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About A Week: Trappers

In the early 1800s boys as young as six were working down Yorkshire coal mines. They were alone in total darkness for most of the day, writes Peter Hinchliffe. Peter grew up in a Yorkshire pit village.

These lads were called trappers.

The name conjures up limitless Canadian vistas. Check-shirted men hunting through frosty pine woods, exhilarated by the great outdoors.

The trappers I’m writing about knew little of sunshine and fresh air. They were imprisoned in a wide-awake nightmare.

In the early 1800s boys as young as six were working down Yorkshire coal mines. A twelve hour shift. Six days a week. Wage - a penny-ha’penny for 72 hours.

The boys were alone in total darkness for most of the working day. A darkness darker than the darkest night.

Men hewed the coal, wrenching it from the earth with pick and muscle, toiling in tunnels with barely enough room to kneel on all fours.

Women were human beasts of burden, hauling the coal from the workings.

The boys opened and closed trap doors at the tunnel entrances. The doors ensured that there was a flow of air around the pits, which were hundreds of feet below the picturesque green fields and woods.

Each boy was given a candle to light him to his place of slavery on his first day of work. Thereafter, the children had to find their way in the dark. Giving candles to kids was thought by the mine owners to be a waste of good money.

Hour after hour, those boys sat in alcoves near the air doors, with only their fears and scuttling vermin for company.

Go down the No1 shaft at Caphouse Colliery, which is right beside the Huddersfield-Wakefield Road, between Grange Moor and Middlestown, and you gain some small idea of the horror of an early pitboy’s life.

Coal was mined at Caphouse from 1791. The shaft is probably the oldest still in use.

The last coal came up in October, 1985. Caphouse is now the Yorkshire Mining Museum, a living memorial to the men, women and boys who fuelled Britain’s rush towards industrial might.

Historians now write of Britain’s colonial exploitation. They overlook the millions and millions of British men, women and children who were exploited in greater measure than workers in far-flung parts of the Empire.

There’s plenty on the surface at Caphouse museum to absorb one’s attention. The lamp room. The engine house, with its mighty Davey Brothers steam winding engine. Pit ponies.

But the most vivid experience is going 450ft underground to the New Hards seam, there to be guided through methods ancient and modern of mining coal.

Caphouse is still classed as a working mine, subject to the stiffest safety checks. Matches or battery-operated equipment, such as cameras or watches, have to be handed in before you are allowed to descend in the cage.

You are issued with a white hard-hat and a safety lamp, then handed a metal disc before entering the cage and descending at a reassuringly steady pace. The discs enable a check to be made that all those who go below ground come back up again.

A hard, hard life, mining coal, though some apparently thrived on it. A chap called Inman started working down Caphouse when he was six-and-a-half. He was still working there 80 years later!

I spent my boyhood in a village not far from Caphouse. I saw its winding gear on the far side of our green valley. I knew men who worked there. Some of my relatives were miners.

In the Caphouse exhibition hall there was an account of Yorkshire’s worst mining disaster. On December 12 and 13, 1866, a series of explosions ripped through Oaks Colliery, Barnsley, killing more than 350 men.

I read through the list of casualties.

…Charles Hinchliffe, Henry Hinchliffe, John Hinchliffe…

I often give thanks for having been able to earn a living while working in daylight.

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