Child Labour in Bell Island Mines

These excerpts are from a display by Margaret Hawco, a grade 5 student at the 1998 Heritage Fair in St. John's, NL. The fair was sponsored by the C.R.B. Foundation, Montreal.

During the early 1900's boys worked with the mining companies. Although they didn't work underground, they spent long 10 hour shifts working above the ground. Their job was to separate the rocks from the ore as it went along on the belt. They also made sure that the horses were fed and groomed. Another job was to get water for the men.

The boys began work as young as ten years old. Often it was because they needed to help their families. They quit school as early as grade three. A lot of men were left with no education and no way to learn new jobs after the mines were closed.

Mr. Bown began working in the mine on Bell Island on January 17,1938. He worked there for twenty-eight years. While there he worked as a trammer first, then a welder who repaired equipment in the mines.

A trammer was also called a "signalman" because his job was to ride in front of the tram, which was going down into the mine. He wore a very bright light on his helmet so he could see if there were any obstructions on the tracks ahead of them.

Mr. Clarles Gordon Bown died in his home on Bell Island on July 2, 2002.

© 1998, Margaret Hawco

An Interview with Charles Bown

Q: When did you start working the mines?
Bown: On January 17, 1938.

Q: What was your job?
Bown: Well now, I was a trammer.

Q: What was your pay?
Bown: Big money, wonderful big money. It was 32 cents an hour, and we brought home $19.20 for a six-day week.

Q: Did other people in your family work in the mines?
Bown: Yes, yeah, most of them, my father, brothers. My father was... he came here as an engineer in 1917, and he was a manager of the Dominion side. There was two companies here see: Dominion and the Scotia.

Q: Were there boys working in mines when you worked there?
: No, you had to be eighteen years of age.

Q: What work did the boys do?
Bown: They carried water to the men, ran messages, and did odd jobs, team up horses stuff like that.

Q: How many boys worked in the mines [on the surface]?
Bown: Yeah I say there's a couple hundred.. boys [on the surface].

Q: Were the conditions safe for the boys in top and bottom?
Bown: Yeah, pretty well looked after, the adults looked after the young fellas. 'Twas only one boy, 14 years of age, seems like he got caught in the carts [towing] them over the line.

Q: How much did the boys get paid?
Bown: Ten cents an hour.

Q: What could they buy out of that money?
Bown: Well, everything was really cheap at that time, pound of sugar I think was 3 cents, a chocolate bar was 1 cent, there were no soft drinks at that time.

Q: Do you remember any stories about boys working down in the mines?
Bown: Well I'll tell ya they used to team the horses, and young fellows that had the horses they really loved them and used to bring down stuff to feed them and really looked after them and the horses knew it... they see them coming.

Q: Did the boys work during the school year?
Bown: Well, the period we're talking about there was only one school on the island, that was around 1900. That's what happened when the mines shut down in 1966, very few people had education, 'cause they had no chance, no chance when they were young. When a man got killed in the mine at that time, he was [given] nothing. There was no compensation, IC, no social service or anything we have today. So the widow would be left with children, many that large families, so the boys 9 and 10 had to go work picking rock off the belt, [slow belt]. And the boys used to get on each side and put [the rocks] down in the chute and that's the reason that a lot of them.. they had to go to work.

Q: When did the boys stop working in the mines?
Bown: Well the law was passed in [the] Nova Scotia [company] in 1923 and you had to be 18 years of age before you worked even around mines on the surface.

Q: How big was the mine?
Bown: I'm going to tell ya something, you're not going to believe me but it came up the other day at a meeting, and you could fit St. John's down in the mine, 10 miles square, and that's what the engineer came up with. He said you could fit the whole of St. John's right down in the mine there and you wouldn't see it, so it was 10 miles by 10 miles.

Q: Would that be bigger than Bell Island?
Bown: Oh yeah, we're only 3 miles by nine miles.

Q: How could the mine be bigger than St. John's, and St. John's be bigger than Bell Island, how did the mine get around Bell Island?
Bown: No, all the mines are out under the oceans, see; 3 miles out right out under that and three miles that way and three miles this way, see? So there's no mines on Bell Island itself.

Q: So that's why there's water dripping in the mines?
Bown: Yeah, yeah. Mines [are] flooded down there now, you see.

Q: Do you think the mine will open again?
Bown: Now that came up the other day at a meeting. They figure there was 10 billion tonnes down there, left down there. There's 50 million tonnes just of pillars, just to keep up the ground. 50 million tonnes. So they're figuring on someday they're going to mine it, they're going to have to come back and mine it, but it will be a different situation... talking about going down in trucks,... big trucks. Now the middle of next month they hope that mine Number 2 will open for visitors and you go down 700 feet and they got a barn built down and hoping that they'll have a little pony down there, a live pony for the visitors. And this crowd from St. John's, they put off a play here last year, "Light" it's called. So they're going down to put off a couple of plays.

Q: What happened if there was an explosion? What would happen to the ponies?
Bown:Well there was one explosion in Number 6 and the horses just took off. But they had wonderful foresight, them horses. If there was any danger at all they wouldn't move. And, Number 2, the mine that they're opening, that was the only mine that had ponies because the ceiling was low, and there was only small carts for men to load.

Q: When did the mine close?
Bown: June 30th, 1966.

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