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Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines

Author(s):McIntosh, Robert
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)


Robert McIntosh, Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. xxviii + 305 pp. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7735-2093-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

Robert McIntosh (National Archives of Canada) offers a completely new and bold perspective on the issue of child labor during the industrialization period of a country. Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines examines the socioeconomic and political conditions of boys employed in the Canadian coal mines during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book departs dramatically from the ongoing debate between the pessimists and optimists regarding the exploitation of children during the Industrial Revolution of Great Britain, the industrialization of the United States and the development of Latin America. McIntosh puts forth the interpretation that the boys who worked in the pits during Canada’s Industrial Revolution were not victims of economic growth but instead mature young men who wanted to work and fought for their rights as workers. This archival study complete with photographs and contemporary testimonies contributes to the current body of literature by offering a nontraditional approach to child labor, a statistical record of the employment of boys in coal mines located in Nova Scotia and a chilling account of the conditions of work both above and below ground in coal pits. McIntosh weaves the use of primary sources throughout the book in supporting his main hypothesis that “despite some individual testimony to the contrary, the weight of evidence is that boys entered the mine happily” (p.176). He uses industrial publications, union publications and records, the press and travelers’ accounts of their visits to mines, the publications of students of the industry, royal commission inquiries and provincial Department of Mines’ published annual reports to show that the pit boys were not powerless, immature, incompetent children but instead courageous, mature, independent workers who wanted to work.

McIntosh is extremely successful in accomplishing two of the three main objectives of this book. Unfortunately, the research presented falls short of obtaining his first and most important objective — to introduce, develop and support an entirely new hypothesis of why children worked. His examination of all the factors that affected the demand and supply of boys for employment in the coalmines is quite interesting and well supported with historical facts. His hypothesis– that the boys wanted to work — is clearly stated and developed but the evidence provided is insufficient, making his argument unconvincing. He is extremely successful, however, in achieving his other two objectives. The photographs, testimonies of workers, and commission inquiries provide a detailed description of the type of work and conditions of work in the mines as well as exploring the relationships of the pit boys to their employers and their co-workers (chapters 3 and 4). Lastly, he places the pit boys in the context of their families and communities to explain their role in the family, community and local economy (chapters 6, 7, and 5, respectively).

While telling the history of the boys in Canadian coal mines, McIntosh applies the theory of the labor market to explain the increase and then eventual decrease in the employment of pit boys. The increase in the employment of boys to work above and below ground occurred due to primarily economic and social factors. He attributes the increase in the demand for pit boys to: (1) the termination of the General Mining Association monopoly in 1858 (p. 45); (2) railway construction which lead to the development of new coal fields (p. 47); (3) technological advances (the steam engine, extensive division of labor and specialization) (pp. 65-68) and (4) the expansion of surface work (p. 70). He attributes the increase in the supply of pit boys to: (1) the tradition of family-based labor (p. 48); (2) the custom that working as a young boy was training for an adult occupation (p. 175); (3) the establishment of security for the family where the boys’ wages provided insurance and pensions (pp. 106, 115) and (4) the boys’ desire to enter the mines over attending school (p. 175). The identification and discussion of each of these factors is succinct and convincing except the last reason for an increase in supply, the boys’ desire to enter the mines. The problem with this analysis is discussed at greater length below. It would have been beneficial to comparative economists, economic historians and development economists if McIntosh had developed the comparison with Great Britain more fully to identify what factors were country-specific and what factors were shared by Great Britain as well. This additional analysis would have contributed nicely to the current examination of the employment of child labor in developing countries today in coal and metal mines.

In his concluding chapter, McIntosh briefly touches upon the reasons for the disappearance of the pit boys from Canadian coalmines. As in Great Britain, the changes in technology and the newly reconstructed view of childhood gradually removed boys from the coalmines. Unlike Great Britain, a decline in the demand for coal due to competition from the United States, the Great Depression and the emergence of alternatives (natural gas and electricity) caused a decline in the mining industry in Canada. The role of mining and schooling legislation in the employment of boys, however, was not clear. At one point McIntosh claims that child labor laws and schooling laws had little impact on the decrease in child labor (pp. 89, 90). This stands in direct conflict with his statement that the legislation that raised the minimum wage and established compulsory schooling attendance contributed to the decrease in pit boys (p. 172). The impact of child labor laws and schooling laws on the use of child labor should have been developed further with the aim to make a defendable decisive claim.

The controversial stance that McIntosh takes in this book that the pit boys were not victims exploited by their parents or capitalists, although provocative, is not entirely compelling. McIntosh offers three main arguments to support his thesis. His first argument rests on an in depth examination of wage and income data for the Sydney Mines from 1871-1901 (chapter 6). Quite convincingly he shows that the conventional links between child labor and subsistence did not hold in Sydney. In Tables 6.6 and 6.7 the data reveal that boys in high-income households were almost as likely to be employed as boys in low-income households (pp. 119-121). This is a very important finding and should be further investigated using wage and income data from other cities and provinces. McIntosh then uses this data on wage and income from Sydney to conclude that in Canada the pit boys wanted to work and were not forced by parents or mine owners (p. 122). This seems plausible but certainly not exhaustive of the possible interpretations of this finding. Furthermore, one should not make a generalization for the whole country based on one city in one province. As he mentioned in earlier chapters, it could be that boys worked to help their family achieve a higher standard of living (p. 125), security in times of crisis such as death or old age (p. 106), or an occupation for adulthood (p. 123). Consequently, this argument, although interesting, is only partially persuasive in revealing boys overriding desire to work.

In his second argument, McIntosh identifies the inherent characteristics associated with the pit boys to demonstrate that they were valued independent workers whose “experience in the mine is a record of achievement” (p. 179). Miners viewed them as valued co-workers and important contributors to family income. The pit boys, moreover, did not define themselves as victims but instead they were proud of their role in the family and the economy. They were productive members of the working-class who opted for work because in society it was identified as manly over school, which was identified as effeminate. In opposition to the traditional view of child labor as one of “a record of blighted childhood” (p. 178), these boys and young men had self-respect and fought for their rights as workers. McIntosh successfully provides both direct and indirect evidence to show that the boys were mature, self-reliant, courageous individuals who displayed initiative.

The third argument carefully develops how the socially stimulated “web of solidarity” among the pit boys created a political response of action (p. 149). Socially the movement from childhood to manhood for boys was marked by their entry into the mines. Fathers had experienced this and now their sons went through the same process. As McIntosh stated, “in the mining family, boys learned not simply that certain work was women’s; they also learned that men’s work warranted both women’s respect and the lion’s share of the available food, drink, and leisure time” (p. 123). Once in the mines, moreover, the evidence undeniably illustrates a collective loyalty among the pit boys. They talked back to adults, whether parents or managers, until they were organized as a branch of the miners’ union. If they were not satisfied that their grievances were being heard, they would strike. McIntosh helps the reader to appreciate the significance of their action by pointing out that the entire mine had to shut down when the boys walked out because their duties were essential to the safe and productive operation of the mine. Therefore, the fact that there were 47 strikes in Nova Scotia from 1880 to 1926 makes this argument convincing (p. 120).

In conclusion, Boys in the Pits offers a new view of child labor that is sure to create discussion and additional research among historians and economic historians alike. In sharp contrast to Great Britain’s fragile young victims of exploitation, young pit boys in the mid-nineteenth century were described by Canadian newspapers as “cheerful imps” and the older ones as “happy,” “bright,” “animated” young men whose contributions to the family, the mine and the economy were highly valued (pp. 90-91). McIntosh does a superb job of documenting and describing the employment of child labor in Canadian coalmines while developing the hypothesis that the pit boys were anything but victims.

Carolyn Tuttle is author of Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. Oxford and Boulder: Westview, 1999. In addition, she is the most recent winner of the Economic History Association’s Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII