The rapid growth of steam power relied directly on large supplies of its only fuel: coal. There was a great increase in the amount of coal mined in Britain.
Coal was still cut by hand and the pits introduced few really new techniques. The increased demand was met by employing more miners and by making them dig deeper. This was made possible by more efficient steam pumps and steam-driven winding engines which used wire ropes to raise the coal to the surface, by better ventilation and by the miner's safety lamp which detected some dangerous gases. By the 1830s scams well below 1000 feet were being worked in south Durham and the inland coalfields of Lancashire and Staffordshire. Central Scotland and south Wales were mined more intensively later. By the end of the nineteenth century the best and most accessible seams were worked out. As the miners followed the eastern scams of the south Yorkshire-north Midlands area, which dipped further below the surface, shafts of 3,000 feet were not uncommon.
Some of the work in mines was done by women and children. Boys and girls were often put in charge of the winding engines or of opening and shutting the trap doors which controlled the ventilation of the mines. Then they had to crouch all day in the same spot by themselves in the dark. When these evils were at last publicized in 1842 by a Royal Commission, many mines no longer employed women, but Parliament made it illegal for them all. It also forbade them to employ boys under the age of ten. The limit, which was very difficult to enforce, was increased to twelve in the 1870s. Subsequently it rose with the school leaving age.
Mining was very dangerous. Loose rocks were easily dislodged and the risk of being killed or injured by one was always greater in the tall scams where they had further to fall. In the north of England fatal accidents were not even followed by inquests to discover why they had happened until after 1815. Few safety precautions were taken before the mid-nineteenth century. The mine owners insisted that they were not responsible. The men were most reluctant to put up enough props to prevent the roof from falling in and to inspect the winding gem: and other machinery on which their lives depended. If they did, they spent less time mining and so earned less money because the miners' pay was based not on how long they worked but on how much coal they extracted. They preferred to take risks.
The deeper seams contained a dangerous gas called 'fire-damp' which could be exploded by the miners' candles. The safety lamp, which was invented in the early nineteenth century, did not really solve this problem, but it was often used to detect gas and so made the mining of deeper seams possible. There the air was more foul, the temperature higher (one pit paid the men an extra 6d a day for working in 130°F) and the risk of fire-damp even greater. In the 1840s a series of terrible explosions in the deeper mines led to stricter regulations, which inspectors helped enforce. The inspectors were particularly keen on proper ventilating machines and, although deeper shafts were sunk, they did not become more dangerous. However, many serious accidents still occurred.
(From Britain Transformed, Penguin Books)