Samuel Ferreday, my mother’s grandfather seen here in the 1930s, was born in 1878 and was the last of my direct ancestors to be a coal miner, but before him there were generations and generations of miners.
The earliest ancestor from this branch of the family that I can prove was a miner was Allen Cope Feriday (the surname changes spelling four or five times over this history which is not really very surprising for barely literate mine workers) who was born in 1739 in Lawley, now a suburb of Telford.
He married in 1760 and his marriage certificate states his profession as “collier”. I would imagine his father and grandfather (both gloriously named Flora! – no I’m not kidding) were also miners but I have no concrete evidence for that.
But Allen Cope would have been mining in the second half of the 18th century just as the fledgling industrial revolution was ramping up the demand for coal. By that time, surface deposits of coal were pretty much exhausted so miners were being forced to go deeper to extract it.
By the early 19th century, Francis Fereday, born in 1804 and grandson of Allen Cope was living and working in Bilston, now a suburb of Dudley. He worked all his life in the local coal mines, presumably in one of the mines owned by the notorious Earl of Dudley, a man made the richest in England through ownership of very profitable but infamously lethal coal mines.
Francis died of “apoplexy”, a generic term in the 19th century for any sudden death but was most commonly associated with what we would now call a stroke. He died in 1865 in the Walsall Union Workhouse.
Francis’s eldest son, another Allen Cope Fereday, was born in 1825. He was also a miner and met a tragic end that was so depressingly common for the age. He was killed in a mining accident in October 1849 at the age of 24. The cause of death on his death certificate reads:
“Fracture of the neck from a quantity of coal and dirt falling upon him in a pit. Accidental instant death.”
(Note: doubly tragic for the family was that Allen’s death in the pit came exactly a month after the death of his youngest sibling, 10-week old Francis, who died of cholera at the end of September.)
Allen’s widow, Anne, moved back into the house of her parents together with her two young children, Phineas and Harriet. Anne’s experience seems to have been mirrored by her sister Lydia because the census of 1851 shows Lydia, also a widow, living in the same house as well… both sisters being mining widows at the age of 24 and 26 respectively. Lydia, aged 26 at the time of the 1851 census also had two children. The elder, Thomas, was aged 11 (implying Lydia gave birth to him when she was only 15) and his occupation at that young age is already listed as “Coal miner”.
Well, Anne remarried later in 1851 to an iron foundry worker called John Lewis and sometime in the next ten years the family moved to Derbyshire. By 1861 they were living in Whittington, now a suburb of Chesterfield. John Lewis stated his occupation was a puddler with Phineas being an apprentice at the foundry.
It is most likely they worked at the newly set-up Sheepbridge Iron Works which was less than a mile from where they lived.
Puddling was the first successful process for making malleable iron from pig iron without using charcoal. In a puddling furnace the iron was not in direct contact with the fuel, only with the hot gases from it. This helped reduce the amount of impurities in the finished iron but made the atmosphere toxic for the workers close by.
Puddling involved a great deal of skill, as well as strength. As the historian Richard Hayman puts it in his book ‘Ironmaking’ (2005), puddling “was a technique, not technology… the product of a puddling furnace depended upon a variety of factors, not least the skill and judgement of the workman.”
Puddlers were generally young men as the work required a lot of physical exertion. The production from a puddling furnace was essentially governed by how much weight a man could lift with a ball of puddled iron generally weighing about 250kg! Puddlers often had to retire and find other jobs due to injury. They frequently suffered eye problems from staring into the blazing furnace and their long term health was badly affected by the fumes generated by the furnace. Few puddlers lived beyond the age of 40!
By 1871, Phineas had married and on the census of that year stated his occupation as puddler, having completed his apprenticeship.
Sadly, as per many in his profession, Phineas died young in 1887. His death certificate cites his cause of death as “phthisis”, an archaic term for tuberculosis which was the biggest killer in the 19th century so it can’t be assumed his profession killed him, but it certainly would have contributed to complications from a lung disease.
Phineas’ wife, Sarah, remarried… surprise-surprise to yet another coal miner and so, inevitably Samuel, the youngest son of Phineas and Sarah (my great grandfather pictured at the beginning of this piece) also went down the pit, working all his life at Bolsover colliery. (Note: in just Sam’s life he has his surname spelled three different ways across five census returns!)
Sam’s second daughter was my grandmother. She had three younger brothers, two of whom went down the pit. The third, John, joined the army in the 1920s in an attempt to avoid coal mining and he was to serve through the Second World War in the Royal Artillery… but that’s another story.