Scottish miners

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Coal has been used as a fuel in Scotland since before records began. Certainly the Romans used it, even if there is no direct evidence that they found it in Scotland, and Midlothian monks were credited with opening the first Scottish mine in the 13th century. By 1400 Bo'ness was building a harbour so that they could export some of the coal they were mining and, during the 16th century, the use of coal was starting to replace wood as a fuel as wood was becoming scarcer. Most of the mining methods remained fairly primitive throughout this period: coal was mainly hewed out at the surface, and other methods only allowed about a third of the coal to be removed. Some early mines relied on chance to keep the hollowed out caves from collapsing, while others left pillars of coal in place to support the roof (with harsh punishments for miners who removed further coal from these columns!). The increasing demand for coal meant that more and more miners were required to work the seams; but mining was an unpopular occupation, and landowners found it increasingly difficult to find enough men willing to work for them. They petitioned parliament and the solution they found to this problem was a piece of government legislation that effectively legalised slavery in Britain until the end of the 18th century.

In 1606 an Act was passed that bound coal and salt miners to their owners. No-one was allowed to seek employment elsewhere unless their master gave it - he rarely did - and owners were able to track down miners who had joined the navy, army, or other employment, and require them to return to their original mine. Once a child had worked in a mine, they were bound for life to that mine; miners found themselves exploited, abused, and ostracised by the rest of the working community, and had to learn to live with the solitary life that working underground entailed. Eventually, in 1775, another Act recognised that they were 'in a state of slavery and bondage'; but even that tied workers to their owners for a further five to ten years, depending on their age. It was not until 1799 that a second Act gave miners the full freedom they sought. What any Act could not do, though, was make the conditions in a mine much easier.

Young children putting
Before the Acts it was not unusual for children under the age of five to work underground for several hours at a stretch. In most mines, while the older men were working the seams in cramped conditions, and boys were cutting coal in even tighter spaces, the women and girls were carrying the coal to the surface up steep stairs and treacherous gangways with the coal on their backs ('hewing'). Girls were thought able to carry heavier loads than boys but, as an 1842 report made clear, even by then the work was awful:

"She has first to descend a 9-ladder pit to the first rest, even to which a shaft is sunk, to draw up the baskets or tubs of coals filled by the bearers. She then takes her creel (a basket formed to the back, not unlike a cockle-shell, flattened towards the neck, so as .to allow the lumps of coal to rest on the back of the neck and shoulders), and pursues her journey to the wall-face, or "room," as it is called. She then lays down her basket, into which the coal is rolled, and it is frequently more than one man can do to lift the burthen on her back. The tugs are then placed over the forehead, and the body bent in a semi-circular form, in order to stiffen the arch. Large lumps of coal are then placed on the neck, and she then commences her journey with her burthen to the pit bottom, first hanging her lamp to the cloth crossing her head. In this girl's case, she has first to travel about 84 feet from the wall-face to the first ladder, which is 18 feet high; leaving the first ladder she proceeds along the main road, from 3½ to 4½ feet high, to the second ladder, 18 feet high, and so on to the third and fourth ladders, till she reaches the pit bottom, where she casts her load, varying from 1 to 1½ cwt., into the tub. This one journey is - designated 'a rake,' the height ascended and the distance along the roads added together, exceed the height of St Paul's Cathedral. And it not unfrequently happens that the tugs break, and the load falls upon those females who are following. However incredible it may appear, yet I have taken the evidence of fathers who have ruptured themselves from straining to lift coal on their children's backs." [1]

Eventually some mines brought in 'gins' where buckets of coal were hauled up to the surface by horses driving a large pulley wheel, but workers still faced the problems of flooding, noxious gases, collapsed tunnels and dangerous conditions. The work ensured that many were crippled when still young and few made it to old age. Added to this, life away from the mines was extremely basic and unhygienic. Most working families lived in simple cottages, but those occupied by colliers were seen as particularly poor:

The houses inhabited by colliers, day-labourers, and other operatives, are in general very inferior in accommodation to the cottages of the hinds. A few of the colliers' houses are good, but the great mass of them are very bad. The roof is frequently insufficient, admitting wind and rain in wet and windy weather; is sometimes composed of thatch, seldom or never renewed, and resting on rafters. In some houses there is nothing between this roof of thatch and the apartment, and the thatch and rafters are covered with the accumulated dust and cobwebs of many years. In some the rafters and thatch are quite rotten and decayed. I was in one house, shortly before I left Tranent, where the rafters were infested with bugs, which occasionally dropped down. In the worst kind of these houses the apartment is ill supplied with light, the windows being only partially supplied with glass, and its place supplied with paper, bundles of rags, and old hats. In some of these houses the windows cannot be opened; and, were the air excluded from admission by the roof and the ill-hung door, there would be little or no ventilation.[2]

James Watt's invention of the steam engine in the second half of the 18th century had meant that coal production fed the industrial revolution and Edinburgh's move from 'Auld Reekie' to 'The Athens of the North' reflected Scotland's move away from being totally agricultural. Mining techniques were improving and production continued to grow rapidly; but the government commission in 1842 showed that miners and their families still lived and worked in primitive and cruel conditions. Many chose to join the army or navy as a means of escaping a life underground, but for most that was not possible and it needed new laws, following the commission, to curb the worst excesses. The Mining Act of 1842 meant that all women, and boys under the age of ten, were banned from working underground. Surprisingly this was not universally welcomed, even by the miners, and there were many cases of women trying to continue with their work, even when being stoned as they made their way to the mines. Miners were paid for the amount of coal they brouht to the surface and, if their own family members did not do the carrying, others would have to be paid to do the work.

All these problems - the slavery; the poverty; the pressure to join the army - as well as the opportunities for some to make enough money to leave poverty behind, are seen in the lives of those that follow.

Cumming Naismith (1803 - 1860) & Ann Telfer (1811 - 1890)

The Midlothian coal fields

Starting at Musselburgh, a few miles East of Edinburgh, the Midlothian coal fields stretch South through the parishes of Inveresk, Newton, Lasswade and others in a wide U shape. On the West side the seam sinks sharply into the ground (the 'edge coals'); it then runs flat for several miles before surfacing more gently in the East. Another seam runs down the middle, much closer to the surface, so it is not surprising that so many pits operated in the area.

Ann Telfer's father, Alexander, was born in Fife, but crossed the Firth of Forth as a young man to work in the pits of Midlothian. He married Mary Millar in 1796, and had ten children in the parish of Lasswade, nearly all of whom survived to work in the mines. Being fewer than ten miles from Edinburgh, Lasswade was close to the cultural life of the city, and between 1798 and 1804, while Alexander and Mary were having their first children, Sir Walter Scott rented a house in the parish and was visited by the Wordsworths amongst others. The Telfers would have seen, or indeed known, none of this; there was only time in their life for mining. We know they were still in Lasswade in 1815 when their last child was born, and had moved to Cameron, near St Andrews, in Fife by 1841, but we can reasonably assume that the children were brought up in Midlothian as all of them remained there to work as adults and Ann's marriage entry suggests that Alexander was in New Craighall in 1830. The 1842 Act had not been brought in by the time the children were young, so they may all have worked with their father. Certainly by 1830 (when Ann married Cummings Naismith) all of them were miners, mostly for coal, although William worked in an iron mine.

A plan of Ormiston in 1799
Meanwhile, a few miles to the East, just across the county border into East Lothian, William Naismith and Violet Archibald were raising an even larger family of miners with eleven of their thirteen children growing up to work underground. They didn't travel far throughout their married life but moved between the villages of Gladsmuir, Ormiston, Tranent, Cranston and Crichton that followed the Northern stretch of the coalfield. Ormiston had been built in 1735 by John Cockburn as the first planned village in Scotland. He wanted to provide good housing for the poor and, although he had originally intended the houses to be for artisans, by 1747 his financial situation forced him to sell the village to the Earl of Hopetoun who turned it into a mining village. With a wide main street for the market and new buildings it would have been significantly better than most mining communities, but Alexander and Violet were not there for long, and by 1800 appear to have settled in Tranent.
Tranent church in 1800

Tranent was a town of about 3000 made up mainly of fishermen, farm labourers and colliers. It had achieved notoriety only a couple of years earlier as setting for the Massacre of Tranent. In an attempt to find soldiers for the Napoleonic War parliament had drawn up the 1797 Militia Act to raise 6000 militia. The inhabitants of Tranent had objected and had made the following declaration:

We declare that we unanimously disapprove of the late Act of Parliament for raising 6000 militiamen in Scotland.

That we will assist each other in endeavouring to repeal the said Act.

That we are peaceably disposed; and should you, in endeavouring to execute the said Act, urge us to adopt coercive measures, we must look upon you to be the aggressors, and as responsible to the nation for all the consequences that may follow.

Although we may be overpowered in effecting the said resolution, and dragged from our parents, friends, and employment, to be made soldiers of, you can infer from this what trust can be reposed in us if ever we are called upon to disperse our fellow-countrymen, or to oppose a foreign foe.

On 29th August a group of colliers confronted the recruiting regiment who, in response, shot and killed several of the protestors. The rest fled into the countryside but were pursued by the dragoons who cut people down indiscriminantly, whether they were protesting or not. After killing about twenty, the soldiers reportedly raped and pillaged the town. The Lord Advocate decided that the mob got what they deserved, and no soldier was punished for their behaviour.

Looking from the Prestonpans battle site towards Tranent
Tranent stood in contrast to Ormiston. A doctor, writing in 1840, said that

'fever prevailed to a very great extent for several months in each of the seven years I was in practice in Tranent' [3] The worst affected areas were those 'inhabited by the most improvident and dissipated colliers; are remarkable for the absence of almost everything that can conduce to the comfort and health of the inhabitants.'

Cholera outbreaks were regular features of life, not helped by the colliers' habit of keeping large piles of rotting vegetables and other materials in putrid puddles outside their houses, so that the decomposed manure could be sold on to farmers. The doctor's report is a litany of awful living conditions, fever ridden houses and of people who have no time or money to make a better life for themselves. One collier's house was described thus:

In summer, bugs in multitudes may be seen, more especially at night, when the light of a candle is suddenly thrown upon the bedstead. The odour in these apartments is most offensive and sickening, from the long-continued presence of human impurities. Persons not familiar with such situations will be unable to form the most remote idea of the disgusting nature of this atmosphere ; but delicacy forbids a more detailed account.

Despite these conditions, it was possible to make money. Whether this was true forty years earlier is not clear but in 1840 the doctor said that a few men could become quite wealthy:

The collier receives very high wages. He is paid according to the amount, of his work: a single man, I believe, may make about 30s. per week if he is industrious and works six days in the week. A single man, if he has no children, generally employs a boy or a woman to assist him. For this assistance he pays a few shillings per week, but by the arrangement he is enabled to earn much higher wages than if he worked alone. A man, his wife, and perhaps two children, may earn 40s. per week if industriously employed during that time.

Many colliers do not make so much money, because they are dissipated, and work only three or four days in the week. Some do not work above two days in the week on some occasions. Several colliers accumulate considerable sums of money. I have known several to be possessed of some hundred pounds and to be proprietors of houses. Several had votes in the election of representatives in parliament. An old collier, commonly called "Black Tom," died a few years ago ; he left several hundred pounds in cash, and about four or five houses. He had a vote in the election of a representative in Parliament.

There was lately in Tranent a young man, a collier, who made enough money to begin business as a grocer and publican. He worked occasionally at the colliery, and his wife kept the shop in his absence. I understand this man was comparatively rich.

The norm, however, for over three-quarters of colliers, was that they were poor, in debt, and unable to do more than exist. Children and women were treated badly, often beaten by their drunk husbands or parents. Which end of the spectrum were the Naismiths? Is it wishful thinking to believe that they were determined to better themselves? William was a collier in Cowpits in 1819 but later went on to become a pit surveyor and/or colliery manager [4] which suggests that he had ambition. Cummings was the youngest of the thirteen children, with over twenty years between him and his eldest sister, so might have been ignored, but he was literate and able to sign his name confidently. Nevertheless it seemed that he was keen to leave mining.

The British attack on Rangoon in 1824
When he was eighteen, Cummings travelled to Edinburgh and enlisted in the 13th Regiment of Foot. He was fairly tall for the time (5 ft 7in), and had brown hair and eyes, like most of his compatriots. For three years he remained at home but on New Year's Day 1823 the regiment travelled down to Chatham in Kent where they boarded the ships 'Kent' and 'General Kyd’ for the four month journey to Calcutta. They were soon to take part in the first Anglo-Burmese War. For a number of years the Burmese had been trying to expand their empire and when they started pushing into North-East India, the British decided that the threat needed to be stopped. The war became the longest in Anglo-Indian history, nearly crippling the local economy and led to a financial crisis in British India in 1833. They saw no action that year but in April 1824 they mustered near Rangoon. Despite having seen seeing no action the regiment was losing men regularly to disease, particularly typhoid (by the end of the year over fifty were dying a month).
The Royal Hospital at Chelsea in 1817
War had been officially declared against Burma in April 1824 and shortly afterwards the regiment camped by the side of the Irriwaddy river before attacking Rangoon which fell with little resistance. The soldiers stayed in the area and were involved in a number of skirmishes before the war ran its course, and the regiment sailed to India at the start of 1826. During one of these skirmishes Cummings was wounded in the right knee by a gunshot wound and, rather than move onto India, he returned to England where he was treated at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea during 1827. Sir John Soane had recently designed a new building for the hospital, so Cummings would have received the best treatmet available, and was soon able to return to Midlothian with an army pension. After the horrors of an Indian war and the opulence of London, his return to Scotland must have come with mixed emotions.

Three years after his return from London Cummings Naismith married Ann Telfer. Cummings' brother, John, gave caution for their marriage, rather than their father, so Alexander may have died by then. At the time of their marriage the other three parents were certainly still alive and in their sixties; old for miners. Cummings' mother was now living with one of her widowed daughters and Ann's parents had moved North to Fife. Whether Alexander and Mary Telfer had moved for reasons other than promotion will not be known, but by the time of the 1841 census he was an overseer at Drumcarrow colliery and was interviewed when the 1842 report was made. Unusually his mine had no very young children there:

"We employ about 50 persons in the mine; 15 are under 18 years of age and nine boys 10, 12 and 14 years of age; very young people are of no use here, as much caution is required from the nature of our coal which is frequently on fire ... No accidents have taken place from the stifle which the burning produces ... many of our present colliers were labourers in the fields; they are generally good workmen, although they are called grass-colliers."

This was a time of considerable change for both families. Cummings' eldest brother, Alexander, was well on the way to prosperity. In 1830 he had leased the mineral rights for a mine and would soon be farming 800 acres as well as being a coalmaster; Ann's eldest sister, Elizabeth, was soon to emigrate to the USA with her husband; Ann's parents were both now in their seventies, very old for miners, and decided to move back to Midlothian to spend their last years living with their son Thomas, who was the manager of Cowpits colliery; and Ann's youngest brother had also decided to join the army. In 1837 he joined the 82nd Foot regiment and, over the next seventeen years, would see service in Gibraltar, Jamaica (where he survived an outbreak of yellow fever) and Canada. He does not seem to have seen any action but not many years after his return to Scotland he died of paralysis and epilepsy.

Cummings and Ann were also on the move. Straight after their marriage they crossed to West Lothian and shortly afterwards Cummings was mining even further West in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, not far from Glasgow. The return to mining cannot have been easy but, despite his literacy, there is no evidence that Cumming ever became more than just a miner. The older children, born from 1831 onwards, may have worked down the mines. However, following the 1842 Act, the girls and younger children would not have been able to; but may have worked at the surface washing and sorting the coal.

By 1854 Cumming and Ann's family was complete: three boys and seven girls ranging from those in their twenties to Margaret, the youngest. Ann's parents had died only within the last year or two; the two elder boys were working as miners; the girls were lace tambourers (embroidering using a 'tambour' to hold the lace); and Cumming himself still working in the mines, but continuing to draw his army pension following his knee wound that had stopped his military career.
The Indian General Service medal with the NW Frontier clasp which Alexander would have been awarded in 1863
That experience did not stop Cumming's son, Alexander, from following a military career as well. Alexander's cousin, another Alexander Naismith, had recently come back from the Crimea where he had suffered badly from diarrhoea. Although becoming a corporal and having good behaviour, he was seen as a 'weakly man' who was unlikely to be suited to soldiering. Cumming's son, Alexander, looking rather different to his father being two inches shorter, with fair hair and grey eyes, had a very different army career to that of his cousin. Initially it started badly: after receiving a £5 bonus for joining the Rifle Brigade in 1857, within a year he had deserted and gone back to being a miner.

Over the next two years he watched his father die of tuberculosis which, if Alexander blamed it on his father's mining life, may have influenced his decision to rejoin the army. As a deserter his first 'posting' was to spend two months in prison and his previous service was discounted with regard to any future pension. This time, though, Alexander would be sent abroad to the North-West Frontier, near present day Pakistan, and the active life seemed to suit him. For eight years he was involved in a series of skirmishes, one of which, in December 1863, brought him the Indian Service Medal. He rose quickly through the ranks and, on his return to England in 1870, he was a sergeant. 1871 saw him based in Hampshire, one of only five sergeants and four officers commanding his regiment. Life at home was not the same as war, though, and in 1874 he was court martialled and returned to the rank of private for 'neglect of duty'. Rather than return to Scotland he stayed in the army, even though the next twelve years were all based in England, and when he retired he was once again a sergeant. Ironically, having survived war, he was killed by a fish train when crossing the railway on his way to his job as a clerk at a mine.

Ann's other children led less eventful lives, but the move away from underground work had started, even if nearly all of them remained in the mining industry. Her youngest son, Andrew, became an engine keeper and the eldest, William, appeared to follow his aunt and uncle to the USA, where he remained a miner. Some daughters married men who had nothing to do with mining, and those that did were no no longer minning themselves as their husbands were coalmasters rather than those who worked the coal face. Ann had inherited her parents longevity genes and did not die until she was nearly eighty. She had been a widow for thirty years, but had seen her family start the climb towards the middle classes.

Hugh Gray (1785 - 1839) & Violet Inglis (1787 - 1832)

Robert Inglis was in the third generation of his family who had been bound to the local landowner as a miner and it was not until he was a teenager, and had been working as a slave miner for ten years, that his situation changed. He lived long enough to tell the mining commission of 1842 about his life:

I am the oldest collier on Sir John Hope's work, and have not been able to do much for many years, but am employed about at light work, which gets me a maintenance; am very ill at present, though I move out. I was born 9th Sept. 1759 and worked at Pinkie Pit long before the colliers got their freedom; the first emancipation took place on the 3rd of July, 1775 - we always kept the day as a holiday. Lord Abercorn got us out of our slavery. Father and grandfather were slaves to the Laird of Preston Grange and after the works had stopped and we got licence from Mr. Peter Hunter, the then tacksman, we could not get work, as the neighbours kenned that the Laird of Preston Grange would send the sheriff after us and bring us back. So binding was the bondage, that the lairds had the power of taking colliers who had left them out of any of his Majesty's ships, or bringing back any who had enlisted in the army. Such ill-feelings existed against colliers and salters years past that they were buried in unconsecrated ground; this was common in Fife. If colliers had been better treated they would have been better men.

General Sir John Hope; mine owner and soldier
Robert married Emily Clark in Inveresk in Midlothian shortly after the 1775 Act that started the process of freeing miners from servitude, so none of his children would have become bound to Sir John Hope as soon as they started working in the mines, although most chose to work there. Violet, the fourth of their nine children was certainly working in the mine by 1806, but had probably been working there for years. There was little time for recreation or romance, but Violet and her future husband, Hugh Gray, would have met at the mine as the Gray family were all employees of Sir John as well. Hugh's parents, Andrew Gray and Agnes Lindsay were married only a few months after Robert and Emily Inglis and, over the next twenty years, their families mirrored each other closely, each having their last child as the new century broke.
Accounts showing the outputs of individual colliers at Cowpits 1806
On cost payments at Cowpits 1806; Robert Inglis appears on the fourth line

The early years of the new century were eventful for both families. Most were still in the mines with their names appearing on 1806 documents; included in the list of those receiving a bounty in 1809 were: William Archibald (Fife) (£2); Hugh Gray (£1 1s) who was also lent £2; William Gray (£1 1s); Alexander Gray (10s 6d); Violet Inglis (10s 6d) and Andrew Gray who was lent £3.[5] The bounty was given only after they had promised the following:

We undersubscribers Colliers residing at Cowpitts hereby bind and oblige ourselves to continue working as Colliers in the service of Sir John Hope of Craighall Bart at Cowpitts or Craighall Haugh Collieries for all the lawful days and space of twelve months certain from and after the third day of july Eighteen hundred and Nine years declaring that we have received bounty money and arles for our bearers as annexed to our subscriptions and also acknowledge to have had advanced us by the said Sir John Hope lent money as annexed to our subscriptions hereof which we bind ourselves to repay before leaving said Collieries. Declaring further that the working prices to us undersubscibers during the said year shall be proportional to the selling prices as eight is to twenty eight And that this agreement at these rates binds us to faithful peacable and honest service as colliers during said year at said collieries. In witness whereof we do subscribe these presents written by John Grieve at Cowpitts, this [ blank ] day of July before these witnesses John Neilson, Overseer of Cowpitts Colliery and Alexander Finlayson, Clerk

One man who had left the mines was Violet's brother, Ramsay. Like many before him, in 1805 he had joined the army and, when his siblings were signing the Bounty Agreement, he was serving with the 15th Foot in India. Although the conditions there would have been difficult, there is no evidence that he saw any action and, in 1818, he was obliged to return to Scotland because he had a diseased testicle rather than through any battle injury. He went back to working at the Coalpits mine, which must have been difficult after living in tents in India. Ironically, having survived thirteen years in the army, his death shortly after coming back was likely to have been brutal. Married, with two small children, he went missing in 1825. Two years later, during another trial, it was alleged that he had been murdered when coming back from the mine. The named aggressors were never brought to trial, but the claim explained his disappearance.

The owner of Coalpits where the Inglises and Grays worked, Sir John Hope, was an absent landlord for much of the time: although a local MP he was also an army officer who served with distinction in the West Indies, and took over the command of the British army at Corunna in 1809 when Sir John Moore was killed. Normally a mineowner, particularly one of Sir John's stature, would have played little or no direct role in his miners' lives, but that does not appear to have been the case here. Alexander, Hugh Gray's younger brother, served under Sir John and later named one of his daughters Alicia Hope Gray. Sir John was either a kindly landlord as evidenced, perhaps, by his purchase of Ormiston to be a mining village (see earlier), a good leader, or both. [6]

George IV visits Hopetoun in 1822
Hugh Gray and Violet Inglis 'gave up their names for proclamation of marriage' in 1810. In 1822 the sixth of their eight children was born, but nearby an event of national importance was taking place as Sir John Hope's growing importance was marked by a royal visit. George IV had been making the first visit to Scotland by a reigning monarch for 170 years was the visit was stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott as an important part of his Romantic Movement in Scotland. Throughout the tour the King wore Highland dress, which had been banned from 1745 until 1782 following the Jacobite Rebellions: the King's gesture was viewed as an act of reconciliation between Scotland and England. Records show that the King arrived at Hopetoun at 1.15pm and that after being received by the Earl and Countess he lunched sparingly on turtle soup and three glasses of wine. At 3pm he made his farewells and made his way by carriage to Port Edgar, just outside South Queensferry, where the Royal Yacht waited to return him to England. Elaborate arrangements had been made and crowds waited for him in the rain, although whether the miners at Sir John's mines were part of the crowds as the king made his way to Hopetoun is not known.[7]
A map of Cowpits showing the L-shaped cluster of houses where the Grays lived
By 1832 Hugh and Violet had eight children, with their youngest now four years old. As most of their family had, they lived in Coalpits/Cowpits, a small village about a mile from Musselburgh, on the south bank of the Esk. It had about 40 houses, arranged in two rectangular lines, one parallel to the bank, the other at right angles to the river. Twelve cottages ran along the bank; twenty-seven more at right angles to it; and a single house, a little larger than the rest, stood in the opposite corner. All of them were one storey buildings, built on the ground with earthen or brick floors; and all were inhabited by colliers or other pitmen. It appeared to be a more pleasant place to live than most, particularly as the Grays lived in one of the houses closest to the river, but tragedy swas about to strike: in January cholera reached Scotland. Over the next few days eleven of the residents in Coalpits caught cholera and nine of them died. Violet was one of them, and a description of her last days survives:

During the night of the same day, Tuesday 24th, Violet Inglis or Mrs Gray, a woman of 45, whose health had been deranged since the cessation of menstrual secretion, and who had suffered bowel complaint for several days before, was seized with vomiting and cramp, in addition to the bowel complaint, the discharges of which became then profuse and watery; and she died on the morning of the 25th, after twelve hours illness. This woman lived in the corner house nearest the Esk, which was clean and well aired, but with a brick floor. No other person of a family of eight was attacked. Next day Jane Gray, a child of three, and niece to Mrs Gray, came with her mother to the funeral. The child was three hours in the house, in a room a good way apart from that in which the corpse was, and without communication with it. At the end of this time she became sick and vomited, was attacked in the course of the evening with looseness, and these symptoms having increased the following day, she died on the 27th, about eleven pm. She was one of a family of ten, none of whom were attacked.[8]

Despite the age of his younger children, Hugh did not remarry, but relied on the other members of his family who lived in the same group of houses; it's likely that most of his family would have worked at the colliery anyway. His nephew, Alexander, son of Hugh's brother Alexander who had returned from the Peninsular War to become a miner again, was interviewed as a ten-year old in 1842, and described his role as a pump boy at the pit:

I pump out the water in the under bottom of the pit, to keep the men's rooms dry. I am obliged to pump fast or the water would cover me. I had to run away a few weeks ago, as the water came up so fast that I could no pump at all and the men were obliged to gang. The water frequently covers my legs and those of the men when they sit to pick. I have been two years at the pump. I work every day, whether men work or not. Am paid 10d. a-day: no holidays but Sabbath. I go down at three, sometimes five, in the morning; and come up at six and seven at night. I know that I work 12 and 14 hours, as I can tell by the clock. I know the hours: the minute-hand is longer than the one which points to the hour: and I can read and do a little at writing. I go to night-school when there is no work: canna gang after work, am o'er fatigued. I get flesh and kail when I return home and take my pieces of oaten bread wi' me. Can go the length of some of the Questions: the teacher taught me. I know who made the heaven and earth; it was God: our Saviour was his Son. The Devil is sin: sin is any want of' conformity to the law of God; so it says in my questions. I don't know what county is, nor the law of God.

In fact Hugh had died in 1839, three years before Alexander had been interviewed, but his own children would have done similar jobs; and it is clear that the Grays were educating their children in an attempt to leave the pits behind. When he died his youngest child was almost twelve, so they would have been able to look after themselves, and the 1841 census finds Violet, 20, Hugh,19, James, 17, and Catherine, 13, living together. At that stage they were still minres, but James would go on to manage a colliery and Hugh gave up mining altogether to run a public house; so the underground days wouldn't last much longer.

Richard Gibb (1785 - 1830) & Barbara Watson (1794 - 1865)

In 1830 the Shotts burial registers show a mortcloth payment of 6s 8d (33p) for Richard Gibb, aged 45. He had been a miner all his life, so it seems likely that he died from the effects of working in poor conditions for over thirty years. Although he married and brought up his family in Lanarkshire, he had probably been born thirty miles away in Bo'ness on the East coast, and then moved across the country with his brother, Walter, towards the end of the Napoleonic War. [9] Two years after Richard had been born, Robert Burns, the poet, had visited Bo'ness and described it as 'that dirty, ugly place, Borrowstounness' so clearly the industrial nature of the area was apparent even then. At the time the port was considered the second largest in Scotland, and a range of industries used its facilities ranging from shipbuilding, to mining equipment, a vast saltmaking enterprise and even a nascent whaling industry, which soon had seven whalers based in the harbour. In the same year that Burns visited the harbour pier was extended to cater for the increasing trade; and yet disaster was just around the corner. In 1790 the Forth & Clyde canal was opened which joined nearby Grangemouth with the Clyde and offered ships an easier route across Scotland when compared with sailing round the North coast. Coupled with the collapse of the tobacco trade when Bo'ness had acted as a staging post between America and continental Europe, the future did not look good. Taxes on the salt trade still brought in a large income for the town, and a huge herring catch in 1795 led to a brief hope that smoked herrings might provide a new industry, but it proved fruitless, and Grangemouth continued to grow at the expense of Bo'ness.

Throughout all this the Gibb family were miners. The land around Bo'ness was honeycombed with mines where coal had been dug for centuries and black smoke from the pits hung in the air . As the end of the century approached, Richard became a teenager by when he would certainly have been mining underground, like his five older brothers and sisters, and some of his four younger siblings as well. Under the law as it stood at the time, the whole family were bound to the mine owner and would have been required to work for him all their lives. However, in 1799, the Mining Emancipation Act was finally enacted, and all those working as slaves were, in theory, free to move on. In celebration the miners marched through the town and the first Miners Fair was held. Originally it was essentially a drinking festival, with miners given drinks by the mine owners before spending the evening (and night) in the many inns, although there were horse races on the beach in the afternoon - using carthouses - bands played and a fair was held at Corbiehall. We cannot pinpoint the mine where the Gibbs worked but we know that Richard's sister lived and was buried in Corbiehall, on the West end of the town on the road to Grangemouth so, as families tended to work in the same mine, it is a fair assumption that Richard worked there too. It may have hosted the annual fair but, for most of the year, it was simply somewhere to sleep at the end of the day. A visitor to the area described the effect of mining on the local people: Their mouths were wide open, their lips were thick and projecting, and they resembled in those respects the lowest types of savages in the lowest and most brutalised state. The 1799 Act must have made many miners think they now had an opportunity to leave this lifestyle behind.

At the end of the 18th century Richard, now fifteen was one of about 3,000 people, living in Bo'ness. The mines were still profitable and the salt industry still brought the town good money, but Grangemouth would shortly build its own custom house and the best times were past. A few years earlier Bo'ness had tried to build its own canal, designed to join the main one from Grangemouth, but the costs had proved too much and the project had collapsed. At some stage between the start of the new century and 1812, Richard took the decision to leave Bo'ness, with his brother Walter, and move to Lanarkshire. In 1812 his name was enrolled 'to be proclaimed for marriage' to a Bo'ness girl, but he was in Bothwell by then and the marriage never took place. Why it didn't happen, and whether he had already met Barbara Watson by then is not known; and there is no evidence that he ever actually married Barbara, but he certainly spent the rest of his life with her.

The gravestone of Barbara's brother who died in 1808 when he was five and Barbara was fourteen
Barbara Watson was the eldest of nine children born to a North Lanarkshire miner, whose family had lived in the area all her life. All their children appear to have been born when they lived in Newarthill [10], so Richard and Barbara must have been one of the early settlers as it only became a residential community at about the time they arrived. Newarthill lay in the middle of an area filled with rich seams of coal, but for many years miners - and most the residents were miners - needed to travel to Shotts for a church. Newarthill has never been a beautiful place, but even life in the older villages nearby, such as Holytown, was difficult.

The few references to Richard describe him as a coalier, although there were several ironstone mines in the locality and a number of his family chose to mine those, rather than coal. He died in 1830 as his eighth child was being born, a little before Barbara's father, John, who had also been a miner all his life; and over twenty years before her mother, who had probably also been down the mines. There is little evidence to suggest that he did anything other than hew coal and certainly all his sons started by following in his footsteps. And yet there are glimpses that he may have had higher ambitions: mortcloth payments were paid, so he and his family were not dependent on the parish; his sons' careers showed that they had inherited ambition from somewhere; and, most intriguingly, his eldest son was described as a portioner in 1881: from whom had he inherited property?

Whatever his financial position, Richard's death left Barbara with several young children to support. She never remarried, and by 1841 was still living with six of them, with all the boys miners. When their father died, the eldest was barely a teenager, so it seems unlikely that they would have been able to support the rest of the family. Either Richard had left some money, which seems doubtful; or the parish helped (but there is no record of that); or Barbara's parents helped. John, her father died a year after Richard, and her mother, living with another daughter until 1853, remained the widow of a miner, and was unlikely to have much money to give her family (her mortcloth payment was under 3s). Barbara's means of bringing up her young family will remain a mystery; but she appears to have done a good job.

It was possible to leave Newarthill for greater things. One boy, born in the village in 1847, started by working down the mines as a ten year-old, but went on to make a fortune in the building industry: Robert McAlpine. By the time Barbara died, she could not have not known that Thomas, one of her youngest, would go on to become a quarry master and successful businessman; but she would have seen his ambition as a young man; she would have seen him move above ground to become a clerk; and she would not have been surprised that he would go on to better things. No mother would want her children to mine; Barbara would have known that they wouldn't have to.


The map and 1806/9 Coalpits documents and transcriptions come from Albert Russell. His website has a lot other information on Midlothian miners:


  1. Children's Employment Commission 1842
  2. Sanitary Enquiry on the town of Tranent 1841
  3. Sanitary Enquiry on the town of Tranent 1841
  4. Information on death certificates is not very reliable, but two of William's children's death certificates describe him as a coal miner; two as a colliery manager - one naming Foutainhall, Tranent; and one as a pit surveyor. Taken together they suggest there had been some promotion
  5. The grouping and order of the Grays make it clear that they are the right family; there is another William Archibald on the list, but neither may be the right one
  6. I have not been able to find any reference to Alexander's army career, but Gray descendants in Australia believe that Alexander served with Sir John in the Peninsular War, and then went on to become his body servant during the Indian Mutiny before being invalided home. The dates do not quite fit (Alexander was only sixteen when Sir John returned from the Peninsular War and the latter did not go to India) but it seems the core of the family tradition may well be right as it is unusual to name a child after a mine owner
  8. Remarks on the History and Etiology of Cholera. By David Craigie, M. D. Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh. Published in 1832
  9. Richard Gibb appears in several online trees, either with his birth as 1785 (which is consistent with his age in the burial entry); or 1790 (presumably a guess based on his being about twenty-five when he married) but none names his parents. My evidence that he was born in Bo'ness is based on a marriage entry and the Scottish naming system. Richard 'married' Barbara Watson, daughter of John and Janet (nee Parkhill) Watson. The only entries for their children on the IGI are for Walter in 1816 and Thomas in 1827. The 1841 census shows Barbara living with John (20-24), Margaret (15-19), Ann (15-19), Richard (14), Thomas (12) and Agnes (10)). Later censuses show that Margaret was born in about 1822 and John in about 1820. This leaves Richard and Barbara's eldest children as Walter (1816), John (1820), and Margaret (1822). My hypothesis is that they also had a daughter called Janet in about 1818. There is a Janet Gibb, bc1818, who married Robert Gray, son of Hugh and Violet, in 1844. Her death certificate gives her parents as John Gibb, coalminer and Barbara Watson. I have taken the 'John' to be a mistake, as everything else fits. The naming system would therefore suggest that Barbara's parents were John and Janet, which we know to be true; and Richard's were Walter and Margaret. There is a baptism for a Richard Gibb, son of Walter Gibb and Margaret Snaddon, in Bo'ness in 1785. The date fits well and, further, it is known that another of their sons, Walter, the closest in age to Richard, moved from Bo'ness to the same area in Lanarkshire where Richard brought up his family. Both Walters were miners. The case is clinched by the 1812 entry in the Bo'ness registers where Richard Gibb, coalhewer, of Bothwell, was due to marry a local girl, but the 'marriage did not take place'
  10. Only two baptisms have been found, in 1816 and 1827; but both give their address as Newarthill