NEIMME: papers

The Coal Miners of Durham and Northumberland: their Habits and Diseases.


(This paper was read also at the Newcastle meeting of the British Association (Sub-section D), and printed in the Transactions of the Tyneside Naturalists Club, 1863-4, vol. VI, p.200


WE search in vain amongst the works on Biology for a satisfactory definition of Life.  Our recent writers on the subject consider life as a non-entity; that per se it has no existence.  And absurd as it may appear to suppose that that does not exist which all are conscious of possessing, this idea is perhaps as near the truth as it is possible for us to get.  It is sufficient for all practical purposes to consider life as a manifestation of a mode of existence-in short, a state or condition, and that state or condition as

" The flat of that mighty God, Whose word flew forth at once to its effect; Who called for things that were not, and they came."

Yet however incorrect the theories as to the nature of Life may be, and however vain the attempts to define it, for convenience it is well to have a phrase to express the phenomena manifested in vital organisms; that of Biclard is perhaps as good as any, viz., that " Life is organization in action."  To convey this idea I shall use the shorter, but not less arbitrary phrase, "vital action."  Death may be said to be the condition opposite to life.  For similar reasons death cannot be defined, but as in the case of life, a definition is not of much practical importance, as all conceive correctly with regard to it.  All animals have a conscious or intuitive knowledge that under certain circumstances, only can the phenomena of life go on.  That which we have called vital action must cease, and that permanent cessation of vital action called death must supervene.  But the medical man has to deal with a state which may be said to be one of transition from life to death, viz., disease.  And however unimportant it may be what theory we adopt as to the nature of life and death, it is of great consequence that we form a correct conception as to the real nature of disease; and unfortunately it is very difficult indeed to say whether most error exists on this subject amongst the educated or the uneducated.  The cause of this is evident.  All consider disease to be an entity, whereas, like lif6, it is a non-entity; it cannot exist per se, and can only be recognised as a state or condition, that state or condition being modified, perverted, or suspended vital action.  Supposing, then, vital action to mean what is understood by life, modified or perverted vital action as what is understood by disease, and cessation of vital action as what is understood by death, we find that the two latter states-disease and death-are induced by influences brought to bear on the former state-life.  It is thus the part of the physician not merely to relieve suffering and restore the balance of vital phenomena when deranged, but also to endeavour to detect and point out those influences which modify and destroy vital action-which induce the states known as disease and death.  By so doing, his good offices will benefit not only those who live with him, but also, the generations which are to follow.

It has been my privilege to attend to the ailments of pitmen daily during the last twelve years, and the object of this paper is not to add any new fact to physiology, nor to detail any new form of disease, but to show what effect the exclusive habits and peculiar occupation of the coal miner of the North of England have on his health and length of life.

A few years ago a gentleman came into this neighbourhood to fill an important situation in one of our large collieries.  He arrived at his destination late at night, and slept at the inn.  The following morning, on looking out, he immediately called the landlord and asked what all those cottages were for."  Cottages, sir, those are the pitmen's houses."  “Good gracious!" said the Southerner, "I thought pitmen lived in the pit."

I think it will hardly be necessary to say they do not live in the pit; nevertheless they work there, and while at their work they breathe an atmosphere conveyed to them by artificial means, and often mingled with gases unfitted for respiration.  They live in villages built expressly for them, at a short distance from the shafts of the pits.  The villages consist of parallel streets or rows of houses.  There are single rows and double rows.  The houses are built end to end.  Those in the single rows have one Principal apartment, the size being about six yards square; a pantry is attached behind, and there is a half story or garret above.  There is a front door and a back door, and the windows, one in each apartment, are made to open by drawing the one half in front of the other.  The houses in the double rows are about twice the size of those in the single ones; they are divided into two principal apartments by a partition running lengthways, with a communicating door in the centre of the partition.  When a scarcity of houses exists in a colliery the communicating door is built up, and as in the single houses, there being a front door and a back door; the double house is thus easily converted into two single ones, and is occupied by two families instead of one.  This, although a convenient, is by no means a salutary arrangement, the single houses built end to end being much more healthy than those built back to back.

The double houses are occupied by men who have grown-up sons at work in the colliery; the single houses are occupied by men who have young families.  Married men with no children can scarcely be said to exist amongst them.  The floors are laid with a composition of lime, small coal, and gravel.  The fire range is large, and fitted with an oven and a boiler for a constant supply of hot water.  They have a plentiful supply of small coal, and the fire is never allowed to go out from one end of the year to the other.  Generally the houses are clean and comfortably furnished; a four-post bedstead, an eight-day clock, and a mahogany chest of drawers, have always been and are still considered the essentials of a well fitted-up house.  The ornaments hung on their walls might form a rich field for psychological study.  From them we can easily perceive the tendency of the mind of the owner.  You find in one, Tom Sayers, Bob Brettle, and the Manchester Chicken; in another, the Primitive Methodists, New Connexion, or Wesleyan Methodists' preachers' plan; in another, the "Madonna and Child," decidedly after Rubens; in another, numbers of home-made cages, containing every variety of the finch tribe; in another, a trombone, cornet, or violin; and in all but the skip jack's, you find the emblem of either the “Foresters," "Odd Fellows," or "Free Gardeners" benefit society.  And should you find yourself in a house with nothing to observe but bare walls, disorder, filth, and scanty furniture, you are not to suppose that the owner has no weakness-his has degenerated into vice or crime, and in all probability you are in the cottage not of the habitual drunkard, but of the gambler or the poacher.  But, no matter what the failing or weakness of the pitman may be, if he is to enjoy the privilege of living in a pit village, he must work.  He enjoys all the advantages of a despotic power and a monarchical government, and he must not only work, but he must perform that portion of work assigned to him.  There is no branch of industry carried on with more system and regularity than coal mining.  Officials and men have each their distinct duty, clear and unmistakeable.  They rank much in the following order:-Viewer, under-viewer, overman, back overman, deputy, hewers, “off handed men," putters, drivers, and boys.  The viewer is supreme, and the under-viewer sees that his orders are carried into effect.  The duties of the overman consist in visiting the workings every morning, receiving the reports from the deputies, making observations on the air currents, and general management of the underground work.  To his office is sent an account of all the work done in the pit, and on the Wednesday before the 11 pay" (which is every alternate Friday afternoon), the overman “reckons" with the men, i.e. he compares the account received of their work with that kept by themselves.  The back overman superintends the management of the pit from the time the overman leaves until five o'clock in the evening, when the pit is said to "loose" or stop work.  The “caller," who is a man appointed to rouse the men in the morning, makes his first round at half-past twelve, and knocks at all the doors with D chalked on them.  These are the deputies' houses; they go to work an hour before the hewers.  Their work consists of supporting the roof with props of wood, removing props from old workings, changing the air currents when necessary, and clearing, away any sudden eruption of gas or fall of stone that might impede the work of the hewer.

The coal in some parts of the pit is softer and more easily wrought than in others, and to prevent quarrelling and partiality that to be hewn is divided into lots; they draw their lots once a quarter, this is called "kyeveling," and the place or lot assigned to each man is called his "kyevel."  The hewers are divided into “fore-shift" men and "back-shift" men.  The former work from one till nine, and the latter from nine till five.  Each man works one week in the fore-shift and one week in the back-shift, alternately.  Every man in the fore-shift marks 1 on his door -this is the sign for the caller to wake him at that hour.  When roused by the caller, he gets up and dresses in his pit clothes, consisting of a loose jacket, vest, and knickerbockers, all made of thick white flannel; long stockings, strong shoes, and a close-fitting, thick leather cap.  He then takes a piece of bread and water, or a cup of coffee, but never a full meal-many prefer to go to work fasting.  With a tin bottle full of cold water or tea, a piece of bread, which is called his "bait," his Davy lamp, and “baccy box," he says good bye to his wife, and speeds off to work.  Placing himself in the cage, he is lowered to the bottom of the shaft, where he lights his lamp and proceeds "in by," to a place appointed, to meet the deputy.  The deputy examines each man's lamp, and if found safe, returns it locked to the owner.  Each man then finding from the deputy that his place is right, proceeds onwards to his kyevel- his picks in one hand, and his lamp in the other.  He travels thus a distance varying from one to six hundred yards, the height of the roof being from three feet six inches to four feet.  To progress in this space the feet are kept wide apart, the body is bent at right angles with the hips, the head is held well down, and the face is turned forward.  Arrived at his place, he undresses, and begins by hewing out about fifteen inches of the lower part of the coal; he thus undermines it, and the process is called "kirving;" the same is done up the sides, this is called "nicking." 

The process of kirving is conducted as follows:- The hewer sits on a low stool (four inches in height), and grasping his pick with both hands, makes successive horizontal blows.  To give the greatest effect to the stroke his head is thrown to one side, his left leg extended and his right bent, his right elbow resting on the right thigh enables the leg to augment the force of the arms.  The coal thus hewn is called small coal, and that remaining between the kirve and the nicks is the “jud" or "top," which is either displaced by driving in wedges or blasted down with gunpowder.  It then becomes the “roundy."  The hewer fills his tubs, and continues thus alternately hewing and filling.  Meanwhile the caller having roused the putters, drivers, and off handed men, the pit "hings on," i.e., starts work at five o'clock.  The putters get down into the workings, and either push the full tubs along or get them pulled by ponies towards the shaft.  The tubs are conducted into the cage by the “onsetter," and conveyed to "bank," where the coal is weighed, screened, and sorted for the market.  Hewing is decidedly the hardest work in the pit.  The men are generally perspiring freely by the time they reach their kyevel; and although they work almost in a state of nudity, in a few minutes after they begin to hew the perspiration is running from them in streams.  Unless hindered by want of tubs this continues until the end of the shift.  At nine o'clock the back shift men arrive, and begin work, and the fore-shift men go home.

The pitman never feels hungry while at work, but on coming out he becomes ravenous; and takes food as soon as he enters his cottage.  Many of the fore-shift men eat “crowdy," which is composed of oatmeal, hot water, and butter.  Others take coffee or tea, with bread and butter, and some take dinner.  The back-shift men always have dinner; this usually consists of roast beef or mutton and potatoes, with a boiled suet dumpling or pudding.  They eat their pudding first, and beef or mutton after.  They take animal food once a day only, and considering the great muscular exertion necessary in hewing, the amount of beef and mutton they eat is moderate.  They seldom  or never drink beer at dinner; most smoke a pipe after it, and then they wash.  This washing process is done very effectually.  A  large wooden tub of hot water is placed before the fire, and the man then sits down on a small stool, with one leg on each side of the tub, and being supplied with a piece of soap, he begins by washing his hands, arms, and chest; head, neck, and face follow, and he ends with the lower extremities, one after the other.  This finished, if in the fore-shift, he goes to bed, his wife hands him his pipe lighted, and in a few seconds he is fast asleep.  The back-shift men dress after dinner, and employ themselves as their fancy leads them.  Quoits, bowling, and ball-playing are their out-door games; cricket, wrestling, and jumping are seldom practised.  A species of pitch and toss called "scouling," is their great gambling game.  Their house games are whist, draughts, and dominoes. 

Whatever amusement or subject they take up, it is stuck to perseveringly.  They are very matter-of fact, and have considerable powers of concentration.  Every available piece of ground near the villages is converted into a garden, and almost every cottage has one attached to it.  Some keep poultry, and most feed pigs.  They cure their own bacon with great success.  Their bread home-made.  Two kinds are used by them-white and brown; "spiced wigs" prevail on Sundays, and the "singing hinny" makes its appearance on grand occasions.  Great excesses are still prevalent on the pay Friday and Saturday nights.  Ale is the liquor chiefly drunk.  But no matter what excesses a man may commit on the pay week end, he must be at his post on the Monday following, or run the risk of being discharged; so that the habitual drunkard is sure to lose his employment.  In all my experience among them I have never known a case of dipsomania, nor have I had to treat a single case of delirium tremens:  this is more than I can say for many other callings: By the rules of their benefit societies no one, while receiving sick money, is allowed to frequent public-houses, he is not to be out later than nine o'clock in summer, and seven o'clock in winter, and he cannot leave home without the sanction of his medical attendant.  Men who are injured while at work in the pit get a weekly allowance of five shillings from the owners of the colliery.  This is called " smart money."

We have now to inquire what there is in all this to modify or destroy vital action.  Having procured from the Registrar General a copy of the sanitary statistics relating to miners submitted to the International Statistical Congress-I find in a table contained in that document of the aggregate number of deaths of miners, fifteen years old and upwards, in nineteen districts of England and Wales, during the five years 1849-53, from all causes 7,434 deaths registered.  Of these, 81 were occasioned by small-pox, 810 from cholera and diarrhxa, 431 by typhus, 101 by other zymotic diseases, 304 by diseases of the brain, 361 by heart disease and dropsy, 1,663 by phthisis, 790 by diseases of the lungs, 260 by diseases of the stomach and liver, 71 by diseases of the kidneys, 37 by diseases of the joints, 1813 by violent deaths, and by other causes 709.

From this we observe that violence is the most frequent cause of death.  Accidental violence also incapacitates the pitmen from work oftener than any special disease or ailment.  Accidents, if not immediately fatal, are not often so ultimately.  During the last seven years 260 men who had got injured at work, were under my care for periods varying from one week to six: months; and although many were cases of an apparently hopeless nature, all recovered but two, one of whom had organic disease, and the other went to work too soon, and partook largely of stimulants.  In all those cases, many of which were compound comminuted fractures, there did not occur one single instance of pycemia, that complication which is so common and so fatal in the accident wards of all our large hospitals.  Phthisis stands next as the most prevalent cause of death.  From my own experience, I should say that phthisis is not a prevalent disease amongst the pitmen of the North of England, and I have further to notice in this district the absence of the so-called black phthisis or carbonaceous lung.  I asked three intelligent pitmen who had worked in Scotch mines if they could account for the prevalence of the disease there.  One attributed it to imperfect ventilation, another to the heaviness of the coal dust, the third said it was partly owing to the nature of the dust and partly to the oil lamps they wore on their heads.  It is interesting to note that writers on pathology have attributed this disease to each of these causes.  Under the head Diseases of the Lungs, we have 790 deaths.  Attacks of pleuro-pneumonia are not unfrequent, and bronchitis is common. 

It is rare to find an old pitman, who has moved about much from one colliery to another, who is not short-winded.  Not having had an opportunity of making post mortem examinations in such cases, I cannot say what the pathological state of the lung is, but we can easily conceive that the irritating nature of the gas which often is unavoidably inhaled by them may give rise to spasmodic asthma.  The sudden changes of the temperature of the air they breathe also cause repeated attacks of congestion and bronchitis.  The small bronchial tubes becoming obstructed, the air vesicles behind them collapse, and the surrounding healthy vesicles dilate, and so constitute the disease known as emphysema.  This condition of the lung I believe to be the chief cause of the oppressed breathing of the miner.  361 deaths occur from heart disease-this seems a small proportion when we consider that the ailment just alluded to brings on heart affection, and also that the rheumatic diathesis, which prevails amongst them (not the tubercular), is such a great source of organic disease of the heart.  Contrary to what we might expect, from the violent muscular exertions necessary in hewing, and from working frequently in wet and damp places, and always more or less exposed to currents of air, rheumatism and rheumatic fever do not often affect the coal hewer.  Their freedom from this as well as other formidable diseases, is clearly owing to the free perspirations while at work, and the daily ablutions with soap and hot water at home.  The drivers and boys are more exposed to drafts of air, and do not perspire so freely; they are, therefore, more liable to rheumatic fever, and its frequent consequence, heart disease and dropsy.  The hard work and constrained position in the mine is unsuited for the youth with an enfeebled heart; he does not look sufficiently ill to excite compassion or sympathy; but, with the exception of epilepsy, there is no other disease so inimical to the poor young pitman.

Heart disease naturally leads us to the other great source of dropsical effusious-disease of the kidneys.  There is nothing that a pitman complains of oftener than a pain in the back; it is sometimes so severe as to unfit him for work.  I believe it to be lumbago, induced by the great strain on the muscles of that part, and in no way connected with the kidneys.  I have had occasion to treat a few cases of renal calculi, but I never saw a case of Bright's disease in a pitman.  That the disease is not uncommon in the district may be known from the fact that at the time I write I have five patients under treatment for albuminuria, and three of them the wives of pitmen; and here again we find the salutary nature of the pitman's work in the mine, and his cleanly habits at home, freeing him from another formidable and fatal disorder.  I fail to trace any particular liability to disease of the brain, unless the stooping position may tend to produce apoplexy.  260 deaths occur from diseases of the stomach and liver.  Gastric and hepatic derangements are by no means uncommon, owing to excesses at the " pay," irregularities in diet, and smoking tobacco, but pitmen are not more liable to indisposition from these causes than tradesmen or mechanics.  From diseases of the joints we have only 37 deaths out of the 7,434, showing that their joints, though hardly dealt with, do not often suffer.  The deaths from zymotic diseases are not numerous, when we deduct 810 arising from cholera and diarrhcea, which prevailed as epidemics during that period.  They visit much amongst each other, and a contagious epidemic is apt to spread through the whole village; but owing to the construction of the cottages, and the fires being kept constantly burning, the ventilation is good, and consequently the rate of mortality from infectious disorders is low.  In my neighbourhood the trees incline towards the east, and I infer from this that the most prevalent winds are west; the rows of cottages should therefore be built running east and west.  Those thus placed, and on elevated ground, were observed to be the most healthy.

But, as formerly stated, this table has been constructed from nineteen mining districts.  Those districts have been classed into four groups:-

1.  Cornish districts;

2.  Staffordshire districts;

3.  Northumberland and Durham districts; and

4.  South Wales districts. 

On examination of those groups we find the South Wales districts the most unhealthy, and the Northumberland and Durham districts the most healthy.  To every 100 miners of the aggregate of the four groups of the mining districts living at fifteen years and upwards, the annual deaths are 1811; in Durham and Northumberland they are 1-312.  We further notice from the same table that in the Durham and Northumberland districts the deaths per cent. of males, exclusive of miners, are 1855; whilst in the South Wales districts the numbers are, for miners, 2618; and deaths, exclusive of miners, 2214.  Thus we perceive that the per-centage of deaths of miners in the Northumberland and Durham districts is only about one-half that of the South Wales districts; also, we notice, that the percentage of pitmen's deaths of the Northumberland and Durham districts is less than that of the males of the same district, exclusive of miners, whilst the reverse of this obtains in the South Wales districts, the per-centage of deaths of miners there being greater than that of males, exclusive of miners.

From another table in the same document of the after-life time of males of all classes at the age of twenty, we find the after-life time of males of all classes in England and Wales at twenty to be, in round numbers, 39 years.  From 63 healthy country districts, 43; Cornish miners, 34; Staffordshire, 33; Durham and Northumberland, 42; South Wales, 30.  Thus the miner of the North of England has an average of life three years longer than the aggregate of Englishmen; eight years longer than the Cornish miner; nine than the Staffordshire, and twelve than the South Wales miner, and only one year less than that of the men of the healthiest districts in the kingdom.  But these calculations were made ten years ago, and although my experience corroborates them, it is desirable to bring some additional facts to bear on the subject, to substantiate the results of past researches, and of my own personal observations.

Within the last few days I have taken from the Registrar of the Easington Union the cause of death of every coal miner and every coal miner's son above ten years of age, who died during the last ten years.  The Union has an area of 34,780 acres, and a population of 26,938; eight or nine large collieries are within it, and the number of coal-hewers is considerably above 3,000; the deaths from all causes have been 5,365; the deaths of coal miners and men who worked in or about collieries are 470; of these 35 were caused by smallpox, cholera, and fever; 33 by disease of the brain, including apoplexy, paralysis, and tetanus; 60 from disease of the heart and dropsy; 56 from phthisis, (20 of the deaths from phthisis occurred under 20 years, some had not worked underground, and some are registered as screen-men) ; 41 from diseases of the lungs, including bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma; 17 from diseases of the liver; 2 from diseased joints; from abscess, haemorrhage, and cancer, 11; 4 from disease of the kidneys; 45 from old age and exhaustion, and from violence (including 1 by suffocation; 2 by burning; 2 by feloniously cutting and stabbing)-166.  We notice here the large proportion of deaths from accident, the paucity of phthisis, and the number of deaths from old age; (in addition to the 45 dying of old age, 13 of those registered as dying of heart disease, asthma, and bronchitis, were upwards of 70 years old.)  Two deaths occurred from joint disease; 1 from Bright's disease, and not one from the specific diseases brought on by excessive drinking.  These facts, I think, must show that there is nothing in the habits and occupation of the coal miner of this neighbourhood detrimental to his health; but rather that his peculiarities, however unnatural and even indecent they may appear to some, tend to his welfare.  On going to work, were he to take a full meal, his digestion, from his position, would be either entirely suspended, or unduly hurried; and if he washed prior to taking food on his return home, this process which more than anything else maintains his healthy vigour, would be less efficiently done, his stomach might suffer by its own secretion, and his appetite and digestive power would certainly diminish, and so also, if he followed the usual custom and ate his mutton first, mastication might be neglected.

Pitmen marry young, and are thus freed from a host of imaginary and real diseases which embitter the existence of thousands more fortunately placed.  I would say, then, to the philanthropist- "Let well alone," and do not interfere with the physical condition of the miner in our northern coal-fields.  A more useful and important aim would be to try to improve his moral state, although even in this respect he is better than he seems, and has been grossly misrepresented.  The ruffian is considered as much a ruffian in a colliery village as he could be anywhere.  Much of this is due to Methodism; and however deeply we must regret the lack of confidence of a community in the established religion of their country, it is to the credit of the dignitaries of our church that they recognise the good accomplished by the exercise of means which, although they cannot approve, they do not condemn.