My grandfather made his living in the water; he would often get a knock at the door from the police to say there was a body floating in the Clyde. Being a strong swimmer his job was to fish the poor person out of the river. But full-time he worked waist deep in water down the pits. This was during the 1920s where working conditions had improved little since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The development of the deep mines, saw men and women working in desperately hot and cramped space; and during the mid-19th century this raised tensions between the genders, as the men often worked unclothed. There was a particular moment of controversy, when women were pictured working topless because of the heat. Many of the men complained this was immoral but there was suspicion that they didn’t believe women should be working in the pits at all, not least because they felt they depressed wages.
Coal has received most historic attention in terms of industrial development and of course industrial strife. Less is known of the importance of tin mining. There is a certain awareness of its history in Cornwall, but as Richard Skinner’s poem Dark Nook, and the research behind it shows, it was a feature in the Isle of Man as well. And unsurprisingly, like the experience of the coal industry, conditions were just as bad. However, you had to be lucky in the first place just to get the job. “I am Egbert Clague./I come every morning from Agneash/hoping for the nod from the bargain man.” When you did get the ‘nod’ it took you, “two hours to descend the ladders,/…The hole to go down is just two foot by two,” It was dangerous work and there was no compensation for accidents, so when Egbert’s legs are crushed, his wife has to work on the Washing Floor, sorting the ore from the stone. “It’s worse work than the mine—/she has no more feeling in her hands./I’ll be joining her there soon.” (more…)