Down the rabbit-holes with GGEL volunteers: poisoned porridge, pits and a pippin.

Recording the lost gardens and designed landscapes of East Lothian has taken us down many ‘rabbit-holes’ which were sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, always interesting but invariably irrelevant to the report in hand and, therefore, ditched. Here we share some of these stories.

Estate histories occasionally turn up nefarious deeds –murder by poisoned porridge, as Chris Alcorn discovered when researching Ormiston Hall, or shocking 19th century social conditions experienced by colliers and their wives and children as Judy Riley uncovered when searching for information on the pits at Fountainhall.

Déja vue? That’s what Chris Alcorn found when he requested an apple tree as part of the local ‘Neighbouring Orchards Project’.

Coal mining conditions in East Lothian in the early 19c.

Fountainhall estate by Pencaitland, East Lothian, sits on the south-eastern edge of the Lothians coalfield, though no evidence of any coal mining exists today – apart from some memorial stones and storyboards on the Pencaitland Railway Walk. Site recording revealed several pits marked on plans and maps from 1782; others, known as ‘bell pits’, were only revealed by LiDAR. Bell pits were primitive forms of mining where the seam was near the surface: a shaft was dug into the coal seam and this was then widened at the bottom, making a bell shape. As few timber props were used, they were in danger of collapsing so when the roof was considered unsafe, they were abandoned and another sunk close by. There are about twenty such abandoned bell pits in the Big Wood, north of Fountainhall House.

While researching on the John Gray Centre website (East Lothian’s Local History, Archive and Archaeology Service) I came across the transcriptions of two reports on the conditions of miners and their families in East Lothian around 1840. As I used to live in this area I was intrigued. Both reports sprang from the growing concern for miners’ welfare and particularly the condition of colliers’ wives and children in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were instrumental in bringing about the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, which regulated the working conditions of women and children.

The first report was published in 1841, titled: On the Diseases, Conditions, and Habits of the Collier Population of East Lothian. It was written by S. Scott Alison M.D. who was the Hon. Sec. of the Medical Society of London. He had been born in Edinburgh, studied medicine at the University and later in Paris and London. His first practice was in Tranent where he was surrounded by collieries and able to observe the conditions of their workers at first hand. In 1841 he moved to London where his chief study became diseases of the heart and lungs.

He compared the colliers’ babies with those of farm labourers and found them inferior. He noted that colliers’ infants were, ‘thin, skinny, and wasted, and indicate by their contracted features and sickly dirty-white, or faint-yellowish aspect, their early participation in a deteriorated physical condition.’ He put this down to the absence of the mother who was working in the colliery, unable to feed the babies sufficiently and who was herself the ‘victim of disease or intemperate habits’, and their filthy condition.

From infancy to the seventh or eighth year, Alison observed much sickness in these children. Their homes were dirty, Their mothers were absent much of the time and did not feed them properly, even giving them whisky ‘raw or diluted with warm water’, inadequate clothes which did not keep them warm ‘and by the various impurities which are almost constantly found in the abodes of this class of persons, proceeding from the inmates, which not infrequently include horses, pigs, fowls, dogs, and cats.’ He also noted that the infants were often in the care of a young girl perhaps eight to ten years old, while the parents worked.

At age seven or eight most colliers’ children started working an eight to twelve-hour day, below ground, day or night. ‘I have seldom walked or ridden through the coal villages at any hour during the night, summer, and winter, without seeing little boys and girls going to and from the collieries, with their oil lamps in their hands or stuck in their caps, lighting them on their weary way.’ Again, he observed that their physical condition was inferior to that of their peers working in farms or trades or who were at home. Their development was stunted physically and mentally: ‘The nervous system, including the various parts of the brain, are comparatively little exercised, while that of the muscles is inordinately overworked; and thus, the collier becomes more a mining or working animal than a thinking being – more a machine than a rational creature.’ Inevitably their death rate was high. For those who survived, many were maimed or crippled, their eyesight was damaged by the coal dust and difficulty in breathing was common.

By the time, and if, they reached the age of twenty, few were in perfect health. Most had breathing difficulties with coughs and expectoration, known as ‘the black spittle’.

Alison goes into some detail describing the different medical conditions that affected the men, women and children as this was primarily a medical report. He ended with his own advice for the improvement of a situation he found to be intolerable.

The second report, by R.F.Franks, was for the Children’s Employment Commission on the East of Scotland District, 1842. He interviewed managers, ministers, inn-keepers, school-teachers, colliery workers and occasionally, the owners. These are a few quotations from men, women and children working close to Fountainhall at Pencaitland and Penston Collieries. Their accounts are recorded almost verbatim.

Janet Cumming, 11 years old, Sheriff Hall. Coal-Bearer, c.1842. Courtesy of the National Mining Museum

Fountainhall estate by Pencaitland, East Lothian, sits on the south-eastern edge of the Lothians coalfield, though no evidence of any coal mining exists today – apart from some memorial stones and storyboards on the Pencaitland Railway Walk. Site recording revealed several pits marked on plans and maps from 1782; others, known as ‘bell pits’, were only revealed by LiDAR. Bell pits were primitive forms of mining where the seam was near the surface: a shaft was dug into the coal seam and this was then widened at the bottom, making a bell shape. As few timber props were used, they were in danger of collapsing so when the roof was considered unsafe, they were abandoned and another sunk close by. There are about twenty such abandoned bell pits in the Big Wood, north of Fountainhall House.

While researching on the John Gray Centre website (East Lothian’s Local History, Archive and Archaeology Service) I came across the transcriptions of two reports on the conditions of miners and their families in East Lothian around 1840. As I used to live in this area I was intrigued. Both reports sprang from the growing concern for miners’ welfare and particularly the condition of colliers’ wives and children in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were instrumental in bringing about the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, which regulated the working conditions of women and children.

The first report was published in 1841, titled: On the Diseases, Conditions, and Habits of the Collier Population of East Lothian. It was written by S. Scott Alison M.D. who was the Hon. Sec. of the Medical Society of London. He had been born in Edinburgh, studied medicine at the University and later in Paris and London. His first practice was in Tranent where he was surrounded by collieries and able to observe the conditions of their workers at first hand. In 1841 he moved to London where his chief study became diseases of the heart and lungs.

He compared the colliers’ babies with those of farm labourers and found them inferior. He noted that colliers’ infants were, ‘thin, skinny, and wasted, and indicate by their contracted features and sickly dirty-white, or faint-yellowish aspect, their early participation in a deteriorated physical condition.’ He put this down to the absence of the mother who was working in the colliery, unable to feed the babies sufficiently and who was herself the ‘victim of disease or intemperate habits’, and their filthy condition.

From infancy to the seventh or eighth year, Alison observed much sickness in these children. Their homes were dirty, Their mothers were absent much of the time and did not feed them properly, even giving them whisky ‘raw or diluted with warm water’, inadequate clothes which did not keep them warm ‘and by the various impurities which are almost constantly found in the abodes of this class of persons, proceeding from the inmates, which not infrequently include horses, pigs, fowls, dogs, and cats.’ He also noted that the infants were often in the care of a young girl perhaps eight to ten years old, while the parents worked.

At age seven or eight most colliers’ children started working an eight to twelve-hour day, below ground, day or night. ‘I have seldom walked or ridden through the coal villages at any hour during the night, summer, and winter, without seeing little boys and girls going to and from the collieries, with their oil lamps in their hands or stuck in their caps, lighting them on their weary way.’ Again, he observed that their physical condition was inferior to that of their peers working in farms or trades or who were at home. Their development was stunted physically and mentally: ‘The nervous system, including the various parts of the brain, are comparatively little exercised, while that of the muscles is inordinately overworked; and thus, the collier becomes more a mining or working animal than a thinking being – more a machine than a rational creature.’ Inevitably their death rate was high. For those who survived, many were maimed or crippled, their eyesight was damaged by the coal dust and difficulty in breathing was common.

By the time, and if, they reached the age of twenty, few were in perfect health. Most had breathing difficulties with coughs and expectoration, known as ‘the black spittle’.

Alison goes into some detail describing the different medical conditions that affected the men, women and children as this was primarily a medical report. He ended with his own advice for the improvement of a situation he found to be intolerable.

The second report, by R.F.Franks, was for the Children’s Employment Commission on the East of Scotland District, 1842. He interviewed managers, ministers, inn-keepers, school-teachers, colliery workers and occasionally, the owners. These are a few quotations from men, women and children working close to Fountainhall at Pencaitland and Penston Collieries. Their accounts are recorded almost verbatim.

Illustration Courtesy of the National Mining Museum

 

Note: A ‘putter’ drags carts from the coal wall (face) to pit bottom. The weight varies from 3-10 cwt. (152.5 – 508 kilos).

‘Coal-bearers’ were women and children who carried coal on their backs. Their burdens weighed from ¾ cwt – 3 cwt. (38- 152.5 kilos)

Penston colliery:

William Adams, 10 years old, putter: Began to work when eight years old; came down as mother got her neck knocked out of joint, two years since, and no been able to gang (go) since. I get my licks (beating, whipping) when the work is o’er sair, (painful) and no able to draw. Knows the letters: canna get to school, it is far away. Never go kirk, as have no clothes; would if I had. We were all laid idle with typhus short time since. [Destitute and very ignorant]

Esther Peacock, 12 years old, putter: I think that I work 10 to 12 hours; have done so for eighteen months. I draw my brother’s work; mother used to assist me, but she is nearly blind from sore work and canna gang. I never got hurt by the waggons, but I get my licks sometimes. I went to school to learn the letters when father was in life, but he died three years gone with bad breath. Would like other work, has no choice; mother has seven of us, and all live and sleep in one kitchen; cannot go to kirk, as have no clothes. [Cannot read; very destitute and ignorant; no religious knowledge whatever.]

Mary Hogg, 15 years old, coal-putter: I have wrought (worked) below five years. During the summer I work out by [in the fields] as I prefer doing so to hanging on the pit as many lassies do; coal-work being no certain in summer. I much like to work above and could make as much money in the fields; I get 8d. and 10d. a-day – below is 1s.; but when I deduct what it costs me for oil and cotton, and pit clothes, the field wages go the same length, nor is it sair work. The crushing work below is only fit for horses, and most of the lassies are getting hurts of one kind or other. I frequently get my fingers crushed and my nails torn out. [Very quick, intelligent lassie. Reads very badly, has not been to any school since below; very desirous to learn. Says she would go, but there is no night-school nearer than two miles.]

Isabel Hogg, 53 years of age, was a coal-bearer: Been married 37 years; it was the practice to marry early, when the coals were all carried on women’s backs, men needed us; from the great sore labour false births are frequent and very dangerous. I have four daughters married, and all work below till they bear their bairns – one is very badly now from working while pregnant, which brought on a miscarriage from which she is not expected to recover. Collier-people suffer much more than others – my guid man died nine years since with bad breath; he lingered some years and was entirely off work 11 years before he died. You must just tell the Queen Victoria that we are guid loyal subjects; women- people here don’t mind work, but they object to horse-work; and that she would have the blessings of all the Scotch coal-women if she would get them out of the pits and send them to other labour. [Mrs. Hogg is one of the most respectable coal-wives in Penston, her rooms are all well- furnished, and the house the cleanest I have seen in East Lothian.]

Pencaitland Colliery

Andrew Gray, 11 years old, draws coal:- Was nine years old when first taken down to wheel the tubs; the drawing is difficult where there is much slush and there is plenty of that in the pit. I go to work at three in the morning; get my porridge at nine and come up at two and three, sometimes one, in the day. Been laid aside with crushes from stone falling from roof more than a month. Have just commenced the reading at Mr. Keat’s school at New Pencaitland.

John Duncan, age 11 years, coal-bearer:- Began to work at drawing coal two years since. Has only been a coal-carrier three weeks; can’t do much at it yet: it takes me 30 journeys; bring up 8 cwt. (407 kilos) or half a ton (508 kilos). The shaft is 60 feet deep and the panwood (coal waste) which I bring up 300 feet from the bottom. Father put me to this work, as the other pits were full but I do not like it; it is so very sore. Does not read or write.

David Wood, 15 years old, coal-hewer:- Began to work at nine years of age. Did work on night-shift: went below at two afternoon, returned six following morning. Pit has been very wet for some time, which had caused me to have cold sweats and fever. Have been confined five weeks; cannot move at present. When I can use my hands can write some and read very well.

George Hogg, 32 years of age, coal-hewer:- Unable to labour much now, as am fashed (troubled) with bad breath: the air below is very bad; until lately no ventilation existed. My wife did work below till she met with a serious accident last year. The cage which brings the coals up the shaft suddenly descended and crushed her almost to death. She was then four months gone in the family-way; is now quite disabled from work and no hopes given of her ever being able to return.

Agnes Grey, 14 years old, draws coals:- I work with three sisters below for support of parents: my father’s affliction is bad breath The work is very sore from bending, as the seams are so low. Not very strong; had typhus not long since. Sister is just laid by; has been so six weeks, from a severe fall on the iron rail, which cut her knee open. Have one sister deaf and dumb, learning the straw trade in Edinburgh. Mother, who has been off work two years, is going to try again next week.

You can read the full reports here:

Alison, S. Scott, ‘On the Diseases, conditions, and Habits of the collier population of East Lothian’,

https://www.johngraycentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/On-the-Diseases-Conditions-and-Habits-of-the-Collier-Population-of-East-Lothian-1841-2.pdf

Franks, R.F., ‘Children’s Employment Commission 1842’, https://www.johngraycentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Childrens-Employment-Commission-1842.pdf

200-year-old apple tree discovered and planted

 

Ribston Pippin from The Book of Apples, J. Morgan and A. Richards. Photograph Judy Riley

When I visited my local Library at Piershill in Edinburgh in late 2023, I picked up a postcard offering free fruit trees. It related to the ‘Neighbouring Orchards Project’ (NOP), which is “a living artwork by artist Annie Lord of 160 apple trees planted across coastal Edinburgh and East Lothian and commissioned by Art Walk Projects. It began in 2021 involving the planting of apple trees in local front and shared gardens across Portobello, Craigmillar and Musselburgh, with plans to extend into Craigentinny in 2024”, near where I live.

https://www.artwalkporty.co.uk/project/the-neighbouring-orchard/

Each of the varieties grown has links to the area having either been cultivated or grown there in the past. The postcard from the Library offered a free fruit tree if you lived or worked in the area.

Intrigued, I applied.

This concurred with my research into Ormiston Hall as part of the Glorious Gardens East Lothian project. Earlier in the year, I had been to the Hopetoun Estate Archive and uncovered several 1816 sketches of the Ormiston Walled Garden and its younger neighbour, Belsis Walled Garden, that showed the various varieties of fruit trees around the walls c.200 year ago.

From the beautiful, but spidery handwriting on the sketches, while I could make out the usual apples, pears, plumbs, cherries, apricots and nectarines, I was a bit flummoxed as to the actual varieties of fruit trees that were described.

I had contacted the Neighbouring Orchards Project for a free fruit tree for my garden. It already has a 90-100-year-old pear tree in the back garden that related to the nearby 1823 Southfield Farm which was removed after WW2 (although the B-Listed Farmhouse remains), to make way for the Southfield Estate, near Duddingston crossroads in East Edinburgh.

On the off-chance, I also asked the NOP administrator if they knew of anybody who had horticultural knowledge of heritage fruit tree varieties and she put me in touch with Annie Lord, the project artist. Annie very helpfully reviewed the sketches and was able to discern almost all the specific fruit tree species at Ormiston Hall, one of which – Ribston pippins – was still available 200 years later and she had used it in her Neighbouring Orchards Project in East Edinburgh. If you fancy a walk around either Portobello or Craigentinny to view the planted trees, there are free printed maps available: https://www.artwalkporty.co.uk/publication/walking-maps/

So that felt like a natural completed circle from some ‘rabbit-hole’ research!

I hope to plant out my free fruit tree in spring this year and link a little bit of Ormiston Hall and its wonderful landscape heritage, into my back garden.

Chris Alcorn
February 2024