Coal Mining Ancestors – How They Lived and Worked

Glasshoughton coal mine - Pontefract, West Yorkshire

In the UK in the 19th and early 20th centuries the main industry was coal mining, but how did miners live by the time of the 1911 census?

During the industrial revolution in the 19th and early 20th century, coal was paramount for powering international trade and shipping, railways and factories, and for domestic heating. In the UK, national output of coal rose from about 10 million tons in 1800 to 225 million tons in 1900. By the time of the 1911 census there were about 3,000 mines employing 1.1 million men, women and boys. But what was the typical life and working day of a miner like? Many people have mining ancestors and want to understand their plight. Life was certainly not easy for those who slaved away producing the fuel for industry and homes, as working conditions were poor.

The shift

Mines functioned day and night with shift work, and a law of 1908 limited the working day to 8 hours, though earlier it had been many more, and children had worked underground. A miner usually started the day with bread and cheese or biscuits softened in milk, then walked to work, where he would collect a token and hang it around his neck for identification in case of an accident. He would collect his lamp and those who worked underground descended in a cage lowered down the shaft to a depth of about 500 feet. The men then got into a “set,” a series of 10 tubs or open top wagons which ran on rails and transported the men and took coal out. These tubs were pulled by ponies driven by young boys aged from 14-17. Older boys might become putters, pushing the tubs with their shoulders for the ponies to get into them. Some ponies worked 7-8 hours a day and never saw light of day until they were “retired” at about 20 years of age. The Coal Mines Act of 1911 legislated to regulate the conditions in stables and some pits had their own vet.

The coal face

The “set” carried the men to the coal seams until roofs were so low that they could go no further. In some mines the coal face was an hour’s walk from the shaft. At the coal face the men checked in with the deputy, who surveyed the area for safety and a proper air supply and would have been down there already for about two hours, writing his report. The miners then got the coal out with pick and shovel. Even when coal cutting machines were available, by 1913 only 8% of mines used them. Working spaces were very cramped and some men worked lying down in seams of 20 inches or less, hewing away at the coal with a pick by the little lamp light. Conveyor machinery to haul the hewn coal was not widely used until after the first world war, and the putter would manoeuvre the tubs, with the help of the pony, to the giant hauler to be taken up to the surface by cage.


After the Mines Act of 1850, various safety laws were introduced. In 1911 the Coal Mines Act was important for the protection of underground workers but mining was still highly dangerous, with miners being crushed to death or suffocated by gas, drowned, run over by tubs or killed by other machinery. Explosions were the biggest killer, caused by “firedamp” (the accumulation of methane gas), or the combustion of coal dust. The worst disaster in British mining was in October 1913 at Senghenydd, Caerphilly, Wales, when 439 men died and the explosion was heard 11 miles away in Cardiff. In the early 20th century every year an average of 900 miners were killed and more than 100,000 injured.

Food and bathing

Miners’ break at work was called “bait time” or “snap time,” when they would eat usually bread and jam in a crouching position and drink water from a tin. They didn’t eat much because their crouching position would have caused indigestion. There were no toilets at all down the pit and some men took rags with them or newspaper to use if necessary. In 1911 not many pits had baths and the miners went home caked in coal dust to scrub themselves in a tin bath by the fire.


Life expectancy among miners was low because of accident or illness, many workers breathing coal dust in – and out, with black discharge from the lungs. Cramped conditions caused arthritis and “beat knee,” and the poor light caused temporary blindness and nystagmus.

Free time

Many miners enjoyed an evening at the pub or at the miners’ “institute,” which was a type of social club sponsored by the mining company, a benefactor or a religious group. Men could read or play table top games here, but not usually gamble. The mining villages in the north of England were well known for their brass bands, and those in Wales for their choirs.

Mining Museums

There are several mining museums, one of the most important being the National Coal Mining Museum for England (the former Caphouse Colliery) near Wakefield Entry is free and includes a trip underground.


  1. Coal miners by Neil Storey: Family Tree Magazine May 2009
  2. Information from National Coal Mining Museum