Middleton Life: Our visit to the National Coalmining Museum

Typical living conditions of a miner - from yesterday's trip to the National Coalmining Museum

Fancy your six year old son or daughter working down the mine, tied to stop them escaping the pitch black conditions for 14 hours a day? That was the question posed to members of the Middleton Life local history group as they went deep underground at the National Coalmining Museum near Wakefield.

Middleton’s well-known for its mining heritage and it was a fascinating tour around the workings of an actual mine about how things used to be for people working in mines in the past 200 years or so. We donned miners’ helmets and a Ghostbusters-style backpack and flashlight and were taken down into the depths of a mine as deep as Blackpool Tower is tall.

We heard about the squalid and hot conditions whole families were forced to work in the 1800s and of the dangerous working conditions they faced. Our guide told us about the Hartley Mine disaster in Tyne and Wear which killed 204 miners the youngest aged just 10.

We heard of how whole families worked down the mines, with the father digging for coal in ‘pillar and stall’ works, the mother pulling a heavy sledge of coal (she was called the ‘hurrier’ as the father was often telling her to hurry up. The youngsters, often as young as six, would act as ‘doorstoppers’, opening the doors to the ‘pillar and stall’ shafts. With only one candle between them all, it would be the child who would sit in the pitch black all day, some aged as young as six. To stop the frightened children from trying to get out, some would be tied to the door.

It was hot, filthy, hard labout in appalling conditions.

It wasn’t until 1842 that women and children aged under 10 were no longer allowed to work in mines. 1842 was the date the pit ponies – often Shteland Ponies – were introduced.

We met ‘Dale and Chip’ the pit ponies (artificial ones) who had just two weeks holiday a year above ground – apparently the pit ponies were well treated by the poorly paid miners.

We heard about the dangers of methane and poisonous gasses which had claimed the lives of thousands of miners through the centuries.

After our tour we had a look around the museum and heard how sucking a piece of coal cures heartburn and how coal can be used to cure colic on babies, is used in makeup and even polish your teeth.

In a bid to improve the condition of miners, the Miners Welfare Fund was  set up in 1920. Miners contributed a penny per tonne of coal to the fund, which in turn provided them with things like baths and, latterly, canteens and provided payment in the event of unemployment and death.

It made you think what the people of Middleton who worked down the mine must have been going through.

The information we gathered will be used to put together a special edition of the South Leeds Life magazine, create a film about Middleton’s history and put together a permanent mural at the new Tenants Hall Enterprise Centre.

Next week Middleton Life members are hoping to interview some of the older members of Middleton Elderly Aid and record their memories of old Middleton. You can still join Middleton Life and learn more about your community’s hsitory. More details on 270 6903 or email john.baron@healthforall.org.uk.