Bancroft Coal Miners of Denholme & Sawood



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There were Bancroft men,women and children in 19th century Yorkshire who were employed as coal miners, not all in the large pits we are familiar with today, but some toiled in small family enterprises, quite often run as a sideline for a farmer who happened to find he had coal in a hillside of his land, or where a relatively shallow mine shaft could be sunk.

Whilst researching this article, I have to say I was shocked to read about how many small children were employed in local coal mines, and their personal circumstances, which got me wondering....what jobs could children do underground? 


The trapper was often the youngest member of the family working underground. Their job was simply to open and close the wooden doors [trap doors] that allowed fresh air to flow through the mine. They would usually sit in total darkness for up to twelve hours at a time, waiting to let coal tubs through the door. It was not hard work, but was boring and could be dangerous. If he fell asleep, the safety of the whole mine could be affected.

 The Hurrier and the Thruster were the older children and women who were employed as hurriers, pulling and pushing tubs full of coal along roadways from the coal face to the pit-bottom. The younger children worked in pairs, one as a hurrier, the other as a thruster, but the older children and women worked alone. Hurriers would be harnessed to the tub, and thrusters would help hurriers by pushing the tubs of coal from behind with their hands and the tops of their heads. The tubs and the coal could weigh over 600kg, and would have to be moved through roadways which were often only 60-120cm high.
The job of a Coal Getters was reserved for the oldest and strongest members of the family, almost always grown men or strong youths. Their job was to work at the coal face cutting the coal from the seam with a pickaxe. Getters were the only members of the family who would work continually with a candle or safety lamp, as they needed the light to see the coal face.
On 4 August 1842, a law was passed that stopped women and children under ten years from working underground in mines in Britain. Before this law was passed, it was common for whole families to work together underground to earn enough money for the family to live on. The Victorians saw child labour as a normal part of working life. Most children started work underground when they were around eight years old, but some were as young as five. They would work the same hours as adults, sometimes longer, at jobs that paid far less.

Around 1834 the Denholme Park Pits, which probably included the nearby Sawood pits, was taken over by David Baxendale and Sons, and in February 1841, the manager was interviewed by members of a Parliamentary Commission inquiring into children’s employment ahead of the change of law. The following comments made by the pit owner make shocking reading:

“Mr Baxendale states that the colliers of Denholme, with whom he had been for several years connected, were steady, sober and well behaved, and that he attributed their superior conduct generally to the attention that had been paid to their education…..the employment of females in these collieries would cease at the passing of the act, without being the cause of much inconvenience. He did complain however of the difficulties entailed on the masters and some of the colliers by the exclusion of boys under 10 years of age”

One such youth was David Bancroft, born 1850 in the Upper Bradshaw Head area of Oxenhope, near Keighley. David was the son of Joseph Bancroft, who ran  a pub and stone quarry in the Sawood area, which as well as having good supplies of stone also had a seem of high sulphur coal, about two feet thick, which would have been much in demand from all the local mills who were at this time starting to convert from water to steam power.
David Bancroft - Coal Miner-1861 census
The 1861 census, shown above, shows David as a 11 year old coal miner, still living at home with his family. David, like many workers in coal pits, did not live a long life however, because records show he died in 1879 and was buried in the local Wesleyan graveyard.

Denholme & Sawood Coal Mines
Shown below are details of children, both boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 years who were working in a local coal pit known as 'New Day Hole' in Denholme in the 1840’s, which makes disturbing reading. When the parliamentary commission interviewed a number of these children, these was the responses given:

James Wright had been a bobbin winder until he was 14 and then began to work in the pit because they needed a hurrier. He believed that he “ had got very near too big to go into t’pit” and that his health, which had not been good, had improved since working underground.

George Holden drove the [gin] horse at the mill top before he went underground. He has good health and enjoyed the work.

David Brooksbank found the work harder than when he began, which left him tired. He liked the pit, but would rather be lakin’ [playing] or doing some other trade.

Christopher Groves lived near the pit and went underground soon after 6 am, having breakfasted on porridge. He had an hour off for lunch, which he took in the pit, and ate potatoes and collop [probably fried bacon and oatcakes. He left the pit around 6 pm and had porridge for supper. He had not wanted to work in the pit, but now enjoyed it. He was healthy, was never beaten and went to Sunday-school.

Margaret Saville could not recollect how long she had worked “ in t’hoile”. She had worked for her father and brother and found the work not too hard, preferring to do it than stay at home. She got herself up in the morning, saying “ a’ most know when it’s time to get up”. If she did not get up, they would say nothing to her, but if they were not at work at the right time, the colliers sometimes sent them away. She was not often beaten, but some would do so if they were busy.

William Tidswell was only six. He had worked in the pit for around a year and did not like it. “ there’s a deal o’ coals and stones in t’gate; has had the skin off his leg till he could see the bone; had to stop at home then”.

The following table lists all of he children employed by at New Day Hole pit in Denholme

Child Coal mine workers

Living in the Denholme area in the early to mid 19th century were a Bancroft family of Jabez and Martha, where several of the men with coal mine workers. Their son John, his brother Joseph and John’s son William are all listed as mine workers on the census records.

 Joseph was  listed on the 1841 census as a coal miner, and had married another miner’s daughter, Mary Mitchell in 1837. Along with many others doing this hazardous work, he died at the early age of  only 28 years, probably from some incident to do with this type of work, and his burial record is shown below.

Joseph Bancroft's burial record  19/6/1842

 His brother John, seemed to have survived a little better. He was born in 1811, and seems to have worked a long time in the local coal mines because he is listed in the various census records as a coal miner, banksman and collier, and after marrying a Rebecca Brooksbank, went on to have 13 children with her.

John Bancroft 1861 census


 John died in 1866, and one of his sons, William, also went down the mine….albeit not for long! The 1861 census lists him as a coal miner, but by the time of the next census in 1871 he is now a weaver, which must have been a much safer occupation.

The early coal miner would have needed only a simple range of tools. He would have used either a pick or a hammer and chisel to cut into the ground by hand. To get to the coal he would have first have to pick out the shale, either above or below the coal seam, and then used wedges to break the coal into clean largish lumps. He would then have to use a rake to pull the coal towards him and than shovel the coal into baskets which were used to drag it into the shaft. The coal was then lifted from shallow pits, using a rope and handle arrangement. Where the pit shafts were deeper, which many were in order to get at the thicker coal seems, was to lift the heavier amounts of coal using a cog and rung  arrangement powered by horses called a gin, similar to the drawing shown below.

Cog & Run Gin


Miners worked in constant danger, as many pits were susceptible to flooding, and ventilation was also a problem at times which often led to small explosions because the miners were using naked lights. An often greater problem was the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the workings which, being odourless, could suffocate men.

Contrary to what you might expect, the coming of the canals and railways, bringing in large quantities of cheap high quality coal from abroad, did not spell the end of these small local mines. Many cotton and wool mills were changing from water wheel power to steam power, and the new larger mills being built led to an every increasing demand for local coal, particularly if it was of good enough quality.

Coal Getter

[I acknowledge the book ‘Keighley Coal by MC Gill,’ where some of this information came from]
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