Dickens in the Pits: My Paper from the Dickens Symposium 2022

What follows is the text I prepared for the presentation of my paper. I know I digressed from the text at times, but I think I stuck to what I had planned to say – for the most part:

Those of you who know me are probably aware that the main area of interest for me in Dickens scholarship is in matrimonial and divorce law. So, I am sure that the first question that you might have is how I became interested in exploring Dickens’s relationship with the mining community.

To answer that question, it began with a pony. I recently returned to the North East of England to live again, having been born into a small pit village near the Durham/Northumberland county borders. One day, while walking around the countryside of my new home, I saw some small ponies grazing in a field, which jogged a memory for me – that of my grandfather talking to me about his life as a miner, and the relationship he had with his pit pony, Molly. I decided I wanted to find out more about pit ponies, about the lives of miners in general.

And it was in reading about pit ponies, that I came across a number of references to Dickens. The first, and probably the one that had the most profound effect on me, appeared in a book about the Bevin Boys, where Owen Jones, who worked in the Welbeck Colliery in Mansfield, reflected on his time in the pits:

I stood at the back of a long line of stationary tubs and rarely saw anyone. I waited for the empty tubs to be sent up from the pit bottom… In sheer boredom, I chalked sentences on the tubs from the classics. This became a matter of interest. I heard the characters being discussed in the showers and it amused me because I’d told no one I was responsible for the graffiti. Then one day when I surrendered my lamp I was told to see the manager. He told me to stop it as it was confusing the checkweigh man, who had no interest in ‘Barkis being willin’.

For some reason, I found this almost unbearably sad. Clearly, the miners were enjoying the literary quotes being daubed on the tubs, and were discussing what they were reading, and yet that moment of light was taken from them. So, this led me on to my next series of questions, did miners read Dickens? What was their relationship with Dickens, and conversely, what was Dickens’s relationship with them.

As to Dickens’s relationship with miners, in many ways, that was the easiest question to answer. Most of us are aware of Dickens’s compassion and empathy for miners and that he advocated for change in their working conditions from the early 1840s. There are many articles on the subject, coming up in all sorts of different evaluations of Dickens’s life and work. As an example, Chris Loutitt wrote an article for the Dickens Quarterly in 2007, where he assessed Dickens’s day excursion to the American town of Lowell in February of 1842 where Dickens’s interest was in the workings of the town’s factory and contextualised this day tour by reference to Dickens’s early involvement and concern with the investigation into the working conditions for women and children in the pits of England.

There is no disputing that in Dickens’s time those working conditions were bordering on the intolerable, with the pits being poorly ventilated, cramped, and dangerous, however, in the 1840s, the main concern was not with the working conditions of the mines in general, but with how those working conditions impacted on women and children.

In 1840, a Royal Commission was established to investigate the working conditions in mines and factories in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Commission conducted its investigation over three years, visiting mines, factories and the working communities that served them, taking evidence from young miners, both male and female. Their resulting report was published in 1842.

A sample of the evidence given to the Commission reveals a number of points of interest, particularly when we move on to consider the reading habits of mid-nineteenth century miners. That the work in the pits was hard is a given. That it was dangerous was also implicit. That the children sent into the pits often worked in near complete darkness and in fear, as for example, a young girl of six, named Mary Davis, who was found sleeping against a large stone underground in the Plymouth Mines by a government inspector. When they awakened her, she told him:

I went to sleep because my lamp had gone out for want of oil. I was frightened for someone had stolen my bread and cheese. I think it was the rats.

The evidence given by these children also demonstrated that some had some education, and some level of literacy. Take for example, the evidence of three young girls, Elizabeth Williams, aged 10, and Mary and Rachel Enoch, aged 11 and 12 respectively, from the Dowlais Pits in Wales:

We are doorkeepers in the four-foot level. We leave the house before six each morning and are in the level until seven o’clock and sometimes later. We get 2p a day and our light costs us 2½p a week. Rachel was in a day school and she can read a little. She was run over by a dram a while ago and was home ill a long time, but she has got over it.

Or there is the evidence of 13-year-old John Caley from the Middleton Colliery near Leeds, who began working in the pits aged 9 years old. He told the investigators he had been to day school for a year and a half, and had learned to read, and that after going down the pits he went to night school where he had learned to write but that he did not go to night school any longer because his master was not keeping it, and that he would go to school if there was one. John said that he was not well, and described his working day as follows:

Gets up about half past four, is at the pit at five. Gets for breakfast sometimes tea and bread, sometimes boiled milk; does not stop for dinner, takes a piece of bread, and sometimes a bottle with some drink or coffee. Comes out of the pit between three and four; washes himself when he gets home; gets bread and potatoes when he goes home, sometimes meat.

Dickens’s letters of the time demonstrate that he had considerable interest in the investigation of the Royal Commission, almost from its inception, culminating in his letter, which he signed simply as “B”, published in the Morning Chronicle on 25 July 1842, on the day that the Mines and Collieries Bill was to be read in the House of Lords. Dickens remarked over the extraordinary impression that the evidence taken by the Commission had made on the mind of the public, while deploring that ‘all considerations of humanity, policy, social virtue and common decency’ had been ‘left rotting at the pit’s mouth.’

Of interest here, is that the report of the Royal Commissioners was compiled with the assistance of Richard Henry Horne, a friend of Dickens, who would go on to become sub-editor and a contributor to Household Words, writing such articles as The True Story of a Coal Fire and The Black Diamonds of England, demonstrating Dickens’s ongoing interest in the mining industry. The report into the working conditions of miners would ultimately go on to inspire what has been called protest literature from authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell with Mary Barton of 1848 and North and South of 1854:

No, I tell you, it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds.

Benjamin Disraeli with Sybil; or The Two Nations, in 1845:

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her poem The Cry of the Children, published in August of 1843, and, of course, Charles Dickens with A Christmas Carol in December of 1843, in which a lack of education is intrinsically linked with poverty through the children Ignorance and Want and which features a family of miners sat around a glowing fire, enjoying Christmas despite living in a house made of mud and stone in the midst of a bleak and desert moor.

Dickens, then, clearly had a relationship with miners and advocated for them. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the plight of those out of “sight in the dark earth”, as Dickens referred to miners in his 1842 letter, haunted him, and stayed with him even decades later, particularly when it came to the importance of education for working children to better their lives. We only have to think of characters such as Joe or Charley from Bleak House, and how their prospects are blighted not simply through poverty, but a lack of education, and the need to work endless hours to survive. Contrasting the evidence of the child miners with Jo’s inability to decipher the symbols of reading and writing is particularly poignant, especially the reference to darkness:

It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language—to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!

Or think of Hard Times, which became a vehicle for Dickens to give voice to his concerns for the conditions of the industrial worker, no doubt also inspired by the death of his friend Thomas Talfourd, whose death had been lamented in Household Words the week before the serialisation of Hard Times was begun. Talfourd, in his dying hours, was said to have deplored ‘that separation between class and class which is the great curse of British society.’  

it is also interesting to consider Pip’s journey in Great Expectations in the context of the Commissioners’ concern with the levels of education and literacy of the child miners, where Pip evolves from a boy struggling to make out the writing on his parents’ tombstones, to a man who spent hours at his books each day. Arguably it was his education which would provide him with the tools for his journey of self-awareness and self-growth, allowing him to step outside his class from a near illiterate working-boy to comfortable partner in a commercial firm.

But as to miners’ relationship with Dickens, and to what extent his fiction was read by them, this is where I don’t have so much as an answer, but a challenge.

I’m going to start with what we do know. While the first library for working people was established in 1741 with the Leadhills Miners Library, the first libraries of the coalfields began to appear in the mid 1840s, coinciding with increasing societal awareness of the working conditions in the pits. Mostly they were a subscription service, with miners paying a weekly fee to be able to borrow from the library. From this, workmen’s institutes created regional libraries, a place of knowledge and community, not only to share information regarding mining practices and industry, but also to provide an educational and political centre for miners. These libraries would provide reading material, entertainment, and educational opportunity for miners up until the 1970s when the mining industry would begin to be dismantled. Unfortunately, the destruction of the mining industry also led to the destruction of the miners’ reading rooms and libraries and along with that much of what we know about the holdings and borrowing records of these libraries. Books were bought up by dealers, given away, or just thrown away because no one understood the value that they had. Put simply, the reading habits of the working classes was not considered important enough to merit preservation, and what we know now, is largely as a consequence of a salvaging effort.

The most comprehensive consolidated information we have is on the Welsh miners’ libraries and working men’s institutes, when between 1971-74, with funding from the Social Sciences Research Council, the miners union of the South Wales Area of the National Union of Miners and Swansea University, began rescuing the remnants of the old libraries and other historical material, where a team set out to determine, amongst many other things, whether miners read Dickens. The results of their efforts were summarised in their handily entitled book. What we know from their work is that the reading rooms and libraries did indeed have Dickens in their holdings, along with authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Disraeli, Jules Verne, as well as books from the Religious Tract Society, some with ominous gloomy titles such as Buried Alive, or Down in a Mine.

But for other regional areas, our knowledge is disparate and sparse, particularly in the North East, where I am from. I contacted our local miner’s institute to see what they were able to tell me, and began searching through their archival records, as well as the archived records of any local museum (such as Beamish), and the Durham record office. They were able to confirm that there is no list of holdings from miners’ libraries/reading rooms in the north east but did suggest that some of the information might be held in accounts of the regional reading rooms.  

On the next two slides is a list of some of the archive listing records pertinent to Dickens and library holdings that are held within the various archives of the North East. Unfortunately, the archives are unavailable to be visited at the moment, as the centre is in the process of being moved into new premises, which will not take place until some time in 2023. I couldn’t get in, and while the archives were willing to digitise the records for me, this would have been at considerable expense, and wouldn’t necessarily result in an answer to what I was searching for. So this there is where I come to the challenge because there is work to be done in piecing together the rich history of what miners had access to and read. But for now, having left you all with that particular challenge, I want to finish with a quote from Our Mutual Friend, as we meet a young Charley Hexam, a boy presented as a blend of uncompleted savagery and uncompleted civilisation:

He glanced at the backs of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: