See caption
Children worked alone in the darkness to open and close ventilation doors.
Wikimedia Commons

The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 99), usually known as the Mines Act 1842, was passed in response to the working conditions experienced by children as revealed in the Children’s Employment Commission (Mines) 1842 report, produced by a body headed by Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. It prohibited all females and boys under ten years of age from working underground in coal mines.[1]

At the beginning of the 19th century methods of coal extraction were primitive, and the workforce – men, women and children – laboured in dangerous conditions. In 1841 about 115,000 men, 41,000 boys under the age of 20, and 4,000 females were employed in coal and iron mines. Most pits were small but the number is not known but twelve years later there were about 2,500. Explosions were common and increasing in number and workers died in everyday incidents.[2] Women and children worked underground for 11 or 12 hours a day for smaller wages than men.[1] The public became aware of conditions in the country’s collieries in 1838 after a disaster at Huskar PitDeaths of 26 boys and girls working underground, drowned by an overflowing stream. near Silkstone, Barnsley. A stream overflowed into the pit’s ventilation drift after violent thunderstorms. The inundation of water caused the death of 26 children; 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years of age.[3] The disaster came to the attention of Queen Victoria, who ordered an inquiry.[1]

In 1840 Lord Ashley-Cooper headed the Royal Commission that investigated the conditions of workers, especially children, in coal mines. Commissioners visited collieries gathering information, sometimes against the mine owners’ wishes. The report, illustrated by engraved illustrations and the personal accounts of mineworkers, was published in May 1842. Victorian society was appalled to discover that children as young as five or six worked underground as trappers, opening and shutting ventilation doors, before becoming hurriers, pushing and pulling coal tubs.[4] Until the impact of these harsh conditions on women and children who worked underground was brought to the public notice, nothing was done because coal mining was unregulated.[5] Lord Ashley-Cooper deliberately appealed to Victorian prudery, focusing on girls and women wearing trousers and working bare-breasted in the presence of boys and men, which “made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”. Such an affront to Victorian morality ensured the bill was passed.[1]

After the Act was passed, females of any age were banned from working underground, as were boys under 10 years old. The Act also prescribed a minimum age of 15 for winding-engine men and prohibited employers from paying wages in public houses.[6] The Home Office appointed a single Inspector of Mines, Hugh TremenheereCareer civil servant and inspector of schools, and from 1843 to 1859 the first inspector of mines., to oversee compliance with the Act. When the Act was passed, 2,400 women in Scotland and 800 in Lancashire were working underground. In 1845 there were still 200 in each place, and isolated prosecutions continued up to 1858.[5] Some women found work on the surface as pit brow womenFemale surface labourers at British collieries. They worked at the coal screens on the pit brow (pit bank) at the shaft top until the 1960s. Their job was to pick stones and sort the coal after it was hauled to the surface. .