Not only was Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury passionate about revealing the misery, depravity and exploitation of thousands of men, women and children who toiled beneath the earth, he was savvy when it came to Public Relations.
By focusing on girls and women wearing trousers and working bare breasted in the presence of boys and men in the coal mines thus making them “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”, he was appealing to the sensibilities of the times: A woman’s place was definitely in the home.
The initial enquiry that led to what would be known as the Mines & Collieries Act of 1842, was ordered by Queen Victoria following a freak accident in 1838 at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, near Barnsley, in which 26 children died: 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys aged between 9 and 12 years.
This led to Lord Ashley’s Commission to inquire into the employment of children.
The conditions uncovered in the coal mines were appalling.
The majority of workers underground were less than thirteen years old, many having started their working lives at the age of four or five; first as a ‘trapper’ who opened and closed the doors for the ‘whirley’ or coal-carriage.
Due to the complicated ventilation of a mine, and the potential for explosion if the doors were left open, this was an important job and a child not doing its job was severely punished.
Therefore, too frightened to go to sleep, the ‘trapper’ worked for up to fourteen hours a day, amidst rats and other vermin, with only Sundays off.
Sometimes these small children were required to work “double shifts”.