March, 2001, Vol. 124, No. 3
Canada's “pit” boys
Book reviews from past issues
Canada's “pit” boys
Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines. By Robert McIntosh. Montreal, Quebec, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000, 305 pp. bibliography. $34.95.
Robert McIntosh, an employee at the National Archives of Canada, has written an interesting book on child labor in Canada in the 19th-and early 20th- centuries. Boys in the Pits explores the history of boys, aged 8 to 15, who worked in the coal mines in Canada. They labored underground, leading horses along lengthy and treacherous subterranean roads, manipulating ventilation doors, helping miners cut and lift tons of coal, and filling wagon after wagon with freshly-mined coal, as the first step in its removal from the mines. For young boys, the work was very hard, as justified by their role in producing the energy that fueled Canada’s Industrial Revolution.
The author examines how the various roles of changing technology, alternative sources of unskilled labor, and legislation concerning the children from 1820 to 1940—which eventually banned children in the mine and required compulsory education—affected Canadian society, as it moved from the Industrial Age into the modern era.
One British author of a child labor book argues that, "the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in our history." The history of child labor is, thus, reduced to a chronicle of blighted childhood. McIntosh, in Boys in the Pits, reassesses this orthodoxy. In the first part, he examines "how changing attitudes and practices regarding childhood, class relations at the colliery, mining technology, the state, the working-class family, and the mining community shaped the world pit boys encountered. These circumstances drew boys into the mine, defined their place there, and eventually expelled them from the colliery."
The author writes: "The history of children is a history of their labor." Until the 19th century, the majority of young people worked in a household setting. In the growing cities, they worked shining shoes, selling newspapers, and doing odd jobs.
Large new mills, factories, and mines were more characteristic of the emerging Industrial Age. By the last decades of the 19th century, the reorganization or mechanization of traditional crafts such as cigarmaking, printing, and boot, shoe, and clothing manufacturing produced a brisk demand for child labor in urban areas of Canada. Textile mills were known for hiring girls and boys. Children also labored in sawmills, match factories, ropemaking, and bakeries across the country. Wherever new divisions of labor and machinery produced jobs that required little skill or strength, children were found employed.
Coal was the basic fuel of the Industrial Age from the 1850s on into the 1900s. It was used increasingly in railway and steam engines, to propel ocean shipping, and to heat homes and other buildings. Coal was the main source of fuel during that era, occupying the niche that petroleum does today.
The majority of the boys were taken into the mines by their fathers, brothers, or other relatives. The family claimed they were putting their sons into an apprenticeship. However, there were times when the adults were jealous of the boys because two boys were hired for each man. The men were also resentful of the boys, at times, because the boys were unionized and went on strike often, for example, when a coworker was fired, for better pay, when mine foremen whipped the boys, or when a boy’s horse died, and the company demanded that he pay $150 for it. (Although one boy admitted later that he hit one horse in the head and killed him because the horse was reckless and kicked him in the head.) The work day was long, and the boys labored in the mines for 10 to 12 hours at 32 cents to $1 per day as trappers (opening and closing the ventilation doors); drivers of horses got from 60 cents to $1 per day; boys, on balances, got from 80 cents to $1; loaders earned $1.20 to $1.30; laborers were paid from 85 cents to $1.
One miner commented in 1891: "There are no children working in the mine. They may be children when they go in at 10 or 12 years of age, but a fortnight or so thoroughly works that out of them. They then become old fashioned boys. They get inured to all sorts of danger and hardship."
After World War I, the age for starting in the mines was raised a bit, from approximately 10–12 years to 14 or 15 years. Miners were recruited from England and Wales to Canada. They also bought their children, but they encountered some resistance when they tried to bring their sons into the mines. On the Pacific coast, which had a ready supply of Asian laborers, child labor in the mines was restricted by legislation in 1877. By the late 1880s, with the mechanization of underground hauling, railroad tracks were installed and box cars were used, as well as other technology; therefore, the demand was reversed. Other innovations discouraged the employment of boys in some mines. At the same time, older miners began steering their sons away from what they viewed as a declining craft, the craft of collier.
In some areas of Canada, young-boy labor accounted for 15 to 20 percent of the coal-mining labor force in the early 1900s. Working as general laborers, some boys distributed miners’ hand picks or they greased coal tubs, changed batteries, serviced lamps, filled powder cans, loaded timbers and cordwood onto flatcars, or pushed and assembled empty tubs for return trips into the mine. The "tally" boy kept track of the amount of coal each miner sent to the surface. Some worked as helpers to the tradesmen, including blacksmiths, boilermakers, and foundry men. Other boys operated pumps, or worked as wharf hands helping to dump coal cars. Rarely did they work in the mine office. Many also worked on the mine surface cleaning coal, which consisted of removing impurities of dirt, slate, and rocks. One 13 year old recalled, "it was the most mind-stifling occupation that can be imagined. Our job was to pick out the pieces of shale from the coal as it passed on a conveyer. Watching a slow-moving conveyer passing one’s eye was enough to drive one crazy." Most boys preferred to work underground.
The work environment was harsh and frightening. There were rough footing, steep grades, low roofs, dripping water, narrow passageways, pools of stagnant water and mud, cold, rushing-air currents, clouds of bitter smoke and choking coal dust, falling stones and coal from overhead, fatal pockets of methane gas embedded in the seams, and almost universal darkness. The absence of light accentuated sounds underground: the clatter of coal tubs against underground rail lines, the scurrying of rats, the dull sound of distant explosions. One pit boy who started in the mines at age 11, in 1912, recalled that "most of the miners had to walk to their place of work. The first day I worked I had to walk 3 miles underground before I got to work, then do my 12 hours and walk back 3 miles." Some boys refused to return after the first day.
On February 21, 1891, at a mine in Nova Scotia, a charge of gunpowder was lit 1,900 feet underground to dislodge a small quantity of coal. The explosion backfired, igniting airborne coal dust. Wind and flame followed by balls of fire stormed through the mine, where 125 workers died that day; 21 of the victims were under 18 years of age, the youngest being 12 years old. Many of the pit boys experienced accidents in the mine, including broken bones, and even death as a result of rock and coal falls, being crushed, working around underground transportation on mine slopes and traveling roads. Management frequently tried to shift the blame to the pit boys, citing their irresponsibility. Trapper boys were often killed or injured. But inspectors recognized that it was not the youthfulness of the boys that caused accidents; instead, as the author notes, the root of the problem lay with careless individuals who made bad decisions.
The Provincial Workman’s Association (PWA) established a boys’ lodge in 1883 as a union among the pit boys, who were able to use the union as a bargaining tool. The pit boys did lead strikes, shutting down the mines. The young haulers were particularly strike-prone. They only needed a five-minute strike to bring the whole pit to a standstill, as tubs clogged up waiting to be removed. By the 1900s, wage structures were formalized through collective bargaining. Boys up to 17 were paid a certain rate and from ages 17 to 18, an augmented boys’ rate. After that, a boy would have to quit the job or go to a job that called for a man’s rate.
Boys in the Pits is well documented, with detailed footnotes and an extensive 37-page bibliography. It will be useful to labor historians interested in Canada, child labor, and the history of mining.
—Ernestine Patterson Leary
Office of Publications and Special Studies
Bureau of Labor Statistics
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