A Day in the Life of a Greenside Miner, circa1851

by Emma Bray

Banner: Miners at Greenside stopping for their bait, 1904. Courtesy of Beamish Museum

My name is John Thwaite. I am 18 and work at Greenside down the mine. My day started early this morning. As it is Monday, I woke my little brother Thomas at 5am so we could walk from our home in Matterdale a couple of miles to the mine. There’s a group of us walk from Dowthwaite Head - James Kilgour, the Bowman brothers and John Airey and we see the lanterns of others walking from Dockray on the way. Our Thomas is the youngest – he is 13 and washes ore at the mine. Mam sent him out to work after Dad died. Mam packs us our bait for the week – oatmeal, potatoes, bread and a bit of bacon and she gives Thomas some mutton fat to rub on his hands. The skin on his fingers cracks from the cold water he washes the ore in.

When we get to Greenside, Thomas goes straight to the washings as he has to fit in 13 hours each day if he wants to walk back with the rest of us on Friday night. I arrange our things in the shop where we sleep – I try to get us a bed with one of my pals if I can. Then I go outside to look for my partners - there are 4 of us who work together - and we set off for the mine. From the entrance, it’s about a mile to the workings. We try and get a ride in the horse’s wagon if we can – that way, our boots at least start off dry, but today we have no such luck, so we set off walking with our heads bent so as not to bang them on the tunnel roof. We have to be careful not to trip over the rails on the wagon track. As we get near to our working, we can hear John Atkinson and his gang working further down the tunnel. They are sinking a new shaft from Low Horse Level and we are banking on it leading to a better bargain for us. Lead pickings were thin last quarter and I only got 8s for three months. Mam had to claim on the parish to pay our rent and I know she hated doing that.

Interior of an unknown mining shop, early 20th century. This gives and idea of the cramped living conditions. Courtesy of Beamish Museum.

Each of us has a lantern with a candle to see the way, but when we get to the workings, I stick the candles to the rock face with a bit of wet clay. We are careful with the candles. The Company takes the money for them out of our pay, so we don’t waste them. Being the youngest, one of my jobs is to watch them carefully – if they go out, it means the air is bad and I shout to warn the others. Today I am the one holding the jumper – it is an iron chisel, about the length of my arm – against the rock face while James hits it with a hammer. After each hit, I turn it. I used to be nervous in case he missed and hit me, but he has a good aim and I trust him now. Once the hole is big enough, Joseph, our shot firer, puts a cartridge full of gunpowder down it and uses a rod called a pricker to drive it into the hole. He forces shale around the pricker and then pulls it out. Once we have done several holes like this, Joseph pushes a squib made of straw down them and the rest of us run back while he puts a light to them. He has to run fast before they go off. We crouch behind a pile of deads, those are the rocks that we have thrown out as they have no lead in them, and cover our faces with a handkerchief. The noise of the blast is deafening and the air stinks afterwards. I find it hard to breathe because there is so much smoke and dust. Once it has settled and Joseph has given the all clear, the other men start to bring down the rock with their picks. I carry the ore to the nearest channel where I let it down into the waggon. Any deads I stack so they can be used to strengthen the walls.

A pair of miners hand-drilling at Greenside, early 20th century, courtesy of Beamish Museum
A shot firer setting explosives at Greenside, courtesy of Beamish Museum

We carry on like this for about eight hours each day. We stop for our bait, but not for long. Our bargain with the company means we get paid for the work we do, so we don’t like to hang around. We have to guess when our eight hours is up. Usually my belly tells me when it’s time to head back. We make our way to the entrance so that the next team can start their shift.

Miners at Greenside stopping for their bait, 1904. Courtesy of Beamish Museum

Back at the shop, I get a turn at the stove to cook our potatoes and bacon and then I head outside for some air and a bit of a wash in the beck. I hate staying in the shop. The stench is something else and it is hard to sleep with the noise of men coming in at all hours from their shifts. I liked it better when we lived in Patterdale and could go home to our Mam for the night, but now we live at Dowthwaite, we only get the weekends at home. I chat with the other men until Thomas comes in from his shift. He is soaked as it has been raining and the washers are outdoors in it all day. I try to persuade him to go to the reading room to learn some of his letters, but he can barely stand, he is so tired, so we head for bed. There are three of us in one bed, so it’s a squeeze, but we are used to sharing at home. I listen to the smelters coming in from their shift, but Thomas is soon snoring.

by Emma Bray


This is a fictional account, but based on the following historical sources:

Census Enumerators’ Return, Matterdale 1851

A.Raistrick and A.Roberts, Life and Work of a Northern Miner (1984)

S. Murphy, Grey Gold, Men, Mining and Metallurgy at the Greenside Lead Mine in

Cumbria, England, 1825 to 1962 (1996)

British Parliamentary Papers 1842 , XV 1st Rep. R.C. on Employment of Children in Mines and Manufactories.

Report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the condition of all mines in Great Britain to which the provisions of the Act 23 & 24 Vict. c. 151 do not apply, British Parliamentary Papers, 1864 (3389) (Kinnaird commission)

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