For the working class, labour was the duty that helped them provide for themselves and their family through a certain trade that was often taught and usually passed down through generations. As aTyneside Colliery Waggonway-Wright, labour provided Anthony Errington with an identity and a powerful sense of pride. I will cover this theme chronologically as it is the clearest way to show the development of Anthony’s various jobs before settling for work in the pits.
Anthony’s proud sense of working-class identity was originally sparked by the glorious moments where his idolised Father, “rode the first waggon from the Ventor Pit, Low Main seam, the first waggon from the discovery pit, South of High Felling, and the first waggon from the John pit near the Sunderland road.” (21) Pit openings were great family moments and also progressive industrial events for the mining community that it happened in. When a new pit was opened in Tyneside, it was common for there to be celebrations within the community: “bands played, guns were fired, and the owners and workmen marched in triumphal procession to a field where the women were given a free meal and drink.” (21) This shows the huge sense of community spirit that a new pit brought. It was an exciting time for the locals that offered them new opportunities and resulted in an unbreakable sense of togetherness. Pride also came from the importance that this growing industry gave to the community, with it acting as one of the building blocks of the industrial revolution that would shortly follow.
From an early age, Anthony was plunged into the strong working class ethic that surrounded him but he was also introduced to the perils of the pits in equal measure. On one of the first visits to the pit with his father, Anthony witnessed an explosion which blew out the candles leaving them, “in darkness 500 yards from the pit botum.” (30) Luckily, Anthony and his Father escaped unharmed but the other man who was with them had, “sore burned, face and hands and breast.” (31) This was Anthony’s first taste of the perils of the pits, it was one of the most dangerous jobs but one of the fastest growing industries at the time, with communities being shaped around it. In his research on miners in the nineteenth century, Guy Solomon concluded that, “northern coal miners could expect to live six years less than the average adult male, and were eight percent more likely to die before the age of 34.” (Solomon, 2014, 15) This was due to poor sanitation, various illnesses and as Anthony constantly tells us, the looming threat of an explosion. (McIvor, 2007, 41) There was a lack measures taken at the time to ensure the workers safety. Therefore, it also represents the courage one had to have before venturing below.
Following this event, Anthony was around the age of 13 and feared the mines for a long time, so he tried out other jobs such as farming at, “Hilton Castle” (31), which he quickly took a dislike to due to the gruelling conditions of the work. He also had an encounter with a ship builder from Felling Shore who Anthony explains, “tried to perswade me that to be a ship wright was a better trade,” than his Father’s. (32) Anthony refused and began an apprenticeship with his Father, a life defining decision which meant that he would have to get over his fear of the pits in order to make a living.
Going with my farther and brother John, in a short time the fear of the pit left me. And with being in varius parts of the mine, I understood the carrying of the air. I was taut the pit language and got on with my trade very well.” (32)
Through the help of his Father and the other workers, Anthony learnt the trade and overcame his fears. (The “carrying of the air” (32) was where a “single current of air was made to ventilate all parts of a mine.”)(32) It was this moment where Anthony had recognised that he could develop a valuable skill and an advanced knowledge of a trade that would support him throughout his life, whilst making him part of a close knit community of workers. This was achieved by experiencing other trades which all brought him to the realisation that he wanted to pursue a path that would help him overcome a nightmarish fear of the pits and also work alongside his respectable father. In the next part of this thematic blog post, I will explore the labour that occurs later on in Anthony’s life, where through his increased amount of experiences in the pits, came many spine-chilling moments.
Errington, Anthony. Coals And Rails: the autobiography of Anthony Errington, a Tyneside colliery waggonway-wright. 1776 – c. 1825. Written between 1823 and about 1830. 1:231.
Johnston, Ronald & McIvor, Arthur. Miner’s Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining. Ashgate Publishing, LTD. 2007.
Solomon, Guy Samuel. The living standards of Tyneside coal miners, 1836-1862. MSc by Research University of York Economics, July 2014.
‘Felling Colliery, where two disasters in the space of eighteen months saw over a hundred men and boys killed.’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felling,_Tyne_and_Wear#/media/File:John_Pit_Felling.jpg
‘The coal staithes at Felling Shore’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felling,_Tyne_and_Wear#/media/File:Coal_Staithes,_Felling_Shore.jpg