Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mining


305 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2093-7
DDC 331.3'822334'0971




Reviewed by Ian A. Andrews

Ian A. Andrews is editor of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association’s Focus and co-author of Becoming a Teacher.


Contemporary conventional wisdom equates child labor with exploitation
of youth. But can we use the standards of today to condemn the practices
of the past? In Boys in the Pits, National Archives of Canada employee
Robert McIntosh makes a convincing case that disputes the exploitation
theory. With extensive research and documentation, he examines the roles
that boys played in Canadian coal mines during the early years of the
industrial revolution, from the 19th to mid-20th centuries.

McIntosh’s thesis emphasizes the willingness of boys as young as 10
to enter the colliery depths and apprentice their way toward the status
of a skilled craftsman, while learning the art of the miner along the
way. Not until formal certification requiring written examinations was
established did attendance at school supercede the entry of boys into
life below the surface. Their employment both ensured an adequate
standard of living for their families and provided insurance against
unexpected setbacks. Men readily accepted the boys into the mining
brotherhood, teaching the responsibilities of teamwork required for
survival in a dangerous profession. Boys quickly became men and took
pride in their newly acquired identity.

In exploring his topic, McIntosh provides a detailed glimpse into
coal-mining operations, from the bankhead to the coal face, from pick
and shovel to the use of mechanized technology. His book is recommended
for its illuminating social history of childhood and mining in Canada.


McIntosh, Robert G., “Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mining,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,