. . . . . . . . Hough Mill open 2-5pm Sundays to end of September . . . . . . . . . .

Swannington’s Child Coal Miners

Going underground as a coal miner was always a tough life for a man.  Imagine what it was like as a child.   In the 1840s the minimum age for boys to work underground became 10 years.  Census returns every 10 years give an incomplete picture.  It is very likely that the 14-17 year old boys recorded as coal miners had started work aged 10-13.  Some families eagerly awaited a 10th birthday so that their sons could start work and earn a badly needed pittance that helped the family survive.

Some miners died young:

  • Thomas Webster 14 (1841) died aged 14 in a mining accident at Whitwick colliery
  • Harry Clements 14 (1861) died aged 16 when the Califat colliery flooded in 1863
  • John Gilbert 14 (1841) died aged 27 years following a coal mining incident

Other miners worked in the coal mines for 40-60 years or more:

  • William Bishop 14 (1851) lived to 77 years
  • William Causer 12 (1841) was still working as a miner 50 years later in Linton Heath
  • John Marsden 12 (1841) died aged 71 years following a coal mining incident at Coleorton colliery (Bug and Wink)

James Bamford 17 (1841)

James Bamford was baptised at Rocester, near Uttoxeter, Staffordshire (current day home of the JCB World Headquarters) on the 19th January 1824.  By 1841 James, his sister Mary and parents Charles and Hannah (nee Peace) had moved to Swannington,  where Charles was a gardener and James a coal miner.  The census records James as 15, but as any family historian will know it was common place for ages to be misstated.

James married Sarah Hextall in Market Bosworth on the 16th March 1851.  By 1851 coal miner James, his wife Sarah and two children were living in Packington where they also provided a home for Hannah and Mary Bamford.

James and Sarah’s first three children (Charles 1848, Mary 1851 and Eliza 1854) were born in the Packington / Coalville area.  They then moved to Staverley, Derbyshire where their son James was born in 1857.  Their youngest children (Maria 1862 and Jarvis 1866) were born in  Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, although the family could not be found on the 1861 census.   Mary Bamford (sister of James) was a housemaid at the Sunderland Union Workhouse at  Bishopwearmouth in 1861.

James and his family were at Monkwearmouth in 1871 and Coppull, Lancashire (between Wigan and Preston) in 1881 as James toured the coal mines in search of work.  Sarah died in Coppull in 1884 and James in 1990.


William Bishop 14

In 1851 William Bishop was a 14 year old coal miner, following in the steps of his 43 year old coal mining father.   William’s 11 year old sister Harriett was a lace worker.

William married Harriet Smith at St George’s Church, Swannington on the 20th May 1858.   By 1871 they had four children and were living in Main Street between the Bull’s Head and Railway Inn on the corner of Tan Yard.  By 1881 their two oldest sons Arthur (19) and William (17) were also coal miners.  They were still in Main Street in 1891 by which time their older children had left home, their son John (17) was a coal miner, whereas Timothy (16) was a waggon builder’s labourer.  So three of William’s sons had also become coal miners as teenagers.

By 1901 William (67) had stopped working and Harriett (63) was a nurse, they had moved to Station Hill.   William died at the turn of the year 1914-15 and was buried at St George’s on the 6th January 1915 aged 77, not bad for someone who had worked in coal mines for about 50 years.  Harriet was 85 when she was buried at St George’s on the 2nd August 1922.


Francis Buckley (1851)

In 1851 Francis was a 17 year old coal miner, perhaps helping his father Thomas.   They lived with his four sisters and mother.

Francis married miner’s daughter Harriett Stanley at St George’s Church on the 26th December 1854.  They set up home in Whitwick and had five daughters and a son William who was baptised at Whitwick on the 8th November 1867.  Harriett died before the end of the year, possibly childbirth related.

Within a year Francis had married widow Charlotte Berkin (Birkin) who had daughters Agnes and Bertha.  By 1881 Francis had moved to Nottinghamshire to work in the mines, he died in 1889.

John Coser / Causer 14 (1841)

John was born in Shepshed in 1826, in 1841 John and his 12 year old brother William were living in Swannington.  They seemed to be boarding with another collier, but the 1841 census provides very little information.

John married Swannington’s Mary Ann Bonser on Christmas Eve 1846.  They had six Swannington born children and by 1871 were living near the Bull’s Head inn, John was still a coal miner as was his 18 year old son William.

By 1881 the family had moved to Hugglescote and his sons Thomas (21) and John (15) were also coal miners.  John was buried at Hugglescote on the 18th March 1891.  His wife Mary Ann continued living in Hugglescote until her death in 1914.


William Coser / Causer 12 (1841)

John’s younger brother, WIlliam, was born in Shepshed in 1829 and living in Swannington with him in 1841.  In 1851 William was living in Swannington with his mother.  William married Lavinia Handford at Whitwick on the 31st January 1853.  They had six Swannington born sons between 1854 and 1870.  In 1871 his son John (17) was also a coal miner, while William (14) and Thomas (11) were bricklayer’s labourers.

By 1877 William and Lavinia had moved to Linton Heath, Derbyshire and had a daughter Sarah Ann.    William was still a coal miner in 1881 and 1891 and resident at Linton Heath, where he died in 1898 and was buried at Church Gresley on the 3rd September.

The simplified family trees below show child coal mining passed down through the generations.

Harry Clements 14 (1861)

Harry was living in Peggs Green, Thringstone, in 1861 with his coal mining family.  Two years later he was one of three miners who died when the Califat coal mine flooded, see Califat Coal Mine Flooding.


Thomas Clifford 12 (1841)

Thomas was a 12 year old collier living in Swannington with his parents Samuel (a collier) and Louisa in 1841.  His parents were both aged 25, which seems odd, but marriage at a very young age was legal (although uncommon).  In 1851 he was living with his coal miner uncle, John Clifford, in Darlaston, Staffordshire, although Thomas was listed as a cousin.

Thomas married Sarah Phillips in Coalville on the 16th April 1854 and they had 11 children (five boys and six girls).  They continued to live in the Coalville / Whitwick area (apart from three or four years in 1860’s Hucknell, Nottinghamshire) until THomas died in 1913.  Thomas was a miner until at least 1891 (that’s 50 years), but he was shown as retired in 1901 and 1911.

Their oldest son, William, was a 14 year old coal miner in 1871.  He died the following year, cause unknown.  His parents named their youngest son William when he was born in 1873.  This practice of preserving the memory of a lost child was quite common at the time.

Their second daughter, Louisa Susan, was left a widow with 10 children when her husband Josiah Brooks was one of 35 miners who died in the 1898 Whitwick Colliery Disaster.

Death certificate for 16 year old Harry Clements of Limby Hall, Swannington who died when the Califat coal mine flooded 8th October 1863
Simplified family tree of child miner Thomas Clifford and sons

John Gilbert 14 (1841)

John Gilbert was a 14 year old collier living in Swannington in 1841.  John married Jane Haynes in Whitwick in 1848.  By 1851 he was a coal miner in Wednesbury, Staffordshire and had a son Thomas.   John died aged 27 following a coal mine incident in September 1854, he set a charge of blasting powder and when it did not go off he went to investigate and it exploded.  John died three weeks later.  As well as three year old Thomas there was one year old Elizabeth Ann.  Read a transcript of the 16th September 1854 Leicester Chronicle account of the inquest into John Gilbert’s death.


James Glover 16 (1851)

James Glover was a 16 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1851.  His father Samuel was a blacksmith and his 20 year old brother Henry a coal miner.   James married Mary Ann Mitchell they always lived in the Swannington Common area.  They did not have any children.   James was still working as a miner in 1901, so at least 50 years underground.


George Griffin 16 (1851)

In 1851 George was a 16 year old coal miner, living in Swannington with his framework knitter father, mother, sister and niece.  Ten years later George was a boarder at the Engine Inn, Long Lane, Swannington (now Ashby Road, Coalville).

George married Emma, and during the 1860s they moved to Bloxwich, Staffordshire.  By 1881 George was a 47 year old coal miner living in Walsall with his wife and six children.


James Hall 11 (1851)

In 1851 widowed agricultural labourer Thomas Hall would have had a tough life bringing up  his seven children at his home near Trinder’s Farm in Main Street, Swannington.  His three older children would have made major contributions to family life:

  • Andrew 18 was a coal miner
  • Mary 14 would have been running the house – shopping, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning – Ann 9 would have helped
  • James 11’s contribution was “Employ With Coal Pit” he would not have earnt a lot, but it would have helped put food on the table for his younger siblings Thomas 6, Elizabeth 3, Harriot 3

James survived the rigours of early life, married Mary Ann Bowles and when the pits in the north of Swannington closed, like many other Swannington families, moved to Hucknall Torkard in Nottinghamshire.  He was still a coal miner in 1891 and had four children.


Frederick Kniveton 11 (1841)

Frederick Kniveton was an 11 year old collier living in Swannington in 1841, born in Boles Hill, Wirksworth, Derbyshire.   He was living in Ravenstone when on the 11th February 1850 he married Sarah Burton in Hugglescote.  He continued as a miner living in Swannington, Snibston, Hugglescote area until his death in 1894.  During his later life the spelling of the family name changed to Knifton.


John Marsden 12 (1841), Thomas Marsden 11 (1851), Joseph Marsden 14 (1861)

John Marsden was a 12 year old collier living in Swannington in 1841.   He worked in coal mines all his life and died aged 71 after a large stone dropped on him in Coleorton Colliery (now Coleorton Wood, Pitt Lane, Coleorton).  He was buried 8th February 1899 at St George’s Church, Swannington. Read a transcript of the 16th September 1899 Nottingham Evening Post account of John Marsden’s death.  The reporting of the death in the Nottingham Evening Post emphasises the links between Coleorton and Swannington and the Nottinghamshire coal mining community.

Younger brother Thomas Marsden was an 11 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1851.    Thomas married Sarah Smith and in 1861 they were living in Station Row.  Their daughters Elizabeth and Sarah A were born in Swannington, but their son William S was born in Tankersley, Yorkshire in 1870, where Thomas is recorded as a coal miner in 1871.  Miner Thomas and his family appear on the Cromwell, Huntington, Pennsylvania, USA census of 1880.  William S was killed by a Pittsburgh train in 1911.

Younger brother Joseph Marsden was a 14 year old coal miner living in Limby Hall, Swannington in 1861.   Joseph was one of three miners rescued after the Califat coal mine flooded on the 8th October 1863.   Joseph Marsden married Charlotte Selina Smith (daughter of Jeremiah and Charlotte Smith) in May 1871 at St George’s Church.  In 1871 they were living a few properties away from his father in Limby Hall and they had a daughter Catherine.  Joseph continued to be a coal miner living in Ravenstone until his death in 1902.  In 1901 two of his sons Thomas (22) and George (17) were coal miners.

2 child hurriers pushing and pulling a coal tub underground

Solomon Robinson 16 (1841)

Solomon Robinson was a 16 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1841 and had probably been working for some years.  He moved between Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and was still coal mining in 1881.  His brothers were also miners.

Charles Robinson was a 19 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1841, an occupation he continued while living in Swannington 1851, Packington 1861, Altofts, Yorkshire 1871 and Hugglescote 1881.

Oliver Robinson was a 21 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1841 an occupation he continued while living in the Swannington and Coalville area until at least 1871.  He lived in several properties near current day Memorial Square.  In 1881 he was the gate keeper at the railway crossing in Coalville, which is now known as Oliver’s Crossing.   The story is that he was lame by that time and slow opening and closing the gates.  Denis Baker’s article for Coalville Heritage Society says “It is understood that he suffered an accident in the pit in the 1870s and was given this duty in compensation.”

A coal train from Snibston Pit using Oliver's Crossing - photo Olivers Crossing Coalville Facebook
Photo Olivers Crossing Coalville Facebook

Son of Ann Smith – Thomas Smith 15 (1851)

The 1841 census shows that Thomas Smith was five years old and living in Swannington with his 25 year old mother Ann Smith.  Sarah Smith, 15, was living with them, possibly Ann’s sister.

On the 1851 Swannington census Thomas was a 15 year old coal miner.  Thomas was living in the household of James Smith and Ann Smith; instead of being recorded as son,  he is listed as son in law.  This is often used as an alternative to step son.  Thomas was born in 1836, his mother Ann married James Smith on the 13th April 1837.    James and Ann had a daughter, Theresa, in 1849.


Son of James Smith – James Smith 16 (1851)

In 1841 James Smith was six years old, living in Coleorton with four siblings, his parents James (a coal miner) and Martha at the home of Martha’s father, John Capeness, an agricultural labourer.   By 1851 James was a 16 year old coal miner living in Swannington with his coal mining father James, mother Martha and five siblings.

James married Maria and they had five daughters born in Dudley, Coleorton, Church Gresley and Linton Heath as the family kept moving so that James could find work in the coal mines.    By 1901 James was a limestone quarryman and was still working at the quarry in 1911 at the age of 77,  In 1901 and 1911 James and Maria were living in Breedon Brand (the area between Breedon, Tonge, Belton, Osgathorpe and Worthington) they had been married for 54 years and three of their children had died.


Sons of Jeremiah Smith – John Smith 14 Thomas Smith 13 (1851)

Hugglescote born brothers John 14 and Thomas 13 were living in Swannington in 1851 where they were coal miners along with their Coleorton born father Jeremiah in 1851.  Their brother Jeremiah 10 was a cow keeper.

When collier John married Mary Toon on the 1st April 1855 at Coleorton, their fathers Jeremiah Smith and John Toon were both travellers (also known as hawkers), they travelled the area selling goods.   By 1861 John and Mary were living in Derby with their three children.   John was a stoker, perhaps with the Midland Railway.   John prospered and in 1871 he was an engine driver with the Midland Railway living in Station Row Whitwick (now part of the central area of Coalville).  John and Mary had three daughters and two sons aged between three and 14 years.  The family moved to Northampton where John’s wife Mary Toon died 1872-5, record not traced.  John married widow Mary Bull (nee Newton).

Child miner Thomas also moved to Derby and became a railway stoker, he married Selby, Yorkshire born Elizabeth Marsh whose father John was a railway inspector.  This again demonstrates the impact of the railways whose employees moved around the country.  Thomas became a railway engine driver and moved to Groby / Ratby where he and Elizabeth completed their family of seven children.  Thomas was still an engine driver in 1901 at the age of 63, but by 1911 he was a labourer in Groby stone quarry.

Thomas Webster 14 (1841)

The Webster boys lived with their widowed father Jacob.

Thomas Webster was a 14 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1841.  He died aged 14 on the 9th November 1841 and was buried on the 14th November 1841 at St George’s Church, Swannington.

  • Leicester Chronicle 11th November 1841 – SWANNINGTON – An inquest was held here on the 10th instant, before the same coroner, (John Gregory) on the body of Thomas Webster, a driver at No 3 pit, Whitwick Colliery, who was killed the previous morning by the falling of a quantity of “bind” or soft stone from the roof of the pit.  – Verdict – Accidental Death.
  • Leicester Mercury 13th November 1841 – Whitwick. – Two killed. – A fatal accident occurred in No. 3 pit, at this place, on Monday last, by which a driver of the name of Thos. Webster lost his life.  It appeared that one of the colliers named Eggleshaw was finishing loading a waggon with coal, and deceased was standing by, ready to drive it to the bottom of the pit, when a quantity of the bind, or soft-stone from the roof, fell on deceased and killed him on the spot.  No blame was attached to any party, the overseers haring tried the roof several times that morning, and it sounded quite right.  An inquest was held on the body on Tuesday, at Swannington, when the Jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”
  • Another fatal accident occurred in No. 4 pit on Saturday evening.  Vincent Kirkham, aged 39, and a man named Bettridge, were engaged in setting a prop to the roof in one of the stalls of the pit, when a large stone, weighing from 8 to 10 tons, and which was supported by a stone wall, slipped from its position, and forced Kirkham against the wall.  The coal on his right side had to be picked away to set him at liberty, which was effected in about 10 minutes.  The fall of the stone was attributed to the pressure of the earth above.  Kirkham was taken home, where he lingered in great agony until Monday night; when death put an end to hit sufferings.  An inquest was held on the body on Wednesday when a verdict of Accidental Death was returned.


William Webster 11 (1841)

William Webster was an 11 year old coal miner living in Swannington in 1841.  He was still working as a hewer 60 years later in 1901 at the age of 71, although he had retired by 1911.  He lived in Limby Hall Lane from 1861 until his death aged 88.  He was buried on the 6th October 1917 at St George’s Church, Swannington.

John Webster was only 9 years old living in Swannington in 1841 so not working.  He was a coal miner in 1851 and 1861.  He died aged 30 and was buried on the 10th August 1862 at St George’s Church, Swannington.

Rock Fall - the death of 14 year old Thomas Webster - by Christine Davies

Miners At Work

Whether adult or child, male or female, above ground or below ground, working life for coal miners was a tough daily grind.  Below are links to several coal mining films that will help give an idea of 19th century conditions.

A Day In The Life Of A Wigan Coal Miner 1911

Apart from brief periods at Sinope and Snibston No 3 collieries, Swannington’s coal mines had closed by 1877.  Although this Wigan 1911 film was made decades later, many of the coal mining practices would have been the same in that Swannington’s 19th century coal mines would have had:

  • headstocks, winding engine houses and tall chimneys (but other activities would have been in the open air),
  • miners using safety lamps,
  • miners taking a tin of tea underground,
  • a cramped and open cage for going up and down the shaft,
  • hewers in cramped conditions using pick axes to hew the coal,
  • trams (also called tubs) on rails for moving coal,
  • miners loading lumps of coal with their hands,
  • boys working in the mines,
  • wooden pit props.

But there are some important differences

  • so far research has not identified any Swannington women coal miners,
  • conveyor belts were not used for screening as they were invented in 1892,
  • only Sinope and Snibston No 3 collieries built sidings for locomotives next to railway lines, so Swannington mines would have used horse drawn tramways.


Other coal mining films

Coal Special, South Wales Miners Go Down The Mine – 1930 – The first sound pictures of a British coal mine

Early Coal Mining Photos From Magic Lantern Slides – Photos from the Keasbury-Gordon archive

On The Discovery Of An Ancient Mine – discovery of an unrecorded coal mine when building the M66 motorway

Child Labour – Mary And The Miners – 10 and 11 year olds use the testimonies of Victorian child miners.

Mining Songs

The Royal Commission Of Inquiry Into Children’s Employment led to the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 that:

  • banned the employment of females underground,
  • introduced a minimum age of 10 years for boys to work underground.


The words of 17 year old Patience Kershaw have been immortalised:


Other mining songs that describe the tough conditions are:

  • Working Man (Miners’ Song) – About how tough life was underground, sung by Men of the Deeps, former Cape Breton miners in Nova Scotia, Canada.  Lyrics
  • Duw It’s Hard – Max Boyce may be better known for his rugby songs, but songs filled with his poignant reflections on Welsh coal mines are his best work.   Maxwell Boyce was born a month after his father died in a coal mining accident.  Max worked in a coal mine for nearly eight years. Lyrics
  • Trimdon Grange – Maddy Prior singing about the 69 boys and men aged 12-60 who died in 1882 and the children they left behind.