Brutal village life in bad old days
GERRY BROOKE explains how a parson's journals give the low-down
on the often violent life of a coal-mining community
(Acknowledgement to Mr G.Brooke, Bristol Times)
In September 1805, the coal pit in the Somerset village of Camerton claimed another victim.
A little boy named Cottle, the son of the village schoolmistress, was killed by a fall of stone.
He was eight years old and had been working down the pit for a year.
The minor tragedy, recorded by the village parson in a remarkable diary, is a pitiable example
of life in the so-called good old days.
Days when boys of seven were sent to work underground, when sick paupers were left in the
village poor house without attention and when the parson on his rounds visiting people dying
from typhus rubbed his fingers on a packet of camphor to ward infection.
The parson who left an account of everyday life in Camerton so voluminous that it filled
several iron chests was the Rev John Skinner.
Although he had an unerring eye for details, his handwriting was atrocious. His brother,
Russell, took on the task of deciphering the almost illegible handwritingt in the journal at the
rate of 5,000 words daily.
Coal was the core of life in Camerton when John Skinner was parson. When the 18th century
squire of Camerton advertised for a new rector he emphasised that the parish "abounds in coal
of the very first quality".
A special "perk" for the parson was a free share of coal under the glebe land.
The man who got the living was a quick-tempered, rather autocratic student of antiquities.
John Skinner liked Camerton and its hard-drinking colliers and farmers as little as they liked him.
When the parson rode by his gig, the colliers booed him. When he went to supervise the
havesting of his tithe corn, he came to blows with an insolent farmer.
The villagers took their revenge on the parson they could not understand by tying tin cans to the
tail of his dog.
In the end he gave up the struggle of working in a community he did not understand. He loaded
a pistol and shot himself.
He instructed in his will that his journals, 146 volumes in five iron chests, should be deposited in
the British Museum and not opened for 50 years.
A necessary precaution, since he had some unpleasant home truths to tell about his parishioners.
There was the collier at Old Pit, Camerton, who leaned over to guide the coal baskets up the
shaft, slipped and fell to his death.
"Horrid to say, his last word was an oath when he found himself going," recorded the parson.
Or the time the miners refused to go down New Pit because a woman threatened to cut the rope
and trap them in the pit shaft. It was her revenge because she said her daughter had been raped
by the son of the underground bailiff.
The parson received complaints that one of the village girls was a prostitute who was enticing
young colliers and leading them astray.
A few months later she was found drowned in the Avon at Bath. Thrown into the river, it was
supposed, by a bargeman who had a grudge against her.
Aaron Horler, another collier, rushed dead drunk from the village pub to Lower Pit and before
anyone could stop him, tried to slide down the rope to the bottom.
He lost his hold and was killed.
It was the village parson who went to see the local colliers when he heard they were thinking of
striking because of a pay cut of 3s a week. He told them it would be better to send two or three
men to state their grievances to the owners.
But the miners told him that any deputation they picked would be the first to lose their jobs.
When the parson went to intercede with the squire's lady, owner of all the colliers' cottages, it
was another wasted journey.
But there were charming interludes. He went skating in winter and in high summer was in the
habit of hiring a coal barge and taking his wife and friends sailing along the local canals.
Parson Skinner was a square peg in a round hole. A sensitive intellectual trapped in a rustic
environment. A man so kind that he could compose epitaphs for a pigeon, accidentally
stepped on by a servant.