Hood Family and Coal Mining

Coalmining - The use of women and children as coalbearers in the east of Scotland

coal bearer janet cumming


The old system known as 'bearing out' was common in the smaller collieries of the east of Scotland. It involved the use of women and children carrying heavy loads of coal on their backs from the coalface to the shaft. Then they would climb a series of ladders to bring these loads to the surface. Load commonly weighed over 120lbs, and could be as high as 170lbs.

Bearers were normally the wife and children of the collier or a close relation. The main reason for this was that the collier was paid simply to hew the coal, but also to bring it above ground to be sold. By using his own family to carry the coal, there was no need for a collier to spend money employing other bearers which would reduce his profit. This encouraged parents to make their children work as bearers from a very young age; often as young as 8 years old or even earlier. Sometimes a collier might need to employ someone from outside his family; this type of bearer was known as a 'fremit' bearer. This system suited the colliery owner as the bearers were paid by the collier they worked for.


Coal bearer carrying heavy load of coal on her back

Working conditions

Evidence given to the Children's Employment Commission of 1842 gives first hand accounts of the conditions coalbearers worked under.

The illustrations on these pages are also taken from the same report. The one to the left shows a typical coalbearer carrying her load. The strap, known as a 'tug', passing over the forehead to hold the creel or basket in place is clearly seen. The top illustration shows Janet Cumming, only 11 years old, working as a coalbearer at Sheriffhall or Somerside.

Below are just a few of the statements given to the commissioners.


Ellison Jack, 11 years old, coal-bearer:-

"I have been working below three years on my father's account; he takes me down at two in the morning and I come up at one and two next afternoon. I go to bed at six at night to be ready for work next morning: the part of the pit I bear in the seams are much on edge. I have to bear my burthen up four traps, or ladders, before I get to the main road which leads to the pit bottom. My task is four to five tubs; each tub holds 4.25cwt. I fill five tubs in 20 journeys. I have had the strap when I did not do my bidding. Am very glad when my task is wrought, as it sore fatigues, I can read, and was learning the writing; can do a little; not been at school for two years; go to kirk occasionally, over to Lasswade: don't know much about the Bible, so long read: knows many of the Questions.
coal bearers ascending pit up ladder [A brief description of this child's place of work will better illustrate her evidence. She has to descend a nine-ladder pit to the first rest, even to which a shaft is sunk, to draw up the baskets or tubs of coals filled by the bearers; she then takes her creel (a basket formed to the back, not unlike a cockle-shell, flattened towards the neck, so as to allow lumps of coal to rest on the back of the neck and shoulders) and pursues her journey to the wall-face, or as it is called here, the room of work. She then lays down her basket, into which the coal is rolled and it is frequently more than one man can do to lift the burden on her back.The tugs or straps are placed over the forehead and the body bent in a semicircularform, in order to stiffen the arch. Large lumps of coal are then placed on the neck and she then commences her journey with her burden to the pit bottom, first hanging her lamp to the cloth crossing her head. In this girl's case she has first to travel about 14 fathoms (84 feet) from wall-face to the first ladder, which is 18 feet high: leaving the first ladder she proceeds along the main road, probably 3 feet 6 inches to 4 feet 6 inches high, to the second ladder, 18 feet high, so on to the third and fourth ladders, till she reaches the pit-bottom, where she casts her load, varying from 1 cwt to 1.5 cwt., into the tub. This one journey is designated a rake; the height ascended and the distance along the roads added together, exceed the height of St. Paul's Cathedral; and it not unfrequently happens that the tugs break and the load falls upon those females who are following. However incredible it may appear, yet I have taken the evidence of fathers who have ruptured themselves from straining to lift coal on their children's backs.]"


Jane Duncan, 16 years of age, coal-bearer:-

"Began to carry coals when 12 years old. Went to school prior and can read and write. do not like the work, nor do the othher women, many of whom have wrought from eight years of age and know no other. My employment is carrying coals from wall-face to the daylight up the stair-pit. I make 40 to 50 journeys a day and can carry 2cwt. as my burthen. Some females carry 2.5 to 3cwt. but it is overstraining. Father is off work at present, being a little touched in the breath. Mother is now staying at home helping him. Have two brothers and two sisters working with me below on father's account. has another brother, Francis, who is on his own account. his wife, Jane Law, had a child two weeks since, and has just returned to her work."


Jane Peacock Watson, age 40, coal-bearer:-

female coalbearer carrying a load of coal on her back"I have wrought in the bowels of the earth 33 years. Have been married 23 years and had nine children; six are alive, three died of typhus a few years since; have had two dead born; thinks they were so from the oppresive work after the latter. I have always been obliged to work below till forced to go home to bear the bairn, and so have all the other women. We return as soon as able, never linger than 10 or 12 days many less, if they are much needed. It is only horse-work, and ruins the women; it crushes their haunches, bends their ankles and makes them old women at 40. Women so soon get weak that they are forced to take the little ones down to relieve them; even children of six years of age do much to relieve the burthen . . . Coal-hewers are paid 41.5d for each load of 2cwt, out if which they have to pay the bearers whom they hire. Each collier has his place on the coal-hill and gets his money just as the sale comes in, which makes the pay uncertain."

Note on coal weights and measures -

In Scotland coal measures like most other weights were not standardised and varied greatly from place to place. A reference to a hundredweight (1cwt.) usually means 112lbs but could often be more.
© 2012   A Russell