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simply humane point of view, coal getting is a horrible business. It is quite impossible at first sight to regard it as a means of earning bread, of which a man need be no more ashamed than though he were a carpenter or a grocer's shopman. The dungeon darkness, the slavish toil, the repulsive grime and nakedness—all seem so foreign to one's preconceived ideas of honest labour that it is hard to realise but that this must be something different. In no prison in England are men so vilely used, in a sanitary sense, at least. Oakum picking, treadmill turning, stone quarrying-compare either of these convict occupations with that of a man who is by trade a “pikeman” in a coal mine.
The process is easily described. His work is to do the “holeing” for blasting, and he sets about it as follows: He divests himself of jacket, shirt, everything except his flannel drawers, and he is naked from a liberally calculated waist upwards. He has a solid wall of coal to assail. He takes his pike, which is shaped like a road maker's pick, but is about half the size, and he lies down before the face of the wall, with his dim dip stuck in a bit of clay to light him, and commences his job. The height from the ground is a little more than from an ordinary chair seat to the floor, and he picks and picks until he works his way into the coal the length and breadth of his own extended form. He doesn't stop here; he has to cut in twelve or sixteen feet, until he is so buried under the coal mass he is undermining that all that is seen of him by his little twinkling light is his powerful arm swinging to and fro in the process of picking, and all that can be heard are the blows and the poor wretch's puffing and grunting as he goes on burrowing and burying himself. Sometimes he may be heard spluttering as well as grunting; but this is when he falls on a “wet piece," and the sodden coal dust splashes into his eyes and mouth. It isn't as though he were at liberty to protect his face. He is huddled in all of a heap, with his head resting on one arm as with the other he wields the pick, and makes the chips fly. “Do they object to wet pieces ?” I inquired. “They take it as it comes; they don't mind. Some of 'em like it because it's cooler.” And here, by the bye, I may mention a rather curious circumstance connected with undermining of coal, as related to me by the person I was addressing, a mine manager of life long experience. Some few years ago there was a twenty weeks' strike amongst the colliers, and the pits were idle all that time. My informant was a “butty,” an individual who contracts to get out coal at a certain rate. He had a contract “on” at the time of the strike, and lost several hundred pounds by it, by reason of its being discovered that when the twenty weeks closed pit was opened again nearly all the cuttings that had been made ready for blasting had “ healed up” again, but by what wonderful natural process the healing had been brought about my friend was unable to tell me.
Attached to the pick man's department of coal getting is a staff of what are known as “slack carriers.” The “slack” is the small bits and chippings that the pick man accumulates about him as he makes his way under the solid coal, and the stuff accumulates so rapidly that it is necessary to remove it at frequent intervals, and this is the slack carrier's job. He is a boy. It is a modern mining law, I believe, that no lad under thirteen shall be employed at this work; but there are objectors to this regulation on the score that, as a rule, boys of thirteen are “too big” for the business. If it might be done with the sanction of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it is a pity that a tribe of small and intelligent monkeys could not be trained to the work. It is a reproach to human kind that boys should be made to do it. A slack carrier is literally nothing else than a beast of burden. He wears harness, poor little chap !-a broad strap round his naked waist, to which is attached a chain passing in front and between his legs, and fixed to the slack box, which is a receptacle of iron. When the pick man is deep in his “cutting," it is then that the poor little drudge has to crawl as well as he is able into the black chink, pushing the iron box as he goes, or dragging it after him; and having by means of an iron shovel filled it with slack, drags it out again in the same manner. He bruises his head against the low roof, his knees are corned, his legs chafed by the shameful iron chain, his mind is deadened and brutalised by his constant slavery and the rough treatment of his taskmasters, but all this, we are told, is the proper apprenticeship to make him a “good miner;” and when the age of thirteen was fixed by law as the earliest at which a child might engage in the perilous and degrading work, there was a general outcry that thirteen was too late to begin, and that the new law would be fatal to the prime old fashioned miner breed.
Besides the pick men and the slack boys there are many other branches of mine work, and whichever way we turned were to be seen perched up here, or grovelling there, men and lads, inky black and naked to the waist, but grinning contentedly through their grime, and pulling, and hauling, and shovelling, and picking with a lusty heartiness that bespoke their complete unconsciousness that their condition was pitiable. The great difficulty, as I was informed, is to compel them to take mere ordinary care for the safety of their own lives
The very horses who work in the pit are provided with quaint-looking shields for their heads and faces, made of the stoutest bull's hide, so that they may, to some extent, be secured against having their brains knocked out by coal falling from the roof; but the miner, as a rule, works bare headed, or with nothing better than a flimsy cloth cap on his head.
Only a day or two before my visit to the Black Country an event happened frightfully illustrative of the criminal negligence of miners when left to themselves, as well as of the brutish indifference of many of their number to the chances of a sudden and violent exit from life. The place where the accident in question happened is known as the Baptist End Pit, and is situated just by the village of Netherton. The said pit had been closed during several years, and preparations were made for opening it again. Concerned in these preparations were three men of the name of Hotchkissma father, son, and cousin. The elder Hotchkiss was foreman of the job, which was to descend into the pit and fix “air troughs.” It was dangerous work, and the men knew it. They had worked down to a depth of three hundred feet, and at that point“choke damp” was to be feared—the terrible agent of death that approaches swiftly and silently, and may neither be tasted nor smelt, but to breathe which is as fatal to the senses as a dose of chloroform. But, in the words of the only surviving witness of the little working party, “the elder Hotchkiss was a reckless chap.” There were “lash chains” wherewith the men might have made themselves fast to the bare grated platform of the skip on which they descended, and on which they stood to work; but the foreman disdained all such implements of precaution, and the three went down a hundred yards deep, and with, perhaps, another hundred yards below them, to stand and work with no more security against falling than though they were mounted on a table-top.
But this was not the full extent of the man Hotchkiss's wicked folly. Having, by means of lowering a candle, discovered the exact height to which the deadly damp had risen in the long disused pit, with a daring that even in a miner is scarcely credible, Hotchkiss deliberately, and with expressed intent, had the skip lowered until it was in such a position that the men could work with their bodies in the choke-damp and their heads out of it. Nor did his two companions see anything in the act sufficiently mad or outrageous to urge them to declare against it. Working thus up to their very necks in the jaws of death, the men continued for a few minutes, and then, in the witnesses' own words, “the damp popped up," and father and son slipped away into the abyss almost before the third man missed them, and in a few seconds lay crushed and dead at the pit's bottom. And now comes the climax of this instructive episode in the life of a miner. The man remaining on the skip threw himself down and across it, and halloed to the banksman to “ hold;" but instead the latter allowed the skip to be lowered to the bottom of the shaft, and so, of course, further imperilled the poor fellow's life. The banksman explained to the coroner that directly after the word “hold” reached his ears he heard the men “drop” from the skip, and thought that all of them had fallen off, and that he gave the engine-man the signal to hurry the skip to the bottom, hoping that if any of them were alive they would "crawl on to it.”
But certain evidence the banksman further volunteered provokes the suspicion that possibly he had misunderstood the cry that came up the shaft. He had