Mine Workers' Lives - health, illness and accidents

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Workers at Greenside Mine in the early 20th century - Courtesy of Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum

Working in a mine had inherent dangers, particularly before the advent of safety legislation. The miners and workers at Greenside could not escape these dangers, although a catastrophe involving major loss of life was avoided – the greatest number of deaths in one incident was four men in 1952.

Breathing Disorders

Disease of the lungs was the most likely illness caused by mining operations and so ventilation in a mine was critical. The most dangerous period was in the early years of excavation as a level had a dead end until it could be joined with another level to create a flow of air. Jacob Johnson was one of the first four miners to work for the Greenside Mining Company in the 1820s and gave evidence to the Kinnaird Inquiry on the Condition of Mines in 1864. He said that ventilation was very bad for the first three years of excavation. Although he was not left breathless, the lack of air made him weak at the knees, a condition which improved once they were able to create a shaft to connect two levels. His early colleagues had lived to the age of about 60 or 70, but he believed that miners aged up to 10 years more quickly than normal labourers. He also spoke of colleagues who suffered temporary disability as a result of rheumatism.

The Mining Agent, William Phillips, told the Inquiry that ventilation in the mine was much better than in deeper Cornish mines he had worked in and did not believe that disease of the lungs was prevalent amongst Greenside miners. William Marshall, owner of the mineral rights, acknowledged that mines always shortened life, but thought Greenside miners were “tolerably healthy” and was not aware of any miners’ diseases other than asthma.

The evidence of Dr James Rumney to the Inquiry is perhaps more objective. He was not engaged by the company to treat the miners, but men would visit him privately. His view was that Greenside miners were generally subject to asthma which he thought arose from carbonic acid and a want of oxygen. He was aware of four or five men at the time of the Inquiry who were affected by distension of the lower lobes of the lungs. He said that the average age of onset of such respiratory problems was around 40 or 45. Rumney also spoke of lead paralysis and drooping of the hand in lead smelters and rheumatism amongst the ore washing boys, but he did not give any figures for prevalence of those conditions.

Poor Living Conditions

Living conditions in the “shops” at Greenside were far from wholesome as they were cramped, dirty and the Inspector who visited as part of the Kinnaird Inquiry found they were deficient in ventilation. Conditions must have improved significantly for the men and boys towards the end of the nineteenth century as cottages with gardens were built in Glenridding so fewer workers had to live in these shops.

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


The threat of an accident was ever-present and there were many, including at least 20 fatalities during the mine’s commercial life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Accidents were caused by explosions, falling rock and from machinery. Examples include, Joseph Bowman, 21, who died of burns following an explosion of powder in 1835; Joseph Wilson, 30, who was killed by an explosion of shot in 1848, leaving a wife and four children; and Thomas Pollock, 44, who fell down a shaft in 1891. The largest single loss of life occurred in 1952 when an electrical fault caused a fire. George Gibson, 33, Richard Mallinson, 35, John Miller, 28 and Leo Mulryan 40 all died, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. Douglas Hodgson, 20, had both legs severed when his feet were caught during the rescue operation.

Sickness Clubs

Before the advent of the welfare state, men who were sick or injured or families of those who were killed could find themselves in severe financial difficulty. There was an accident club to which the men were expected to contribute 1s a quarter and boys 6d. In 1869, the miners set up the Free Independent Order of Mechanics – the Ullswater Lodge – which had 164 members in 1903. Men received 12s a week from the Lodge to help them in times of sickness.

by Emma Bray


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)

A.Raistrick and A.Robert’s, Life and Work of the Northern Miner (1984)

The Times, 8 July, 1952

Cumberland Pacquet, 9th May, 1848

Cumberland Pacquet 14th April, 1835

1891 Mines Inspectors Report (c6625) Durham District No. 4 Thomas Bell

W. Prosser Morris, The Records of Patterdale: Historical and Descriptive (1903)

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