July 4, 1838. The Huskar Pit mine in northern England floods, drowning 26 children, and leading to significant changes in labor laws.
It’s early morning on July 4th, 1838, in the village of Silkstone in northern England.
Six-year-old Joey Burkinshaw hurries along a dirt road, struggling to keep pace with his older brother George and their father John. The cool of the morning makes a pleasant change from the hot and humid weather of recent days; still, Joey is sweating with the effort to keep up.
Joey stops to catch his breath. His ten-year-old brother George hisses at him, “Come on, hurry up.”
And as the Burkinshaws pass through the village, more men, women, and children join them. They all walk in the same direction – toward the mine.
Even this early in the morning, the pit is busy.
A clutch of wooden and stone buildings surround an eight-feet wide shaft. A steam-powered elevator hangs over the hole; little more than a large basket suspended on a chain. The Burkinshaws get in line with the other miners.
And when it’s their turn, George hops nimbly into the basket. Their father holds it steady as Joey clambers in before he follows his young son on board.
There is the clatter of chains and a hiss from the boiler in the nearby engine house…
A worker blows a whistle and pulls a lever, then the basket lurches forward, swinging gently as it carries Joey, George, and their father 300 feet into the darkness below.
Here in Silkstone, mining is a family affair. Miners are paid by weight – the more coal they extract, the more they get paid. They don’t want to waste time hauling coal out of the mine. So many use their children for that task. John Burkinshaw takes his two sons to work with him every day.
Six-year-old Joey is a ‘trapper’. His job is to open passageway doors deep underground to let through the ‘hurriers’, like his brother George. They crawl on all fours pushing and dragging carts to and from the coalface.
All across Britain, thousands of boys and girls are employed underground like this, working long hours in terrible conditions with little food or rest. Out of sight and out of mind, the plight of these children seems completely ignored, until a tragedy forces the country to see the truth, a disaster which will take place in the village of Silkstone on the afternoon of July 4th, 1838.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 4th, 1838: The Huskar Pit Mining Disaster.
It’s the morning of July 4th, 1838, in the coal mine near Silkstone in northern England.
Six-year-old Joey Burkinshaw, his older brother George and their father John descend in a clanking, swaying elevator to the bottom of the pit.
There, the three Burkinshaws clamber out into a busy chamber. Passageways dart off in every direction. Joey’s father nods his goodbye and the family go their separate ways - John to the coalface, George to his wagon, and Joey to his door.
Joey ducks into a tight passageway. At first, his head just brushes the rough ceiling, but the further he goes, the smaller the tunnel becomes. By the time he reaches his door, the six-year-old is crawling on his hands and knees.
A small recess has been cut into the wall beside the door where Joey wedges himself in. He’ll sit there alone in the damp darkness for the next twelve hours, listening for the sound of hurriers approaching with their wagons full of coal.
There’s been coal mining in this part of the country for over three decades. It’s good quality coal here and in high demand; because Britain relies on coal to power factories and mills, as well as the railways which are just beginning to crisscross the country.
But few in Britain outside the mining communities know the conditions endured by those working underground. And they don’t understand the dangers faced every day by young children like Joey.
It’s around halfway through his shift and Joey has dozed off to sleep in the darkness when he’s woken with a sudden shout. It’s his brother George, but urging desperately: “Joey? Leave your door, we’ve got to get out”.
Joey uncoils his stiff limbs. He’s confused because it can’t be time to go home yet. His brother calls again: “Get a move on!” Joey clambers along the passage away from his door. And when he finds his brother, George explains he doesn't know what's going on, but they want everyone out. "Firedamp probably."
Joey’s stomach twists with fear when he hears the word firedamp. It’s an explosive gas that can leak out from the coalface. Joey knows how dangerous it is; a single spark from a miner’s lamp could blow the whole place.
So Joey follows his brother alongside the broadening tunnel until they emerge into the chamber where they first entered the mine.
There, they learn the cause of the evacuation. It isn’t firedamp. It’s the powerful storm underway above the surface.
Rainwater cascades down the mine shaft. There’s a wet thump as a hailstone as big as a cannonball hits the ground next to Joey. He shrinks back, pressing himself against his older brother.
The mine’s supervisors are worried about flooding and they want everyone out. But the storm is bad, it’s damaged the steam engine that runs the elevator. And it’ll be hours before all the miners can get up to the surface.
As the chamber gets noisier and more crowded, Joey spots a group of children moving back toward the mine. He nudges his brother and asks: “Where they going?”
George looks confused for a moment… before realizing: “The day-hole!”, a passage to the surface used mainly for ventilation; the workers don’t use it as it’s normally easier to take the elevator. But with the elevator out of action, the day hole is an appealing way out for impatient children to enjoy their unexpected time off.
So George pulls Joey along, saying “Let’s go”. Another miner tries to stop them, telling the two boys that their father will be along any moment. But the two children are already running to catch up with the others.
The ragtag column of boys and girls snakes through the mine toward the day hole. And soon, the children arrive at a doorway and push it open. Beyond, a steep passage rises five hundred yards up toward the surface.
But as the children climb, they hear a roar, echoing down the tunnel toward them. And it’s getting louder.
Joey looks at his brother, confused, but before he can ask what the noise is or where it's coming from, a wall of water rushes around the corner.
A stream on the surface near the day hole has burst its banks. Now, the raging torrent is flooding into the day hole, down the passageway, and into the mine.
It sweeps Joey and George off their feet, and all the children tumble and fall, carried by the surging water back down the passageway – until they crash into the door they passed earlier.
There’s no way through for them or the water. The narrow passageway quickly floods. The children, pinned against the door, kick and claw desperately at the walls and ceiling. But they can’t escape the rushing water.
Joey and George Burkinshaw and 24 other children drown in the mine, and their deaths will spark outrage all across Britain. And the resulting newspaper reports will capture the attention of one campaigning politician; an aristocrat who will start a crusade to ensure such a devastating accident can never happen again.
It’s July 9th, 1838, five days after the accident at the pit in Silkstone.
In his comfortable London home, Lord Ashley, a 37-year-old Member of Parliament, reads his morning copy of The Times newspaper. Turning the page, his eye is drawn to a dramatic headline: “Terrific Storm in the Northern Counties - Great Destruction of Property and Loss of Life”.
The storm wreaked havoc on the entire area. In the town of Bolton, three men were crushed when a factory collapsed. A weaver in Preston was struck by lightning. But the most harrowing report comes from Silkstone. Ashely feels hollow when he learns how the 26 dead children were returned to their families. He reads: “It was the most heartrending sight that could be witnessed to see the carts with the bodies in them going through Silkstone, leaving a corpse or two at nearly every door.”
Lord Ashley is horrified by the story, but not surprised. He knows all about the dangerous conditions that the poorest in Britain are forced to work in.
Lord Ashley is an aristocrat but he’s also a deeply religious man who’s dedicated his political career to helping the needy. He's lobbied for improved care for the mentally ill and better conditions for workers in the countless mills and factories that power Britain’s economy.
Now, reading the article in The Times, Ashley realizes that his next crusade must be on behalf of the children employed in mines. He soon finds that his outrage is shared by many others across the country. So lord Ashley spends the next two years rallying enough support in Parliament to take action.
Finally, on August 4th, 1840, Ashley rises in the House of Commons and addresses his fellow MPs, saying: “It is right that the country should know at what cost its pre-eminence is purchased… the hardest labor, in the worst room, in the worst conducted factory, is less hard, less cruel, and less demoralizing, than the labor in the best of coal mines.”
Ashley urges the MPs to set up a Royal Commission, a wide-ranging inquiry that can investigate the mines. He hopes it will be the first step toward changing the labor laws and outlawing the employment of young children underground.
His motion passes. A Royal Commission is appointed, with Lord Ashley as its chairman. And immediately, he dispatches men across the country to begin understanding how dangerous things really are.
It’s March 18th, 1841, four months after the Royal Commission began its work.
It’s a cool spring day in Silkstone when Jelinger Symonds, a 32-year-old lawyer working for the Royal Commission, knocks on the door of the village doctor.
Dr. Edwin Ellis greets Symonds and shows him inside. Ellis has been expecting this visit. Symonds wrote ahead, with a list of questions for the doctor about the lives of the miners in the village.
During their interview, Dr. Ellis is adamant that he's had 24 or 25 years of experience. And it's his opinion that children who work in the mines are healthier than other children he meets.
At this, Symonds raises an eyebrow. Still, he writes down everything the doctor says.
Symonds has been working for Lord Ashley’s Royal Commission for several months. He’s already interviewed hundreds of people in mining communities across England. He knows that it is difficult for some of them to be honest about what is really happening. And Symonds recognizes that the people living in these communities depend on the mines for their livelihoods. Even a doctor like Ellis who doesn’t work underground knows he won’t be welcome in the village if he says the wrong thing.
So after interviewing the doctor, Symonds stays in Silkstone. He visits the pit where Joey Burkinshaw and the other children died. He also sits down with some of the miners who work there.
One is a 12-year-old girl named Matilda. She’s a hurrier, like Joey's brother, George, was; one of the children who spends their days crawling through tiny tunnels with carts of coal. She’s filthy, her clothes are little more than rags, and her head is rubbed bald where she’s used it to push her cart along. Symonds writes down Matilda’s testimony. She says: “I don’t like it, but my father can’t afford to keep me unless I go. It’s hard work and it tires my back”.
In the village, Ellis interviews a career miner, already old at just 51. Between hacking coughs, the man tells Symonds that “children… are taken out of their beds at four o’clock in the morning. They leave the pit four and five o’clock in the afternoon, making an average of 12 hours' work. They have a little milk or a little coffee and a bit of bread… before they go to the pit, and they will take nothing with them... It’s slavish work.”
Symonds carefully writes it all down. When he leaves Silkstone, he continues on to other villages and pits. But everywhere he goes, he finds a similar squalid picture of poverty and exploitation.
Finally, in July, after six months of work, he will return to London and meet with the other members of the Royal Commission. The vast report they produce will shock Parliament into action and lead to drastic change in the law.
It’s June 7th, 1842, almost four years after the disaster at the mine in Silkstone.
In the House of Commons in London, Lord Ashley once again rises to his feet. The benches around him are packed, as is the public gallery above. Ashley and many others have been waiting for this day for a long time.
One month ago, the report of the Royal Commission was finally published. It contained more than 1700 pages of evidence - direct testimony from hundreds of witnesses and striking illustrations of the cruel conditions endured by those working in the nation’s coal mines.
And at first, the government tried to suppress the report. Officials claimed the images inside were too shocking to be published. But Lord Ashley suspected the resistance had more to do with the fact that many in government, including the Prime Minister himself, had investments in mining. Ashley knew that powerful men wanted to bury the Royal Commission’s work. So he arranged for parts of the report to be leaked to the press. The revelations sparked outrage within the public. And the government was forced to release the entire report.
Hoping to capitalize on this, Lord Ashley tried to introduce legislation to change Britain’s labor laws. His opponents in the government used bureaucratic and procedural means to delay him, hoping he would give up. But Lord Ashley persevered, and eventually, the public outcry for change became too loud to ignore. In the end, his opponents in Parliament relented and granted Ashley time in the House of Commons to introduce his bill.
Now, Ashley tells the MPs, “It is not possible for any man, whatever his station, if he have but a heart within his bosom, to read the details of this awful document without a combined feeling of shame, terror, and indignation.” He goes on to speak for more than two hours, outlining the horrific abuse his Commission has uncovered and urging those present to pass his bill. When he finally finishes speaking, the MPs across the House of Commons surge to their feet, cheering and shouting.
The bill passes and will become law two months later on August 10th.
As a result of the Mines Act of 1842, no boys under ten and no women or girls at all can be legally employed underground in Britain. The Act takes time to have an effect – many mine owners flouted the law and continued to employ young children and women, just as they had done before. But as the years passed, enforcement tightened, and other laws followed that improved the conditions of British workers.
But the change that came might never have occurred were it not for the horror and outrage provoked by the fate of Joey Burkinshaw, his brother George and 24 other young boys and girls who died on this day, July 4th, 1838.
Next on History Daily. July 5th, 1954: Elvis Presley records his first single "That's All Right" at Sun Records in Memphis, introducing ‘Rock n’ Roll’ to mainstream America.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.