DECEMBER 2021: Local History - The miners of Mangotsfield

November 24 2021

Historian and Mangotsfield Residents Association member David Blackmore looks at the lives of the coal miners who worked in the area's pits

IN December 1828, Mangotsfield miner Obadiah Powell was descending a shaft at the Pucklechurch Old Coal Works when a stone fell from the side, hitting him on the head and killing him instantly.
He had been lowered, as was usual, by two workmates, on a rope tied around his waist. They, in turn, were let down by a boy who had then left until morning.
The rope wasn't long enough to reach the bottom and Obadiah was left suspended all night, as the other two men had no means of raising the alarm or drawing themselves back up.
At the time it was not unusual for colliers to work 18 hours per day. Between 1809 and 1844 men had to sign a yearly 'bond' with a colliery, submitting to various conditions, under pain of arrest, trial and imprisonment, while the colliery owner gave no undertaking to furnish any work at all.
Signing brought a 'bounty' of 2s 6d, with extra for the first few to sign up – usually enough to cause a stampede among the poverty-stricken workforce.
Mines were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous, with little attention paid to health and safety, and child workers injured by roof falls and run over by carts.
The Victorians saw child labour as a normal part of working life. Most children started work underground when they were around eight, some as young as five.
The youngest were 'trappers', sitting in total darkness for up to 12 hours, opening and closing wooden trapdoors to let a coal 'tub' through.
Older boys would be 'hurriers' or 'thrusters', moving tubs of coal weighing over 600kg along tunnels which were often only 4ft high.
Hurriers would use a guss and crook harness – a rope passed around the waist and between the legs, fixed to a metal hook – to tow a coal sledge, known locally as a putt.
Thrusters would push the putts from behind, with their hands and heads.
Although the guss was tailor-made to fit each collier's back, it continually bruised the skin, causing wheals and sores, and often drew blood. Despite this it remained in use at the worker-owned Marsh Lane colliery, at Farrington Gurney, until its closure in 1949.
'Getters', the oldest and strongest miners, cut coal from the seam with a pickaxe.
Whole families often worked and ate together underground, living mainly on bread and potatoes.
However, images of topless women and girls working down mines caused a furore when reports appeared in the press. The Mines & Collieries Act of 1842 banned women, girls and boys under 10 from working underground.
At a meeting in 1858 at the Primitive Methodist Church, Mangotsfield, mine owner Handel Cossham said 650 men and boys worked for him, with at least 220 more probably dependent upon the pits for work.
The adult weekly wage varied from 18 to 20 shillings, while boys under 13 were paid up to 6s and teenagers earned up to 12s – but many younger boys were paid only 3d or 4d per day.
Colliers didn't meekly accept their lot. In the 18th century they were involved in numerous protests, especially against turnpike toll roads.
In 1795 colliers detained several droves of pigs on their way to Bristol market and unloaded every cart and wagon of coal. The East Devon Militia were ordered out, with 100 soldiers quartered in Mangotsfield. The names of five ringleaders were published and a reward of 50 guineas offered for their arrest and conviction.
Two years later a new turnpike was erected on the Sodbury Road, near the Horseshoe Inn in Downend.
In the 19th century, miners organised to fight for better wages.
In May 1873 up to 3,000 people, including miners from several collieries, set off from Rodway Hill, headed by a brass band and with union banners flying, for the Colston Hall, where they were addressed by Amalgamated Association of Miners president Thomas Halliday.
During 1875, Mangotsfield miners went on strike against owners' plans to withdraw the custom of giving them bags of coal for their own use, which had been in operation for well over 100 years. An arbitrator resolved the dispute.
In September 1889 a large gathering of miners at the Primitive Methodist Chapel voted unanimously to form a union. The following year, the 3,000 members were urged to pay 3d a quarter to help send the first Labour MPs to Parliament.  
In December 1907 the Nevarra Coal and Iron Mines company found itself in dispute with miners at Shortwood over pay and 'bag' coal allowances.
Some 30 men were suspended and the company threatened workers with dismissal, with the apparent intention of ridding themselves of the union officials involved in the dispute.
But the miners all walked out, taking their tools, in solidarity with their workmates.
The striking miners, reliant on the union's 10s per week unemployment pay, published a notice explaining their "just and right" struggle, saying: "We consider that our wages are just enough to live from hand to mouth and, seeing the danger we are exposed to and the risk of life and limb, we are entitled to a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work."
The dispute was not resolved until the following July, when wages were put on an equal footing with nearby Parkfield colliery at Pucklechurch.
Even as pay and conditions improved, mining remained dangerous.
Almost 100 years after the death of Obadiah Powell, Mangotsfield miner Gilbert Mealing suffered terrible injuries when a truck became uncoupled and jumped the lines at Parkfield Colliery, where he was a coal filler, in January 1921.
Suffering shock and a compound fracture of the left leg, Gilbert, of Cossham Street, was taken by St John's Ambulance to Cossham Hospital.
A fortnight later a pain in his side was diagnosed as pneumonia. He died days later from heart failure, and was buried in St James churchyard. He was 36.