by Bucky Schriver
For the Frostburg Express
Children of The Dark
On July 4th, 1838, in the village of Silkstone, Barnsley Borough, South Yorkshire, England, twenty-six children were drowned in Robert Couldwell Clarke's Huskar Pit Mine. A severe thunderstorm, with hail and heavy rain, caused a nearby stream to overflow it's banks. Heeding the warning to exit the mine, the children tried to scramble up the mine shaft to the opening, but their feet were swept out from under them by the rushing water that entered the mine. They were washed down against the trap door through which they had just exited.
The eldest child was seventeen years old. Sixteen were no more than ten years of age. Eleven of the victims were little girls.
The bodies of the children were brought back to the village in carts, and buried in the churchyard in Silkstone. The boys were buried in four graves, the girls in three. A large monument now marks their resting place. The boys names are inscribed on the north side of the monuments, and the girls on the south.
The accident happened only six days after the coronation of Queen Victoria. The Queen ordered the establishment of a royal commission to investigate the accident, and the report was made public in May of 1842. Lord Ashley, a well-known patron of industrial reform, made a speech before Parliament, a month later, demanding the passage of a law forbidding the employment of women and children in the mines. The resulting Mines Act forbade the use of female labor and the employment of boys under the age of 10 in the coal mines.
In the book "Victoria's Children of The Dark," author Alan Gallop exposes the sad tale of children's lives as coal miners. Children were employed as either hurriers, thrusters, or trappers. A hurrier was fitted with a leather belt, buckled in the front, to which a chain was affixed that passed between the legs. It was attached by a ring to the front of the coal car, called a corve. The hurrier, on their hands and knees, pulled the corve, usually with the help of two thrusters pushing from the back of the car.
The government report, issued in 1842, stated that "there is something very oppressive at first sight at the employment of children, hurrying in passages under 30 inches in height, and altogether not much above the size of an ordinary drain."
Trappers, who opened the doors to allow the passage of the trams, and to regulate ventilation in the mines, were often 5 to 10 years of age. Occasionally, a sympathetic miner might offer a small piece of candle, but the trappers spent most of their day sitting in total darkness, alone and afraid. The trappers were allowed to join the other miners for lunch, but returned to their solitary outposts immediately thereafter.
In the 1840s, an observer noted that "no part of their tale is more tragic than the fact that the child miners have lost all sense of playfulness and frolic. Winter clasped them in its frigid grip before they had tasted the mirth of spring. They were as little old men and women who had never known the exuberance of childhood. Their minds were too weary to receive lasting impressions in Sunday Schools, as their teachers abundantly tesified, and their bodies were too fatigued to experience any desire for recreation".
A passage in Gallop's book recounts how particularly agonizing it was to see the little girls going down in the mines.
Like some hideous ghostly apparition, the specter of child labor stowed away on the immigrant ships on the voyage to America, and it took at least 50 years until the practice was gradually phased out in the early 1900s. Before the abandonment of child labor, more than 30 children, sixteen years of age and younger, lost their lives in the coal mines of Allegany County.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
to share your thoughts and stories.
Be on the lookout for future Miner Recollections.