Shewalton Colliery, Ayrshire, in the 1840s

The following extract is from a report by Thomas Tancred to the Children’s Employment Commission
which was published in 1842. It gives an excellent insight into life at Shewalton Colliery, where many of my Ayrshire ancestors lived and worked in the early to mid 1800s.

Irvine No. 29 May 3. The Rev. Andrew Glen, missionary, Licentiate of the Scottish Church:

Has been engaged amongst the colliery population connected with the collieries in Shewalton, Fairlie, and Gatehead for the last five years; and now, giving up the two last, is to take in their stead the workers of Pearston, Mr. Macredie’s. He held his former appointment from a society for promoting religion in the parishes of Dundonald, Kilmaurs, and Fullerton. In the above localities all but a very few of the collier families reside in houses provided by the proprietors of the works, from which they must remove as soon as they cease to work for the proprietor and may be turned out at a fortnight’s warning. Many are also strangers from Ireland. From these circumstances the collier population has a tendency to be more unsettled than persons connected with other public works ; the man knows that if he can obtain work in any other colliery there is a house all ready for him. At Fairlie particularly the population has been very unsettled, so much so, that within five years the village has been twice emptied of its inhabitants and repeopled. In the other two collieries this extreme fluctuation has not occurred, partly from a more steady system of management, and partly from greater care in the selection of the workpeople. On often pressing upon those at Fairlie advantages of paying more attention to their domestic comfort, as relates to their gardens &c., the common answer was, “We dinna ken whare we might be the next fortnicht.” On the other hand, at Gatehead every little patch they can have access to they plant with potatoes and cabbage.

At Shewalton, being on the borders of a waste sandy muir, many have enclosed parts for potato gardens; and this spring several collier boys employed in drawing have collected branches from neighbouring woods, and slabs from the saw-mill, and enclosed little gardens, half the size of a small room, for the cultivation of flowers. About Shewalton, they are much attached to the place and like one large family, having intermarried amongst each other – having a moral security in the character of the master as to the permanence of their residence.

Since the commencement of the mission, about 11 years since a great improvement with regard to the education of the children has taken place, according to the testimony of the farmers, managers of works, &c. and one school has been established and another which serves for the two collieries of Fairlie and Gatehead, has been very greatly improved in efficacy. The influence of permanent residence is conspicuous in the different degree of attention of the schooling of their children paid by the workers &c. with Fairlie, as contrasted with those connected with the other two collieries. In the latter, too, a gratifying anxiety is manifested by the parents to send their children to school, though still the male children are removed at a very early age to be employed in the pit. The females are also very soon employed at sewing muslin at home and taking care of the younger members of the family. The little girls do not at first earn much at muslin embroidery, but they, as they call it, “get their hand set,” and so become more skilful at the work. When remonstrated with by Mr. Glen as to removing them so soon, they excuse themselves by saying, “Oh, but we’re going to put them to the night-schule.”

The average hour of commencing work in the morning is four o’clock – often earlier – as early as three; children and all together; they come up again about three or four next afternoon; sometimes so late as seven. Accidents but too frequently occur, often by recklessness of the workmen. The principal causes of accident are the falling of the roof, burning from fire-damp in one seam at Fairlie, breaking of the rope which draws up the coals and men, and the hutches crushing drawers when descending steep parts of the roads below ground. There is a vast deal less intoxication amongst the workers at the two other collieries than at Fairlie and in general in collieries. The time of work in the fortnight is dependent upon the demand; but the men would prefer working about ten days a fortnight.

At the Gatehead and Fairlie missionary station there is a library, the subscription to which is 9d. a quarter; not many of the grown-up people make use of it but the books are eagerly sought after by the Sabbath scholars. A great many copies of the Scriptures have been sold to colliers within the last five years, and all the more respectable read more or less on a Sunday. The copies of the Scriptures said to be purchased have generally been as school-books for their children. Previous to the mission some of these works scarcely sent an individual to church; but within the last five years two school-rooms, holding about 80 each, are filled, and sometimes above 100 are packed in.

Altogether, it is the opinion of Mr. Glen and of the minister of this parish, in whose presence this evidence is taken, the Rev. David Wilson, that in traversing the collieries in the whole West of Scotland, I shall find few, if any, in so good a condition as Shewalton and Gatehead and also Mr. Macredie’s, Pearston, just now commencing. And Mr. Wilson desires to add, that this is mainly to be attributed to the attention which has been paid to the education and religious instruction of the operatives in them.

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