Williamson.  She was born in Bainsford, Stirlingshire about 1788.2

John Thomson and family lived at Omoa New Town (now Cleland).
John worked at the Omoa Iron Works.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

John and Mary lived in Newarthill when their first daughter, Ann, was born in July of the 1813.  That same year, the “Omoa Waggonway” opened from Newharthill colleries to Omoa Iron Works.  The community of Omoa Town (or New Town) was born.  John and Mary moved to Omoa New Town, and John worked as a collier at the Omoa Iron Works.  The rest of their children would be born here, and John would work at Omoa for (probably) the rest of his working years.

In 1830, John and Mary have been married 17 years and still living at Omoa New Town.  They are raising seven kids, ages 17 to infant.  Known children of John and Mary Thomson:

  • Ann, born July 6, 1813 3
  • Elizabeth, born May 11, 1815 4
  • Thomas, born July 28, 1817 5 (passed probably between 1819 and 1821)
  • James, born March 29, 1819 6
  • Thomas, born July 4, 1821 7
  • Marion, born February 9, 1824 8
  • John, born February 22, 1827 9
  • Gilbert, born August 21, 1829 10

In 1830, many women and children were still working in the coal mines in general, but in Lanarkshire it wasn’t customary to take the females and very young children below ground.  It is likely that Mary was at home keeping house and tending to the younger kids.  Once the boys reached age ten, the would have worked at the mine with their father.

In Part II, we learned a bit about the mining jobs held by family members.  Now we ask: What physical hazards did they face, and how did working in the mine affect their health? Let’s take a look.

Hazards in the Mine

Collieries were not compelled to keep records of accidents in their mines.  In his 1841 report to Queen Victoria, Robert Hugh Franks noted his investigation into the matter.  It revealed that serious accidents occurred weekly, and that several persons died annually as a result.  He was flabbergasted at the general lack of concern at every level.  He wrote:

“In truth, it would seem to be almost inseparable from the severe character of the occupation itself [in reference to frequent accidents].  Nor is it surprising that no record kept of this very numerous class, but where life is lost, where a human being has been suddenly or violently taken off from amongst his fellow creatures, I certainly was not prepared for the general apathy and indifference which prevails in [the] districts.”11

Falling Rock/Stone

Falling stone was probably the greatest threat to workers due to frequency.  Miners could be struck by a lone piece of rock, or the entire roof might collapse over them.  One stone was just as deadly as a hundred.  Many miners met their death, and a great many more suffered broken bones and lacerations because of falling stone.

Malfunction of Equipment / Falling in the Shaft

Many children were crushed or severely maimed by runaway hutchies and wagons.  Bodies were battered, broken and disfigured.   Many men, women and children fell to their deaths due to collapsing platforms and stairs, malfunctioning cages and lifts, or the carelessness of their own feet.


As coal is hewn, gases are released into the atmosphere.  Flammable gases, referred to as firedamp, posed a threat when they accumulated in the pockets throughout the mine.  In early days, explosions were more frequent because miners worked by the light of an open flame.  The evolution of work lamps throughout the 19th century helped to reduce the risk of explosion, but did not eliminate it entirely.     

Bad Air

Chokedamp, also known as blackdamp, occurs when oxygen is depleted from the air making it unbreathable.  It doesn’t have a detectable odor.  A miner under its affect might mistake the symptoms for fatigue (light-headedness, dizziness) and not think much of it.  Chokedamp was swift.  If ignored, a person would be quickly asphyxiated.


Mines had the potential to flood.  Water sometimes built up behind walls, causing the walls to suddenly burst under pressure.  Miners had little time to escape such situations (remember some of these cavities were no more than 3 feet high).  Many workers found themselves stranded until the water subsided, or worse – drowned.

No.26 – Helen Reid, 16 years old, coal bearer:

“Two years since the pit closed upon 13 of us and we were two days without food or light, nearly one day we were up to our chins in water.  At last we got to an old shaft, which we picked our way and were heard by the people watching above.  All were saved.”12

Health Hazards

Men –
Chronic Lung Afflictions

It was the coal hewers who were most impacted by bronchitis and lung irritations.  Chronic bronchitis and pleurisy were the most common disease among colliers – results of poor ventilation and breathing coal dust, gases and damp air.  Respiratory issues usually showed up by the age of 20.  As a collier aged, the coughing, shortness of breath, and constant irritation of the respiratory system weakened his health.  By age 30, many hewers could only work two or three days at time.  By age 40, many could not work at all.  Very few collier men lived over the age of 50 in the early 19th century.

No.152 – John Duncan, 57  years old, coal hewer

I have wrought [labored] more than 47 years.  Bad breath has nearly disabled me; it is the colliers’ bane; it arises from scant of air in the pits……… I have a good knowledge of colliers and I feel confident that the average life of men part of the country will not exceed 40.  The colliers are subject to the black-spittle, rheumatism, ruptures and piles, very much more than other tradesmen and they rarely pass 28 without getting a first attack, many earlier.13

Women – Miscarriage and Still Births

Women’s health was more at risk during child-bearing years.  Expecting women worked right up until the time their children were born, and were back to work as soon as possible.  Remember, these ladies were carrying coal on their backs/pulling carts full of coal behind them.  The physical stress of this work led to frequent stillbirths and miscarriages among working women.

No. 184- Isabel Wilson, 38 years old, coal putter:

When women have children thick (fast) they are compelled to take them down early [referring to taking the children into the mine].  I have been married 19 years and have had 10 bairns [children]; seven are in life.  When on Sir John’s work was a carrier of coals, which caused me to miscarry five times from the strains, and was gai ill after each.  Putting is no so oppressive; last child was born on Saturday morning and I was at work Friday night.14

Children – Illness and Delayed Physical Development:

Malnourishment was common among the collier population.  When mothers worked outside the home, babies were prematurely weaned from their mother’s milk, and introduced to food too early.  Many infants died of issues related to “inflammation of the bowels.”  For the working children and adults, most meals didn’t offer the variety of food necessary to balanced nutrition.  This, coupled with a lack of cleanliness and exposure to the elements, left the people more susceptible to illness and diseases such as cholera, typhus, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and skin issues.

Lack of nutrition and working conditions also impacted puberty.  Puberty was delayed well into the latter teen years, and many young adults (aged 18 or so) appeared no more than twelve years old.  Growth was stunted – many miners were short in stature.  Spine and leg deformities were common among miners – their bodies distorted due to the hard labor and cramped conditions.

What’s Next…….

Big changes are coming to the coal industry in 1842.  We follow the Thomsons through these changes and meet the next generation, Gilbert and family.  We are getting closer to Sandy!

Links to Previous Posts

Unearthing History – Part I
Unearthing History – Part II

  1.  Parish Banns and Marriage Records, 655/00300314 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  2. Statutory Death Records, Statutory Deaths 628/00 0006 Cambusnethan Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  3. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 20 182 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  4. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 20 206 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  5. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 20 238 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  6. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 20 266 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  7. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 40 25 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  8. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 20 66 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  9. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 40 112 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  10. Old Parish Registers Births, 655/ 40 165 Shotts Parish, Repository: scotlandspeople.gov.uk
  11. Ian Winstanley and The Coal Mining History Resource Centre, Children’s Employment Commission 1842 by Robert Hugh Franks Esq., Picks Publishing, 1999
  12. Ian Winstanley and The Coal Mining History Resource Centre, Children’s Employment Commission 1842 by Robert Hugh Franks Esq., Picks Publishing, 1999
  13. Ian Winstanley and The Coal Mining History Resource Centre, Children’s Employment Commission 1842 by Robert Hugh Franks Esq., Picks Publishing, 1999
  14. Ian Winstanley and The Coal Mining History Resource Centre, Children’s Employment Commission 1842 by Robert Hugh Franks Esq., Picks Publishing, 1999

One Comment:

  1. Enjoy very much! Thanks for your ability to put our history on paper…ok ok maybe not paper…but you know what I mean!

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