The visitors who came to the Great Exhibition on the shilling days were
often working people from the Midlands and the North. They would have worked
in factories, coalmines and on the railway. 4 shillings would have been
at least a day's pay for many of them. What was it like to work in Victorian
Did working people share in the enormous wealth and prosperity of the Great
In the middle of the 18th century, most coalmines in Britain were near the
surface and mining was a small scale industry where families worked together
in bell-pits or adits. But in the second half of the century surface coal
began to run out and mines became deeper.
Deeper mines were much more dangerous. There was not only a much greater
risk of rock falls and flooding, but miners could also run into pockets
of gas underground that could lead to explosions or suffocation.
Miners had virtually nothing to protect themselves against the increased
dangers. Some took canaries underground to warn them against gas, if the
canary stopped singing that was a sign that gas was present. To try to prevent
the roof caving in, miners left columns of coal standing. This was known
as the 'pit and stall' method. But coal can collapse very easily, so this
was not a safe method of working.
Ventilation became a serious problem as miners went deeper and deeper
underground. The earliest solution was digging a down-shaft and an
up-shaft. At the bottom of the up-shaft a fire was set ablaze, which
sent hot air up the shaft. This in turn sucked fresh air into the
down-shaft. To make sure that the fresh air reached all parts of the
mine, trapdoors were put in all the galleries of mines, which were
opened and closed as the coal trucks passed through. This ensured
that there was a constant supply of air throughout the mine. The trapdoors
were opened by small boys (trappers), whom sat in total darkness listening
for the sound of the corves (coal trucks/sleds).
The most serious danger of all was caused by the need for light. At first
miners carried candles underground, but this proved to be very dangerous,
as pockets of gas could ignite without warning. In all, it was dark, dangerous
and deadly work. Throughout the 19th century more than a thousand miners
were killed every year in Britain.