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The Colliers of Scotland
Tom Frew

More about Coalmining

Let me preface the following article with my personal experience of underground mining. As a young man commencing my working life, I left Auld Scotia’s shores to work in the “hard rock” mining industry. By that I mean copper, zinc, tin, gold and uranium [U235] fortunately mostly dealing with equipment and treatment plant on the surface but many times by necessity kilometres underground.

They say that Scottish engineers excel mainly because they have no imagination, wrong I could never forget the thousand of tons of rock and mullock waiting to descend upon my hard hat! Yet hard rock mining is comparatively safe compared with coal mining.

Once and once only did I ever venture down a coalmine, my admiration for those brave individuals who were labelled the “Colliers” were working in conditions sufficient to boggle the mind? The yesteryear problems of silicoses of the lungs due to coal dust, rheumatism via soaking wet conditions and the never-ending danger of coal gas and sudden flooding made the price of a bag of coal and insult for their endeavours.

Yet from a historical perspective many of us have an impasse pertaining to the life and history of the colliers apart from registry details of marriages, births and death notices. However poignant is the perennial scene of silent families waiting at the pithead, all too many wondering if new widows are created through some mishap deep in the bowels of the earth. In fact to most people coal was just something that fronted up on the back of truck, how or where it came from few gave thought to other than someone “simply” dug it out of the ground. How wrong can one be?

Coal itself seems to have been in use probably from around the 12th century. During the reign of William the Lion he granted the monks of Holyrood Abbey tithes to the coal on the south side of the Firth of Fourth. Other Abbeys also were interested recognizing the potential use of coal. Original workings were usually a combination of surface material, which was readily accessible but limited and the need for deeper excavation mining soon followed. This raised the need for additional labour and hence the collier came in to existence.

Conditions in those mines must have been primitive and one can but surmise that obtaining labour without some form of subterfuge became standard practice. From the earliest times until 1799 the pit owners held colliers in bondage. The book “ History of Scottish Coal Industry’ by Baron Duckam is a worthwhile read.

The Scottish Poor Laws of 1579 & 1597 allowed vagrants to bind themselves to any employer willing to receive them and for pauper children to be placed in what amounted to lifetime bondage. An Act in 1606 forbad the employing of colliers or coal bearers without a written certificate by their previous employer of their freedom to leave his employ. Obviously the mine owner only had to withhold such a certificate to maintain his firm grip on the collier. Those who absconded probably took the Kings shilling and joined the army but nevertheless the law of the time treated absconders as if they had stolen their own bodies from their owner. Penalties were extremely severe for those endeavouring to escape their bondage.

The colliers were predisposed to working as family units, the men and older boys hacking at the coalface with the most primitive tools, more often than not in a space barely enough to crawl in to. The women and children as young as six dragging or carrying the coal to the surface in baskets weighing anything up to 100 kilos seems an impossibility in the 21st century. The environmental working condition in those far off days is beyond today’s comprehension.

Generally living conditions away from the mine site must have been poor, nay was primitive! Housing “miners rows” usually rows of attached one or two rooms left little to the imagination, degrading squalor has been historically recorded. Other housing was in a quadrangle format usually called ”squares”.

Pre-1800 miners rows consisted of a single room with dirt floors, sanitary conditions confined to a bucket, water either from a rain barrel or a communal tap.  Is it any wonder that alcoholism was rampant?

Nevertheless let us not for a moment assume that those early colliers were a cowed group far from it but their emancipation was a long way off.

Their constant fight for wages and conditions passed from one generation to the next The Industrialization of Industry would be one lever through which the demand for coal helped their cause. In concluding this very brief dissertation let me say that the true price of a bag of coal, should have been far beyond anyone’s reach. There is much more that can be written about the Scottish Colliers history but we need to contain ourselves in consideration of the Webmaster.

One final anecdote on the subject of coal, it is an extract from a personal journal: Quote:

"Much later in life my Dad a bricklayer, told me of that 1920/30-depression era, when he was forced to do any type of work that was going. In the early 1930’s he worked driving a coal delivery truck that an Uncle owned. Dad had to bag the coal at the mine head, load the truck and drive around Glasgow trying to sell the fuel.

As you are aware some of the tenements in Glasgow are four and five story high with no lifts so imagining Dad walking up those flights of stairs with a 112 lb bag of coal on his back makes the mind cringe in today life style. A favourite dodge of many poor struggling housewives of the era was to let the coal get dumped in their internal storage area and then tell Dad that they had no money but he could take payment from their bodies.

Coal at a shilling a bag might not seem much now but then was a different story altogether. Dad told me that bad enough having to carry the coal up but bagging it again and carrying down got him really on to a steep learning curve. Nevertheless Old Jock being a soft touch at the best of times admitted that odd lump of coal did not go in the bag so at least a family might get one fire of an evening

He soon learned however to get the money first!! Nevertheless that a woman had to demean herself to such an extent for her family is a cruel reminder of the impressed conditions forced upon decent hard working people, given the opportunity to do so?"

Warmest regards to all readers of the Monklands website - Tom

 

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