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Friday, 15 May 2015

Sepia Saturday - Danger At Work

Sepia Saturday give bloggers an opportunity to share their family history and memories  through photographs.

My first reaction to this prompt was "I have nothing I can write about here".  

Then thinking again about "safety, danger and industry" made me look back at my ancestors' occupations and the dangers they must have faced without any recourse to the legislation that is now in place.  The consequences of an accident at work  were catastrophic for a family facing disability,  loss of income  and minimal health care.

My Danson ancestors  were Farmers, Carters and Ag. Labs. 

 Photograph courtesy of the Auld Earlston Group, my local historical society 

In the Poor Law Records of Roxburghshire I came across the story  of Janet Scott.  A single mother with  two children and a baby, and working as an agricultural  labourer, she  was "wholly disabled by a cart falling on her".  She was on parish relief for three years.  However she also demonstrated her resilience, as  in the 1881 census she was back earning a living, as an Ag. Lab, along with her two eldest daughters. 

My husband's Armitage and Hibbert family were  miners working in conditions which were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous,with women  and children undertaking heavy manual tasks, and all facing   the darkness, dampness, the fear and ever present danger of pit falls. 
Children in Mines
Image courtesy of National Museum of Wales.

When I was researching the Spowart family of Fife, the website www.scottishmining.co.uk provided detailed  information on working conditions. 

An early insight into life in mining areas was given by Robert Franks in his report to the Children's Employment Commission in 1842 where he commented  "The domestic condition of the collier population presents a deplorable picture of filth and poverty" .   

He conducted interviews with children,  including 15 year old Helen Spowart who  was described as  a “putter”, with the task of propelling   a loaded coal-hutch from the coal-face to the pit-bottom by means of a series of shoves or pushes.

The report noted "Began to work in mines when nine years old and has done ever since. Helen added  "It is very coarse, heavy, cloughty work, and I get enough of it, as am never able to do muckle after hours from the fatigue".

The Donaldson, White and Moffet families were Mariners, sailing from South Shields on the north east coast of England and I was delighted to discover at Tyne and Wear Archives  details of the ships that  Robert Donaldson (1801-1876), a master mariner sailed on.   The entries make fascinating reading, with all six ships on which Robert Donaldson sailed, having an eventful history and  coming to a sad end (though not under his charge).

  • The Thetis became a wreck after sinking off the Yorkshire coast in 1869.
  • The John was stranded in 1861 and became a wreck during a severe easterly gale.  Twenty-eight other Tyne ships went ashore in the same area during the same gale.
  • The Emerald, in  December 1855, when on passage from the Tyne to London, foundered in five fathoms on the Dough Sand (Long Sand) Thames estuary.   Three survivors were brought ashore by two smacks.  Eleven others were unaccounted for, including some of the crew of the rescuing smack who were in a small boat, which disappeared. 
  • The Hebe was wrecked in Robin Hood’s Bay, along with other vessels on 27 January 1861.
  • The  Ann & Elizabeth  disappeared after leaving the Tyne in November 1863, with her captain leaving a widow and six children.
  • The  William Mecalfe was Robert Donaldson's largest ship.     On her maiden voyage, it transported 240 male convicts from Portsmouth to Hobart, Australia on a passage that took 102 days.  In January 1855 eight of her crew were sent to goal for three months each by the North Shields magistrates for refusing duty.  In October 1858 her master and one man were washed overboard.  Nine days later, the ship was abandoned, with the crew taken off.
These incidents were by no means unusual  and bring home the hazards our mariner ancestors faced in their daily lives. 

Ancestor  Master Mariner John Moffet  (c.1814-1881)

In the 1861  census, John was master on board the brig "Brotherly Love" off Flamborough Head.  The crew of eight included three young apprentices, four seamen, and a mate
 Below is a painting in South Shields Museum & Art Gallery of of the ship "Brotherly Love". 

The Brig 'Brotherly Love' and Tug 'William'

Click HERE to discover more tales of safety, danger, and industry 
from  other Sepia Saturday bloggers. 


  1. The last part made me think of the Syrian refugees trying to reach Italy by unsafe boats.

  2. The kind of post that makes Sepia Saturday such a joy to participate in. I was reading the 1842 Children in Mining Commission report only the other day - there was some fascinating material about children in mines in the area around Halifax

  3. That's a nice photo of your ancestor John Moffet in that classic "hand in jacket" pose.

  4. It's so hard to imagine in this day & age in our countries the practice of hiring such young children to work in such places as mines and mills for hours upon hours. But whole families, young to old, worked in them - & often in deplorable surroundings.

  5. I have only ever been down one mine (supposed a 'pleasure' trip) - I never want to go down another.

  6. I have an Armitage ancestor who was a miner, but in England, not Scotland. Mining was (and still is) such dangerous work. I can hardly imagine the darkness, dirt, and hard physical work of it all.

  7. We have to admire the spirit and courage of our ancestors who endured great risks in order to earn a wage. I'd bet nearly everyone has someone in a past generation who knew first hand the inside of a mining shaft or cargo hold.

  8. Sue, for someone who had nothing to write about, this was a most interesting view into the hard and dangerous work our forebearers did on a daily basis. On a side note, my 4x great grandfather made "skips" for mining, that is the wove extra large baskets that were used to haul the ore out of the mines in the early 1800's. The skips were also large enough to transport workers to and from the depths of the mines.

  9. I like your approach of considering all the various types of danger your family faced.

  10. Thank you to everyone for such encouraging comments. The prompt made me look with a news light on how my ancestors earned their living.

  11. The real rather than the romantic view. We have it so good.


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