The Mystery of Esther Phillips

Esther’s gravestone pictured in Mount Zion Chapel, Hook.While researching the village history during the production of the Heritage Lottery sponsored Black Diamond Village DVD a Hook History Society researcher came across a reference to the last woman to work in the local colliery.

Her name, it was said, was Esther Phillips and she was described as a “tall, about five foot ten, strong and very good looking lady”.

Another reference referred to Esther as someone “who could use a mandrel with great strength”…………….a mandrel was a short handled pick favoured by colliery workers at that time.

Another reference stated, ”Esther is buried beneath a yellow yew tree in Mount Zion cemetery”.

And sure enough a visit to the chapel cemetery and there beneath the yellow yew is the ivy strewn headstone of Esther Phillips.

A brief examination of the 1911 census lists Esther’s birth as “estimated 1843” and that she lived in a two room cottage on the Underwood Road. Her occupation was listed as “winder at the village colliery”. A winder was the person who turned the handle on windlasses which were used to haul the coal up steep slopes.

 In Pembrokeshire, it is recorded, men would not consider doing this type of work and the two handled windlasses were invariably operated by gangs of women.

 In those days it was virtually certain that Esther’s cottage would have been clom built. “ Clom” is a Nordic word for dirt. That is the walls would start with a low foundation of stone and then layers of mud, clay and straw. The walls were usually little over five feet in height and regularly three to four feet thick, with thatched roofs. The thatch was usually left in place when the cottages were extended and improved and in the 1960’s and 70’s builders were often confronted with removing very old layers of thatch that had virtually turned to dust.

The 1851 census, when Esther was about eight years of age, shows her living with her mother, Mary Phillips aged 46 and brothers and sisters …William (20); James (13) and a sister Sarah (10).

Mary, William and James, who it must be remembered was only 13 were all described as working in the coalmine.

The children’s father who was 27 in the 1841 census had died and Mary Phillips was now a registered as a widow.

Ten years later only the mother and Esther ….now 18….were living in the family home and were both described as colliery workers.

At one time there is little doubt that colliery owners seriously exploited the labour force. Pitifully low wages; women working alongside men underground and children as young as six used to keep air vents open and even in one recorded case a six year old was hired to keep the rats off the miners’ food.

The exploitation is well illustrated by a letter published in the Western Telegraph in the early 1890’s………..a time when Esther would have been in her late forties and still working in the colliery.

The letter written by a miner complained that the average wage in the Hook Colliery was 14 shillings and sixpence a week (about 72p in today’s currency). He wrote, “How can it be expected that a man, his wife and a family of seven, eight, and even nine children can obtain even the bare necessities of life, to say nothing of firing, clothing etc on this pittance? This, however, is not the worst, because we are informed by papers posted up that a further reduction of 10% will be made shortly.”

When the price of coal fell wages were cut not profits! 

The Mines Act of 1842 was approved by Parliament and prohibited boys under ten from working underground ……..eleven year olds could still labour at the coalface for eight to ten hours a day!

The same Act stated that no females should work underground but these regulations were very slow to be enforced in Wales and took even longer to be established in the periphery coalfields such as Pembrokeshire and some years later there were Press reports of women and children being killed in underground tragedies.

Children also died in 1844 when Pembrokeshire suffered its worst mining disaster. The nearby river Cleddau broke into workings at the Garden Pit, Landshipping killing 40 miners……..many believe that among the dead were women and children. Some miners on the memorial are listed as Miner followed by the surname. Many believe these were women and their Christian names were not recorded deliberately.

In the very late 1880’s there were, according to Government statistics, 40 women working in Pembrokeshire collieries and  only four in the first decade of 1900’s.

It is also interesting……… and highlights what a terrible struggle it was to survive in Esther’s day……… the fact that  until 1909 there was no State pension and then single pensioners received the princely sum of five shillings (25pence) and married couples seven shillings and sixpence (approximately 38 pence) and this was payable at the age of 70 ………………….The generosity of the law makers can be measured by the fact that life expectancy for men at the time in the United Kingdom was little more than 50…..a figure admittedly somewhat skewed by the high infant mortality rate.

If anyone has more information about Esther Phillips, and, ideally, a picture perhaps they would consider contacting a member of the Hook History Society.