May 2009

Boys in the pits

The role of children in the history of the Canadian coal industry

By R. Bergen

Boys of the coal mines, Pictou County, ca. 1900

Through modern eyes, their black and white images are unsettling. Disguised by the coal dust on their faces and cut of their clothes, their proportions betray their youth. Their heads are too large for their bodies; their cheeks are too round. Today, Canadian children of the same age are expected to carry their backpacks to school and return weighted down by the inhumane burden of homework — the idea that they should be working or might even be eager to take on 40 hours or more of work each week seems absurd. Of course, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

“To keep young persons from work till they are 12 years of age will, I fear, create the objection to labour which through their life they will be unable to overcome,” argued a British mining inspector in 1870. From the height and centre of the empire, this sentiment travelled with the Welsh, English and Scottish coal miners who brought their skills and traditions to the coalfields in Canada.

The number of boys working in the mines in the late 19th century depended on the region. In the collieries of Vancouver Island, most of the menial labour fell to Chinese or Japanese men, who were on average paid less than boys. In 1895, at the Nanaimo Colliery, boys could make up to two dollars per day; Chinese men were limited to $1.25. The mines of Nova Scotia, with more established Anglo communities around them, employed many more boys. At the Sydney mines in Cape Breton, a full quarter of the mine workers in the 1880s were under 18.

What compelled them to go underground varied, noted Robert McIntosh in his authoritative Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines. Some parents may have exploited their children; others needed the income to sustain the household. Often accidents injured or killed fathers, which forced sons to help make ends meet. However, there were perks to becoming a wage-earner. “It represented a change in their status at home,” explained one historian in McIntosh’s book. “Now their sisters waited on them and they were treated like men.”

The youngest, sometimes only as old as ten, were often initiated as ‘door-boys’ or trappers. They would sit by the doors that controlled the ventilation of the mining shafts and listen for the approach of horses hauling coal tubs, pulling open the doors and then shutting them once the load was clear. Sitting in the dark for hours at a time, the primary challenge was staying awake. Those who did fall asleep where shaken awake by the impatient curses of the older boys waiting at the door.

Once strong enough, the boys would become drivers who guided the horses through the mine shafts. The job entailed more responsibility and considerably more risk. They had to protect the horses from being run over by tubs full of hundreds of kilograms of coal, and they had to protect themselves from the heavy equipment and the sometimes unpredictable animals. Accidents were common.

The career ladder led to the coal face. Young helpers cleaned the coal, fetched tools, minded the lamps, kept blasting powder cans full and made sure the coal tubs were rolling in and out. Once their apprenticeship was complete, they graduated to mining themselves. In mining communities, the largely abstract advantages of formal education had limited relevance to families, who for generations had sustained themselves with the lessons passed on in the dark mines.

Above ground, the industrial age they were fueling would eventually make this tradition obsolete. In urban centres like Halifax and Montreal, social reformers pushing for compulsory education had been gaining momentum in the 19th century. The middle class was growing in size and influence and their quality of life was underwritten by literacy and numeracy — skills understood to have universal value. By these new standards, the manners and language learned in the mines were coarse and unfit for children. The culture of childhood was being redefined — the playground was invented; compulsory school attendance and laws limiting child labour were on the books, even if they were not being enforced. Then, as now, parents resented being told by the state how they should raise their children.

Work in the mines, however, changed as well. In the 1880s and ’90s mechanization and a shift from the bord-and-pillar technique to longwall mining replaced the hands-on skills of individual miners. Engineers and managers, beneficiaries of formal education, now directed production. Over the next few decades, with the exception of the First World War, steady employment was reserved for men, and boys, just as women had been a century before, were cut from the eligible workforce.

Social attitudes kept pace; new expectations of childhood and the concept of ‘adolescence’ took root. It is difficult now to see the grimy, chubby black and white faces and consider the boys as anything but children and victims — a characterization they would likely bristle at and might respond with a string of curses, the colour rising in their cheeks.

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