Spotlight: Journey into an Elsecar pit, 1869

Along with the great writers who published lyrical descriptions of landscapes, or great journeys abroad, filled with poetic allusion, in prose or in verse, the Nineteenth Century also produced a smaller body of what might be termed ‘literary visitors’, newspaper and periodical writers, who cast a spectator’s eye on the working industries of the day.

Shedding a brief-but-sharp light upon the nation’s industries, such pieces grew from the 1860s onwards, with an increasingly local flavour as regional and local newspaper circulations grew.

The visits, or tours were often written by unidentified authors (regular contributors no doubt), recounting their experience as an outsider, alongside perhaps unnamed workers, being conducted through at times unspecified work-places; the aim to generalise their subjects to a broader audience. The content and structure might vary, but usually explained the settings, peculiar tools and processes, and recounted any out-of-the-ordinary aspects of the daily world of work. How much was made up, or misconstrued, specialists and historians might best determine, but collectively, such pieces provide a precious if somewhat selective portrait of their subjects to contemporary audiences – readers in a pre-televisual age.

Excerpts from one such piece follow below, in a visit to a Colliery belonging to Earl Fitzwilliam in Elsecar.

In the centre of the Yorkshire coal-district, that is to say, in the high undulating land round Barnsley, the usual characteristics of a coal-producing country, smoke, blackness, and desolation, are supplemented by the peculiar scenery of the county. The energy and rugged determination of Yorkshiremen prove them true sons of the soil, to judge from the persevering efforts nature makes here on all sides, that her woods and brakes shall retain their dominion.

“…we are at ‘the bank’, having passed by two or three rows of white-washed houses, where the workmen live, and stumbled with some difficulty over divers heaps of slack and cinders, crossed by tramways, till we mounted the last ‘tip’ to the pit-head…

A thick wire-rope, worked by a steam-engine in a house hard by, is drawing up a ‘corve’ of coal at the same time that an empty one goes down… our guide steps on to the platform just vacated by the ascending corve, and bids us do the same. Though this platform is not much more than a yard square, we three take our places, holding on to two iron bars, which cross the cage somewhat higher than our heads…

Rapidly, with an instant’s pause perhaps, our cage passes beams of wood and bricks, while the light fades, grows blue, disappears. Down, down, down into darkness we sink, till, after sixty yards’ descent, appears a glimmer of light… From the drizzle and mud of a wet day in the upper air, we have all at once descended to a road strewed, it might be, with summer-dust… The most curious sensation, however, is the perfect silence which prevails. It is almost oppressive to the ear – a silence which may be felt; and imagination increases its awe by picturing the many solid yards of rock and coal which lie between us and the active life of the upper world…

And now we commence descending a deep incline, laid with a set of rails, while the roof and sides are contracted till you have to stoop the head… Respiration becomes more difficult, and the air is warm and close. Immediately, a low rumble is heard from the quarter by which we have just descended… and draws nearer with many a crash and rattle, till in an instant, as it seems, the corves swiftly rush past, impelled by their own weight, in a cloud of coal-dust, and with a rattle and shaking which reminds us of an express-train passing through a small country-station in the upper world…

It is eight hundred yards from here to the pit-head, and all around it ramify numerous smaller roads, leading to the different workings. The corves are there filled with coal, and either pushed by boys, or more usually drawn by horses, along minor tramways to this junction. The corves are black and dusty; but a train of them is just starting for a distant part of the workings, and we cannot do better, if we would gain an adequate notion of what labour in a coal-mine really is, than accompany them…At length comes a glimmer of lamps … several hirsute, semi-naked colliers, who lean on their picks…

A laugh, which apparently proceeds from the ground, causes us to discern a man lying at full length, clad only in a pair of trousers, under a shelf of coal. The lamp under his knee shews him where to direct his blows, his pick is busily plied, while beads of perspiration stand thickly on his muscular frame, as with a lump of coal for a pillow in this recumbent position, he takes his turn at the working…We have seen the inner life of a coal-pit, and must now grope our way by another road to the pit-head…

A stream of cool air meets us, and now we reach the return current of hot and exhausted air, returning after its four-mile circuit from the other end of the pit. It is like the breath of the sirocco, causing our clothes to stick to us, and a perspiration to break out over our faces… A little farther, and we reach a huge furnace, kept burning day and night, to secure an abundance of air and a thorough draught. The wooden beams which elsewhere hold up the roof, yield here to a walling of brick, and shew us that our pilgrimage is at an end, as we emerge speedily at the pit-head, from which we are soon elevated to bank…

The sharp air of a spring day strikes fragrantly upon our heated faces. We welcome with delight the sights and sounds of upper life, the singing of the birds, the splash of the reservoir against its barriers, the transition from the chambers of darkness and silence to the bright and bracing atmosphere of earth.

Excerpts from: ‘A Yorkshire Coal-Cellar’, Chambers Journal, Fourth Series, 21 August 1869, pp.531-534