On 28 April 1842, the first report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment was presented to parliament. The commission had been established by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, an aristocratic social reformer who became known as the ‘Poor Man’s Earl’ after he campaigned for better working conditions, reform to lunacy laws and a limitation on child labour.
The report was compiled by Richard Henry Horne, a poet, critic and friend of Charles Dickens. It concentrated on the lives of children who worked in mines. Hundreds of young workers (and some older people) were interviewed, including miners from Heaton Colliery. Their words and the rest of the report give an invaluable insight into the lives they led.
This report and a second one into conditions in factories and other workplaces shocked many in Victorian Britain and inspired writers and campaigners for reform such as Dickens himself (for example in ‘A Christmas Carol’), Elizabeth Gaskell (‘Mary Barton’) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘The Cry of the Children’).
The 53 Heaton Colliery interviews had taken place at Bigges Main a year earlier on 1 May 1841. The youngest boys were eight or nine years old. Joshua Stephenson, thought to be about eight years old, said he had been down the pit for two years or more. He was entered in the colliery returns as seven years old and at the pit for two months but the heap-keeper corroborated the boy’s account. Joshua, who was 3 feet 8 3/4 inches tall and ‘far from robust and healthy’ told the interviewer that he got up at 3 o’clock in the morning, went down the pit at four o’clock and got home about five in the afternoon. He ate mainly bread and cheese for ‘bait’ and meat and potatoes for dinner. He had never been to any kind of school.
The oldest interviewee was Thomas Batty ’Aged 93 according to his own account and that of the agents’. He had gone down the pit at the age of six or seven and had worked in or around the mines of Northumberland until aged 85, although above ground, as an overman, from his 50s onwards. He talked about the hard times miners endured in the old days, which must have been from the mid 1750s.
Many of the young miners spoke about their health and well-being. Nine year old Joseph Taylor said he was frightened of the dark when he started and that, when driving a rolley (the horse-drawn conveyance on which coal was transported underground), he fell off perhaps once a day. Once, he said, the rolley went over him ‘but luckily not the wheels’. He lay in between them and was unhurt. Robert Harrison was slightly burnt ‘by a shot being fired too near him’.
Joseph Mackenzie thought ‘the smoke in the furnace in going down and up’ did not agree with him. He was often sick in the morning before leaving home but never stayed off work. 14 year old Joseph Beaney reported similar symptoms and blamed the air in the pit. He reported that he often felt drowsy and short of breath. Others had similar experiences and many spoke of leg, back and shoulder pain. Nevertheless, a number of the boys said that they didn’t want to leave the pit because, in winter, it was warmer down there than above ground. Parents also often wanted their children to work underground because the pay was relatively good (although perhaps only a fifth of the adult wage, which was, of course, a big attraction for employers) and many feared that they wouldn’t be able to feed their families without the extra, young breadwinners.
Many of the boys reported getting up at 3:00am for a 4:00am start. Twelve year old George Beresford rose at half past two every morning because, he said, he ‘lives a good way off at Ouseburn’. He arrived home about 5:30pm, had his dinner and a wash then went straight to bed at 7 or 8 o’clock. ‘Never has any time for play’.
Some occasionally worked double shifts and 15 year old George Foster said he once worked a treble shift, 36 hours underground with a couple of hours rest in total. Joseph Peel, aged 14, said that he he had often worked three shifts without coming to the surface and, on one occasion four – 48 consecutive hours underground.
Most of the boys had never been to school but some attended Sunday school. Nine year old Joseph Taylor, for example, said that he went to the Methodist school on Sunday. ‘Learnt the Bible and ciphering. Can read (pretty well). Cannot write at all.’ 15 year old George Foster could ‘read an easy book, cannot write.’ Edward Wright, an 18 year old, said he taught at the Sunday school. In his class were 11 boys from the pits. ‘These 11 boys are the active boys but in general the pit boys are stupid and dull.’
One of the fuller accounts was that of 17 year old Surtees Blackburn. He explained that he had been ‘down pits about 10 years’, starting with ‘two years down the middle pit at Heaton’. We know that the pithead of Middle Pit was approximately where Rokeby Terrace is now.
He described the various jobs he had done: ‘Kept a door for about two years. Next drove rolleys for four years. Hoisted the corves (hazel baskets in which coal was carried to the surface) by cranes for two years. Has been putting (moving corves of coal from the working area to the cranes to be lifted onto the rolley) and such-like the other two years… Is now putting the stones away from the sinking pit. This is not hard work.’ In fact he ‘Never found anything worse from his work than being tired sometimes’ and he was ‘Laid off work never more than a day now and then’.
Surtees might not have considered the work difficult but, in common with the majority of the boys he said that he: ‘Gets up at about 3 o’clock a.m. Goes down the pit about 4 o’clock,’ and he ‘Once worked 3 shifts, i.e. 36 hours, without coming up, 3 or 4 years since’. He made little of the fact ‘the overman hits the boys a few bats, not to hurt them much.’
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Surtees seemed to value education. The interviewer noted that he ‘Can read (well). Can write his name. Goes to a night-school in winter. Goes to Sunday-school regularly to teach and to chapel afterwards.’
We wondered whether it was possible to find out more about Surtees. Who were his parents and brothers and sisters? Where did they call home? Did he marry and have children of his own? Did he spend his whole working life as a miner? And how for long did he live?
We chose Surtees, in part because we expected that identifying him in the records to be more straightforward than trying to track fellow colliers with more common names such as Joseph Taylor, Thomas Todd and Robert Harrison. Surely there would be only one Surtees Blackburn.
Luckily for us, the ten yearly census took place just a few weeks after the Children’s Employment Commission interviews at Heaton Colliery. A quick check there would reveal who Surtees was living with and hopefully reveal a lot about his family. Except that, in the 1841 census, there were no less than four Surtees Blackburns all living in this area.
The first one can quickly be discounted. He was reported to be a 44 year old collier living at Killingworth Colliery with his wife, Jane, and eight year old daughter, Elizabeth.
We can track his life from the day his mother, Dorothy Crow, and father, John Blackburn, had him baptised on 21 May 1797. His comparatively long but hard life is apparent from subsequent censuses in which he’s described as a ‘pauper / coal miner’ (1851) still with Jane and Elizabeth at West Cramlington Colliery; a coal miner again (1861) when Elizabeth’s two young children had joined the household; to 1871 when he is described as an inmate in Tynemouth Union Workhouse and finally his burial just 12 weeks later on 26 June 1871, aged 74.
Incidentally, this Surtees Blackburn was preceded in the baptismal records by two other Surtees, one the son of Ann Blackburn (father unknown) , baptised on 19 April 1789 in Longbenton and the other the son of Katharine and William Blackburn, baptised on 13 July 1754 in Lanchester, Co Durham.
The second Surtees (or ‘Surtis’) Blackburn known to be alive in 1841 was aged 10 at the time of the census and living at Bigges Main, which was part of Heaton Colliery, with his mother, Ann, and father, Luke; two brothers, 15 year old Matthew and five year old, Luke junior; and eight year old sister, Elizabeth.
This Surtees’ brother, Matthew, was interviewed by the commission and had concerns about his health and working conditions:
‘Has been down pits about 5 years. Has felt shortness of breath. Helps up sometimes but is bound to drive. Cannot help up sometimes for shortness of breath. His legs often work; his shoulders work sometimes. Has been working in a wet place at the lately for a fortnight.’
Later censuses show that Matthew did not stay down the pit. He became a labourer on the railways.
It seems likely that Matthew’s ten year old brother, Surtees, may have been the ‘Saunders’ Blackburn also interviewed by the commission. Saunders does not appear in any other records and Surtees is the right age. Perhaps he was known by this name to avoid confusion or alternatively there may have been a transcription error or perhaps the interviewer, John Roby Leifchild (a 26 year old Londoner who had been a pupil of William ‘Strata’ Smith and who later was to become notorious for his devastating, anonymous review of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ ) misunderstood the Geordie accent.
The interview with ‘Saunders’ was reported thus:
‘Nearly 10. Has been down pits more than a year. Drives now. Was well in his breath before he went down the pit. Is now very short of breath and is bad about the breast. Never feels any other pain. The doctor puts a blister on. Has been off work 6 weeks. Is near the shaft in the pit. His work is not very hard. The air of the pit does not agree with him. Feels his breath short soon after he goes down the pit. Feels it nearly all day, not after he comes up. No one strikes him.’
Despite his health concerns and, unlike that of Matthew, who we think was his older brother, this ‘Saunders’ / Surtees remained a miner all his working life but died, aged only 45, in 1875.
On 6 June 1841 (census day), another Surtees, this one 17 years old, which is the age of the Surtees we wanted to track, was living at Bigges Main with his mother, Mary; father, John, a miner, older sister, Eleanor and three younger brothers, George, John and Robert.
As we have heard, he had already been working for around 10 years. His position as the oldest boy and, therefore, first child to be able to contribute to the family income may well have been a factor in his mature, hard working disposition. He told Leifchild that he ‘Gives his money to his parents.’
In fact, there is some confusion surrounding Surtees’ parentage. Although he called John and Mary ‘father and mother’ and they were certainly the parents of his older sister and younger siblings, the records of the baptism which appears to be his on 12 February 1824 at Brunswick Place Chapel state that his mother and father were Elizabeth and James Blackburn, a pitman, of Byker Hill, All Saints Parish. Perhaps John and Mary were an aunt and uncle who adopted the young Surtees? (Either that or there was yet another Surtees Blackburn of the same age!)
Surtees took some finding in 1851, as his name has been transcribed on ‘Ancestry’ as ‘Burtess’ but he was living with his mother Mary, his widowed older sister, Helen (who appears to be the Eleanor from 10 years earlier), brothers John and Robert and nephews John and Thomas at Low Row, Little Benton. All the brothers were described as ‘coal miners’.
In 1861, he was still living with his widowed mother, at Bigges Main along with brothers George, John and Robert plus two younger children, John and Mary. But on 4 August 1868, aged 43, he married Alexandria McLeod, a Scot. But by the time of the next census in 1871, he and Alexandria were living at 11 Old Shops, which judging by the census enumerator’s round, was close to Gosforth Pit Cottages. He was still a miner.
By 1881, however, aged 63, he was described as a ‘railway servant.’ He and Alexandria were living at 23 Byker Hill, which being so close to both Heaton Junction and Heaton Station, would have been very convenient for jobs in the growing railway industry which was transforming Heaton. Surtees Blackburn died on 3 January 1890, aged 66. Probate, dated 25 January 1890, describes him as a ‘railway wagon greaser’. The executor of his will was his brother, John, still a miner.
The evidence of Surtees and the other Heaton miners played a small part in improving the lives of the children who grew up after them, although change was gradual. The Mines and Collieries Act, which prohibited all underground work for women and girls (There is no evidence for women or girls having been employed in mining in Heaton) and for boys under ten, was passed almost immediately on 14 July 1842. The Coal Mines Inspection Act of 1850 tried to reduce the number of accidents in mines by introducing inspectors under the supervision of the Home Office. And, in 1860, a Coal Mines Regulation Act raised the age limit further from ten to twelve.
By this time, there was very little coal mining in Heaton. Heaton Main Colliery closed in 1852 and the last mine, a small landsale colliery (that is a tenanted pit, which sold its coal locally, duty free) in Low Heaton, closed in the 1860s. It is commemorated by a Heaton History Group red plaque on the boundary wall of Heaton Park Court on Heaton Park Road.
During his life span of 65 years, Surtees Blackburn saw Heaton change from an agricultural area, the landscape of which was dotted with the evidence of the coal mining taking place beneath its fields, to a fast growing residential township supported by a wide range of businesses. We don’t know very much about Surtees Blackburn but he was one of many who adapted to Heaton’s evolving economy by changing career from mining to the railways. He might have been one of several Surtees Blackburns but his story is unique and he played a significant part not only in Heaton’s history but in that of Victorian Britain.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the Heaton Colliery miners interviewed, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group.
‘A Celebration of our Mining Heritage: a souvenir publication to commemorate the bicentenary of the disaster at Heaton Main Colliery in 1815‘ / Les Turnbull; Chapman Research in conjunction with the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers and Heaton History Group, 2015
‘Children’s Employment Commissioners Report on Heaton‘ / The Mining Institute (North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers)
‘Coals from Newcastle: an introduction to the Northumberland and Durham Coalfield’ / Les Turnbull; Chapman Research Publishing, 2009
‘Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Collieries of the United Kingdom’; Parliamentary Report; London, 1842
Report on Child Labour / British Library Collections