The tunnel was narrow, and a mere 16in high in places. The workers could barely kneel in it, let alone stand. Thick,choking coal dust filled their lungs as they crawled through the darkness, their knees scraping on the rough surface and their muscles contracting with pain.
A single ‘hurrier’ pulled the heavy cart of coal, weighing as much as 500lb, attached by a chain to a belt worn around the waist, while one or more ‘thrusters’ pushed from behind. Acrid water dripped from the tunnel ceiling, soaking their ragged clothes.
Many would die from lung cancer and other diseases before they reached 25.
Most were exhausted by their working hours – they were often woken at 4am and carried, half-asleep, to the pits by their parents.
Many young trappers were killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts.
The Industrial Revolution brought immense prosperity to the British Empire. Not only did Britannia rule the waves, she ruled the global marketplace, too, dominating trade in cotton, wool and other commodities, while her inventors devised ingenious machinery to push productivity ever higher.
Many of these labourers were children. With the mechanisation of Britain, traditional cottage industries, which had employed many poor families, went out of business.
These were the real David Copperfields and Oliver Twists. Beaten, exploited and abused, they never knew what it was to have a full belly or a good night’s sleep. Their childhood was over before it had begun.
No idea: Few people had any concept that children, like those pictured here, were being used to excavate coal. The findings of a report in 1842, shocked many