Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Felling Mine Disaster

As I write this, there's a bit of dust-up on the internet and on morning talk shows about a father who discovered his daughter had been disrespectful to him in a Facebook post and responded with his own special brand of retaliation. This may seem like a bit of a non sequitur, but it got me thinking about the Felling mine disaster.

Two hundred years ago this May, a mine explosion in a coal mine in what was then County Durham, England, killed 92 miners. Even today, coal mining is a hazardous profession; reportedly, there were over 6000 coal mining deaths in China in 2004 alone. Dangers to miners include the collapse of mine walls and ceilings, oxygen deprivation, and poisonous gas, not to mention the risk of developing “black lung,” a lung disease caused by chronic inhalation of carbon dust. But the most devastating danger to miners occurs when firedamp—flammable gas which can accumulate in pockets in a mine—ignites and triggers a coal dust explosion.

Miners have known about firedamp for centuries, and such explosions are still a serious risk, but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, coal mines were truly scary places. They were naturally dark, and lamps required an open flame. One safety strategy was to employ a brave miner to deliberately introduce a candle into gas pockets to ignite the gas before it could accumulate in heavy concentrations. He was called a “monk” because he performed this operation swathed in wet blankets in the (probably vain) hope the blankets would protect him from the resulting explosive flashes.

The Felling mine explosion, May 25, 1812

The Felling mine disaster occurred when firedamp ignited and the resulting coal dust explosion sent a devastating blast throughout the mine and up its two mine shafts, the John pit and the William pit, named after the Brandling brothers who owned the colliery. The disaster was such a shocking and violent occurrence that it prompted two young innovators, engineer George Stephenson and scientist Humphry Davy, to separately design safety lamps for use in mines. Stephenson went on to become the “Father of Railways,” building the first public railroad in the world, and Davy went on to a baronetcy and the presidency of the Royal Society, though their lamps ignited a conflagration of a different kind when Davy erroneously assumed that Stephenson had stolen his idea.

But the aspect of the Felling mine disaster that haunts me most is the list of victims, now inscribed on a memorial at St. Mary’s churchyard in Heworth. The blast was especially deadly because it occurred as one shift of workers was relieving the other. Of the 92 miners—three-quarters of the mine workforce—who perished in the blast, 36 were under the age of 18; 27 were under age 15. Victims Thomas Gordon and Michael Hunter were only 8, and two other boys, Thomas Craggs and George Reay, were just a year older.

Child labor in the mines.

It’s a chilling reminder of the kind of life children often led before the advent of child labor laws over the next hundred-plus years. In 1842, the Royal Commission report on Children in the Mines found that “while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which employment in these mines commences,” in some cases “Children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age.” These children typically worked shifts of twelve hours—sometimes as many as eighteen hours—doing dirty, backbreaking, and in many cases life-threatening work. The report came out in May, and was so shocking that by August 10 Parliament had passed the Coal Mines Act, prohibiting female labor underground and requiring boys in the mines to be a full ten years old.

Ten years old, and that was the improvement.

You might mention that to your teenager the next time the topic of household chores comes up—or think about it yourself the next time you feel frustrated because your otherwise-responsible teen isn't behaving in the most grown-up manner. Nowadays, kids are kids, and sometimes that's a good thing.

Alyssa Everett is currently awaiting word as to the fate of her debut regency, A Tryst With Trouble, while Dorchester Publishing reorganizes and reassesses its product lines. Her second regency, Ruined by Rumor, will definitely be coming out from the lovely Carina Press on May 21. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Anonymous said...

Well thank you for that very interesting article !!!
I just pre-ordered A Tryst With Trouble - the story seems very exciting- Cheers

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, BlackTulip! I'm glad you liked the article!