Award-Winning Writer,
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The Door Keeper - Behind the Story

Illustration by Clair Rossiter

Fittingly, I was in the dark when the first threads of the story came together. We were deep underground at Big Pit (an incredible mining museum in South Wales) and the guide had just asked us to turn our head-mounted lights off. It became utterly black, a darkness like nothing you could imagine in our modern, electrically lit world. And as we stood there, lost in the blackness, the guide told us the story of the doorkeepers, young children whose job it was to operate the mine’s air doors and prevent draughts that could easily lead to explosions.

Child labour was very common in British industry in the first half of the 19th Century, and children as young as five would start in the mine as doorkeepers and later move on to hauling carts or driving horses. In the winter, they might go to work before the sun rose and come home after it set, meaning that they only saw daylight once a week (on Sunday).

The whole idea of children being stranded underground in dark, dangerous conditions sounds incredibly cruel to us now, but if you lived in a place where everyone worked down the mine, then maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so strange. That doesn’t make it right, of course, and much of what we know about the life of children in mines came through a series of government reports written in 1842. It was these reports that lead to a law in 1843, which made it illegal for women or any child under the age of ten to work underground in Britain.

The reports are long, and full of facts and figures, but it’s the children’s stories that really bring them to life. Here, three girls (Elizabeth Williams aged ten, Mary Enock aged eleven and Rachel Enock aged twelve) talk of their life below ground:
“We are doorkeepers in the Upper Four Feet Level. We leave the house before six o’clock and are down in the level from six o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock and sometimes nine in the evening. We get 2p a day and our light costs us 2 1/2p a week. Rachel was in a day school and she can read a little. The others cannot read. Rachel was run over by a mining cart a while ago and was home ill a long time, but she has got over it.”

Ann Bowcot had a similar story:
“I have been working in the iron works and mines ever since I was five years old. My father used to carry me to the works to keep a door. I was keeping the door for six years. I was never in school and cannot read.”

A fifteen-year-old boy miner said:
“Some days I work day and night. I start my duty at 11 p.m. until 11 p.m. the next day.”

However, that last quote wasn’t from 1842, it came from 2013. Musa is a gold miner in Tanzania, where a Human Rights Watch report states that children as young as eight are still working in dangerous and exhausting conditions. Akilah, a ten-year-old girl, has a job crushing the gold ore:
“I once hammered till my fingernail came off. I was taken to a hospital and they put a bandage…. I was seven years old. I am scared a lot.”

Although we might like to think that we live in a better world nowadays, it seems that not every child in a developing country is so lucky. Although Adam, a sixteen-year-old Tanzanian boy, is certainly lucky to be alive:
“One time the pit collapsed. It was September last year. I thought I was dead, I was so frightened. Two of my friends who were on the other side died. I was so scared. I just cried and despaired.”

Organizations like the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) are fighting to make sure that every child has an education and a future. Let’s hope they succeed, because no-one should be left down there alone in the dark.


Exploring Further

The National Museum of Wales has lots of information about child labour in mines, including the findings of the 1842 Children in Coal Mines report and a whole multimedia project called Children of the Revolution.

If you’re really, really interested, The Coalmining History Resource Centre has the full text of each of the 1842 Royal Commission reports from all around Britain.

You can learn more about modern child labour at the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour’s site and join their campaign to Hold up Your Red Card to Child Labour.

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