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Or revel in thy fountain's fresh’ning flow:
Nor thou of me as wasteful rifler deem,
“ Farewell; for thou alone canst tell the tale,
Between his wings a little bow he bore ;
THE STAFFORDSHIRE COLLIERIES.
MANY of my readers must recollect crossing, in the route ; from London to Holyhead, a miserable tract of country com
mencing a few miles beyond Birmingham and continuing to Wolverhampton. If the volumes of sulphureous vapour which I shall not compliment with the name of smoke, permitted them at intervals to “ view the dismal situation waste and wild," they would observe the surface of the desert around them scarred and broken, as if it had just reposed from the heavings of an earthquake. Now and then they would shudder as they passed the mouth of a deserted mine left without any guard but the wariness of the passenger. Sometimes they would see a feeble and lambent flame, (called by the miners the wild fire,) issue from chaps in the parched earth. It is self-kindled by a process familiar to the chemist, and feeds on gas evolved by the refuse of the coal, that has been left in immense caverns hollowed by the labours of ages, over which the carriage of the unconscious traveller rolls for many miles. They would be struck also with the sight of houses from which the treacherous foundations have gradually shrunk, leaving them in such a state of obliquity with the horizon, as if they stood only to evince the contempt of themselves and their inhabitants for the laws of gravitation.
If the traveller, in addition to these attacks on his organs of smell and of vision, has nerve to inspect more closely the tremendous operations which are going on around him as far as the eye can reach, he must learn to endure the grating of harsh wheels, the roaring of the enormous bellows which, set in motion by the power of steam, urge the fires of the smelting furnace till they glow with almost the white brilliance of the noon-day sun. He must learn to care little for the sparks which fly from the half-molten iron, under the action of the forge, in torrents of burning rain, while the earth literally trembles beneath the strokes of a mightier hammer than Thor himself ever wielded against the giants.
But my present business is with the human part of the spectacle. The miners, or, as they call themselves, the colliers, are a curious race of men, and the study of their natural history would be replete with information and entertainment. Nothing can well be more uncouth than their appearance. Their figures are tall and robust in no ordinary degree, but their faces, when, by any accident, the coating of black dirt in which they are cased is partially rubbed off, show ghastly pale, and even at an early age they are ploughed in the deepest furrows. Their working dress consists of a tunic, or short frock, and trowsers of coarse flannel. Their holiday clothes are generally of cotton velvet, or velveteen as I believe the drapers call it, decorated with a profusion of shining metal buttons ; but they seem principally to pique themselves on their garters, which are made of worsted, and very gay in colour : these they tie on, so that a great part, as if by accident, appears below the knee. Their labour is intense. They stand, sit, or crouch for hours, often in the most irksome posture, undermining rocks of coal with a pickaxe. Not unfrequently they are crushed beneath the weight of the superincumbent mass, or suffocated by a deleterious exhalation, which they call by the expressive name of the choke damp*, and sometimes they are scorched by the explosion of the hydrogen which is generated in the depths of the mine a disaster from which the beautiful invention of Sir Humphrey Davy, the safety-lamp, does not always preserve them. This evil is not however attributable to any imperfection in the instrument, but to the astonishing recklessness of the men, who are with difficulty prevailed upon to observe the plainest and most simple directions even in matters of life and death. The high cheek bones and the dialect of these people seem
them of northern descent. Perhaps in some remote age they may have swarmed from the Northumbrian hive to seize on the riches of the less adventurous or intelligent
* Often I believe carbonic acid gas.
Southrons. Be that as it may, they have clearly no similarity either in speech or feature with the peasantry of the neighbouring districts. They have also manners and customs peculiar to themselves. One in particular is the non-observance, or at least the very irregular observance, of the common rule for the transmission of the surname. What rule they follow I cannot say, but it often happens that a son has a surname very different from that of his father : sometimes a man will have two sets of names, as John Smith and Thomas Jones, and that without any intention of concealment—but, except on high occasions, as a marriage or a christening, they rarely use any appellative except the cognomen or nick-name. The Latin word is the best, because the English implies something inconsistent with the staid and regular usage of the epithet by all persons connected with the subject of it, his wife, his children, and himself included.
I knew an apothecary in the collieries, who, as a matter of decorum, always entered the real names of his patients in his books; that is, when he could ascertain them. But they stood there only for ornament: for use he found it necessary to append the soubriquet, which he did with true medical formality, as for instance, « Thomas Williams, vulgo dict. Old Puff." Serious inconvenience not unfrequently arises on occasions where it is necessary to ascertain the true name and reduce it to writing, not only from the utter ignorance displayed by the owner of all the mysteries of spelling, but from his incapacity to pronounce the word, so as to give the slightest idea of what its orthography ought to be. Člergymen have been known to send home a wedding party in despair, after a vain essay to gain from the vocal organs of the bride or bridegroom, or their friends, a sound by way of name which any known alphabet had the power of committing to paper. The habit of using the cognomen is so common, that the miners apply the custom to strangers with an unconsciousness of offence quite classic. If a traveller should be hailed by the epithet “nosey,” he should recollect that Ovid endured the same treatment in the court of Augustus without dreaming of an affront, and he may even flatter himself that he bears some outward resemblance to the great poet.
Indeed, in all communications with persons of higher rank, the miners preserve a bold simplicity of manners far different, at least in my mind, from insolence. I recollect passing through the little town of Bilston at the time of the first abdication of Buonaparte, and being accosted by one of a group of colliers, who, with black faces and folded arms, were discussing the events of the day, with an interrogation, which, imitated in print, might stand thus, “ Oy say, what dost thee think o`the paice, beoots ?” which being rendered into our language is, " I say, what dost thou think of the peace, boots ?” My boots were, I suppose, that part of my dress by which I was most conspicuously distinguished from the natives. This I understood as a friendly invitation to a conference on the state of affairs, and my feelings were no more hurt by the designation bestowed on me, than those of Hercules ever were by the epithet Claviger.
But I had made this race of people in some sort my study. I remember once mounting rather hastily the outside of a stage coach which was passing through the coal district, and setting myself down in the first place that offered itself, without taking time to reconnoitre. When I had opportunity for inspection, I found at my right an old man with a rope coiled round him like a belt, by which my practised eye at once recognised him for a canal boatman, carrying home his towing-line. On my left was a personage whose dress was not a little equivocal, consisting of a man's hat and coat, with something like petticoats below. The mysterious effect of this epicene costume was heightened by the wearer's complexion, which reminded the spectator of dirty wash-leather. A short pipe adorned the mouth, with which it seemed well acquainted; and the tout ensemble sat in deep silence. These diagnostics, and especially the last, might have imposed on a novice the belief that the subject of my observation was of the worthiest gender, as the grammarians uncivilly term the masculine: but I knew my compagnon de voyage at a glance for one of the softer sex, and treated her with becoming attention. To all my politeness she returned little more than a nod and a whiff. At length my fellow passengers began to converse, or rather, I suppose, to resume a conversation which I had interrupted. The lady I found was of the same profession as the gentleman on the other side—a conductor of boats. They appeared not to have had much, if any, previous acquaintance, but seemed drawn together by community of sentiment and pursuit. They were soon engaged in an occupation interesting alike to all ranks of society; namely, an inquiry into the characters of their common friends. As their conversation illustrates in some degree the manners of this people, I will give a short specimen of it in the original ; together with a glossary for the benefit of the mere English reader.
Lady. Dun yo know Soiden-mouth * Tummy?
* With the mouth aside.
Lady. A desput quoiet * mon ! But lie loves a sup o' drink. Dun yo know his woif ?
Gentleman. Know her! Ay. Her's the very devil when her sperit's up
Lady. Her is. Her uses that mon sheamful-her rags1 him every neet of her loif.
Gentleman. Her does. Oive known her come into the public g, and call him all the neames her could lay her tongue tew afore all the company. Her oughts to stay till her's got him i'the boat, and then her mit say what her'd a moind. But her taks aiter her feyther.
Lady. Hew was her feyther ?
Lady. Oi don't think as how Oi ever know'd singing Jemmy. Was he ode Soaker's brother ?
Gentleman. Ees, he was. He lived a top o' Hell Bonk ll. He was the wickedest, swearinst mon as ever I know'd. I should think as how he was the wickedest mon i' the wold, and say he had the rheumatiz so bad !
Many anecdotes might be collected to shew the great difficulty of discovering a person in the Collieries without being in possession of his nickname. The following I received from a respectable attorney. During his clerkship he was sent to serve some legal process on a man whose name and address were given to him with legal accuracy. He traversed the village to which he had been directed from end to end without success; and after spending many hours in the search, was about to abandon it in despair, when a young woman, who had witnessed his labours, kindly undertook to make inquiries for him, and began to hail her friends for that purpose.
Oi say, Bullyed, does thee know a mon neamed Adam Green? The Bull-head was shaken in sign of ignorance.
Loy-a-bed, dost thee ?
Lie-a-bed's opportunities of making acquaintance had been rather limited, and she could not resolve the difficulty.
Stumpy (a man with a wooden leg), Cowskin, Spindleshanks, Cock-eye, Pig-tail, and Yellow-belly, were severally invoked, but in vain, and the querist fell into a brown study, in which she remained for some time. At length, however, her eyes suddenly brightened, and slapping one of her companions on the shoulder, she exclaimed, triumphantly, “Dash my wig! whoy he means moy feyther!” and then turning to the gentleman, she added, “Yo should'n ax'd ** for Ode Blackbird !"
* Desperately quiet Ø Public-house.
+ Scolds out rageously.
# Night. H On Hell Bank.
Most given to swearing. **" You should have asked,