Coal Mining in the UK During the Industrial Revolution

child coal miners

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The state of the mines which boomed throughout the United Kingdom during the industrial revolution is a passionately argued area. It is very hard to generalize about the living and working conditions experienced in mines, as there was great regional variation and some owners acted paternalistically while others were cruel. However, the business of working down the pit was dangerous, and safety conditions were often far below par.


Coal miners were paid by the amount and quality of the coal they produced, and they could be fined if there was too much "slack" (the smaller pieces). Quality coal was what owners required, but managers determined the standards for quality coal. Owners could keep costs low by claiming the coal was of a poor quality or rigging their scales. A version of the Mines Act (there were several such acts) appointed inspectors to check the weighing systems. 

Workers received a relatively high basic wage, but the amount was deceptive. A system of fines could quickly reduce their pay, as could having to buy their own candles and stoppages for dust or gas. Many were paid in tokens which had to be spent in shops created by the mine owner, allowing them to recoup the wages in profits for overpriced food and other goods. 

Working Conditions

Miners had to cope with hazards regularly, including roof collapses and explosions. Starting in 1851, inspectors recorded fatalities, and they found that respiratory illnesses were common and that various illnesses plagued the mining population. Many miners died prematurely. As the coal industry expanded, so did the number of deaths, Mining collapses were a common cause of death and injury. 

Mining Legislation

Government reform was slow to take place. Mine owners protested these changes and claimed many of the guidelines meant to protect the workers would reduce their profits too greatly, but the laws passed during the nineteenth century, with the first Mines Act passing in 1842. Although it contained no provisions for housing or inspection. It represented a small step in the government taking responsibility for safety, age limits, and wage scales. In 1850, another version of the act required regular inspection in mines throughout the U.K. and gave the inspectors some authority in determining how the mines were run. They could fine owners, who violated the guidelines and report deaths. However, at the start, there were only two inspectors for the entire country. 

In 1855, a new act introduced seven basic rules about ventilation, air shafts, and the mandatory fencing off of unused pits. It also established higher standards for signaling from the mine to the surface, adequate breaks for the steam-powered elevators, and safety rules for steam engines. Legislation enacted in 1860 banned children under twelve from working underground and required regular inspections of the weighing systems. Unions were allowed to grow. Further legislation in 1872 increased the number of inspectors and made sure they actually had some experience in mining before they began.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the industry had gone from being largely unregulated to having miners represented in Parliament through the surging Labour Party. 

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Wilde, Robert. "Coal Mining in the UK During the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). Coal Mining in the UK During the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Coal Mining in the UK During the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).