Shameful past of Falkirk’s mining industry

Carron Company's William Pit
Carron Company's William Pit

Last week I finished work on a new book about the Free Colliers whose founding fathers battled against the oppressive rule of Victorian mine owners.

Underground conditions were appalling and any attempts to improve them were resisted by the owners whose aim seemed to be maximise production for the lowest possible cost. Bad as things were, however, they were nothing compared to what miners suffered in earlier generations. It is hard to find a more disgraceful episode in Scotland’s long history and sadly our district was among the worst offenders.

From 1606 Scottish colliers were enslaved as bonded labour, tied to their pit and employer to be bought or sold like so many wooden props or lengths of rail.

Those who tried to leave could be brought back and punished by imprisonment, or worse. Not until 1799 were they freed by law from this serfdom and only because the employers needed to recruit more men to work in the rapidly expanding industry. It didn’t stop the exploitation of woman and young children, however.

All over the district boys and girls, some as young as six years of age, found themselves in dark and dangerous places, hundreds of feet below the ground. The full extent of this ill treatment was not revealed until 1842 when the remarkable testimonies of the children themselves were reported to Parliamentary Commissioners.

From Redding to Bo’ness, Bantaskine to Kinnaird came horror stories that shamed all involved, including two leading colliery owners, Carron Company and the Duke of Hamilton. In Falkirk Rebbecca Simpson aged 11 worked underground along with her sister pulling hutches of coal weighing seven hundredweight up a 200-yard slope 14 times a day. “if it is difficult to draw, brother George [who was 14] helps us up the brae,” she said. In Redding, Thomas Walker (13), a coal hewer, usually worked a 13-hour shift beginning at about 2 a.m.

In the same place a trapper boy, David Guy (7), sat for hours operating a ventilation door by hand: “Its no very hard work, but unco lang, and I canna hardly get up the stair-pit when work is done”. James Watson (9) found Redding pit “gai dark … an awfu frightsome place”, and one of the inspectors visiting Stoney Rigg colliery met 17-year-old Margaret Hipps and was appalled by what he found: “ is almost incredible to believe that human beings can submit to such employment, crawling on hands and knees, harnessed like horses, and over soft slushy floors.”

Sadly, concern for the wellbeing of the workers was almost non-existent. Mary Sneddon from Bo’ness reported: “Brother Robert was killed on 21st January last: a piece of roof fell on his head and he died instantly. He was brought home, coffined and buried in Bo’ness kirk-yard. No one came to enquire how he was killed; they never do in this place.”

The outcry that followed the publication of the report led to a new law banning all females and boys under 10 from underground work, and while this did not end exploitation or improve conditions, it at least removed some of the worst excesses.

However, it is a sobering thought that the industrial revolution which laid the foundation for much of our wealth and prosperity was based on such inhumanity.