1842 Children’s Employment Commission visits Middleton

In the 1830’s there was a movement towards social reform, especially towards the employment of children in the burgeoning industry of the early industrial revolution.

In 1833 Parliament enacted the Factory Act which prevented the employment of children under nine from working in textile mills. Following this was a campaign to offer similar protection to children, and women, employed below ground. This effort was led by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the Earl of Shaftesbury). Strangely, it was not until 1875 that Parliament prohibited children being employed as chimney sweeps.

A Royal Commission was set up to enquire into the employment of children and women in mines. The Commission was led by several commissioners and sub-commissioners who gathered evidence, by interview and visits, on the conditions for women and children in the mining industry. The appendices to the report contain summaries of findings and statements from interviews with named people involved in the industry, and of children employed.

The commission report was the first to use illustrations, some of which are are shown here, which probably helped the report make a decisive impact. The reported conditions shocked much of Victorian society, especially the revelation that women miners wore trousers and, as conditions were often hot, sometimes worked naked from the waist up in the presence of men and boys. Following the report, parliament passed the 1842 Mining Act, which made it illegal to employ a female to work underground, or a boy under the age of ten.

Following the 1842 act, generally more children aged 10 and up were employed down mines, and there was gradually more use made of horses or pit ponies. Children and women were still employed in collieries, but above ground.

The sub-commissioner covering Leeds and Bradford was William Raynor Wood Esq. and his findings are included in Appendix H to the report.

Middleton Colliery was visited and two adult employees and 12 child miners were interviewed along with the local school teacher. The adults interviewed were: Thomas William Embleton (the Viewer or Manager), Charles Wailes (Bottom Steward) and George Wormald (School Teacher).

Conditions at Middleton Colliery, especially its education provision, impressed Commissioner Wood:

“There can be a little ground for doubting that the general standard of education, comfort, and happiness throughout the district might be raised to a level with that which prevails at Middleton, by the general introduction of similar measures, wisely planned and judiciously administered.”

Throughout the general sections he holds Middleton Colliery up as an example to other mine owners in the area. Middleton did not employ young children or women, and the colliery provided educational facilities. It might just be a coincidence that the Proprietor of Middleton Colliery at the time was a man of the cloth, The Rev Ralph Henry Brandling.

Two children ‘Hurrying’ a coal truck

Children were usually employed down mines as “hurriers” – pushing or pulling the waggons full of coal from the coal face to the bottom of the shafts. Children were often employed not by the mine owners, but by the miners themselves under a contract with the children’s parents.

Commissioner Wood reports on holidays and how the child miners enjoyed their leisure time. The children tell of spending time “laking” [playing] at various games, chief of which seems to have been Nor and Spell, sometimes called Knurr and Spell, – a game involving hitting a “nor” (ball) with a stick to see who can hit it the furthest.

This is an extract from a longer article, with extensive quotes from the 1842 Report itself, which can be found  on the Friends of Middleton Park website here.


This post was written by Jim Jackson

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