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An Industrial Nation? Click here for the Main Menu
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How Safe was working in Victorian Britain?
Capital and Labour (Punch Archive)
An Advert for Coal
Advert for coal

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 Britain?

Did working people share in the enormous wealth and prosperity of the Great Exhibition?
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.
The Front of Crystal  Palace
Front of Crystal Palace

click to see source 1
Source 1:
Miners killed,
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.
click here for source 2
Source 2:
Mine accidents, 1851
click to see source 3
Source 3:
Report on
mine deaths,1851
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). click to see source 4
Source 4:
Child miners
click to see source 5
Source 5:
Mine report
conclusions, 1851
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. click to see source 6
Source 6:
News on mine accidents