52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 3 ‘Longevity’

Longevity (or in my coal mining ancestors, the lack thereof)

Coal mining was not an occupation that promoted longevity in those who worked from before daybreak to after dark, six out of seven days a week, month after month and year after year. Most miners began work down the mines as young as age 8. Back breaking, dangerous and physically exhausting labor, accidents and disease, most often meant that many miners never reached old age. While David Bellis, a Welsh coal miner, and my 2nd great grandfather, lived to the age of 81 and his son, John Bellas (the name is spelled both Bellis and Bellas in the records), my great grandfather, lived to age 78, the majority of their sons and extended family died fairly young. All of them spent their entire working lives in the mine.

Name Year of Birth Year of Death Age at death
John Bellis (3rd great grandfather) 1793 1840 47
John Bellis (2nd great granduncle) 1814 1871 57
Hugh Bellis (2nd great granduncle) 1825 1860 35
David Bellis (2nd great grandfather) 1822 1903 81
John Bellas (Great grandfather) 1859 1938 78
John W. Bellis (1st Cousin 3R) 1860 1883 23
Thomas Bellas (Great granduncle) 1861 1901 40
William Bellas (Great granduncle) 1866 1915 49
Tom Bellas (granduncle) 1888 1933 45

John William Bellis died while working in Etherley Colliery near Escomb, County Durham, England in 1883. John was an Incline Man which was someone who “attended to work on an incline plane”[1]. The Mine Inspectors Report described the accident as “died from the effects of a sprain received on 22nd January last while lifting a tub on the way.”[2] Sadly, John was only 23 years old.

Read any of the historical data on mining deaths in England in the 1800s and you will come across lives lost far too young. The risk of accidental death or disease was high but for many families of Northeast England it was the only occupation open to them.

children miners
Child miners. Photograph in public domain.
“The little trapper of eight years of ages lies quiet in bed…It is now between two and three in the morning, and his mother shakes him, and desires him to rise, and tells him that his father has an hour ago gone off to the pit. He turns on his side, rubs his eyes, and gets up, and comes to the blazing fire, and puts on his clothes. His coffee, such as it is, stands by the side of the fire, and bread is laid down for him…He then fills his tin bottle with coffee, and takes a lump of bread, and sets out for the pit, into which he goes down in the cage, and walking along the horseway for upwards of a mile…He knows his place of work. It is inside one of the doors called trap-doors, for the purpose of forcing the stream of air, which passes in its long, many miled course from the down shaft to the up-shaft of the pit; but which door must be opened whenever men or boys, with or without carriages, may wish to pass through. He seats himself in a little hole, about the size of a common fire-place, and with the string in his hand: and all his work is to pull that string when he has to open the door, and when man or boy has passed through, then to allow the door to shut itself…He may not stir above a dozen steps with safety from his charge, lest he should be found neglecting his duty, and suffer for the same. He sits solitary by himself, and has no one to talk to him; …. For he himself has no light. His hours, except at such times, are passed in total darkness. For the first week of his service in the pit his father had allowed him candles to light one after another, but the expense of three halfpence a-day was so extravagant expenditure out of ten pence, the boy’s daily wages, that his father, of course, withdrew that allowance the second week, all except one or two candles in the morning, and the week after the allowance was altogether taken away; and now, except a neighbour kinder than his father now and then drop him a candle, as he passes, the boy has no light of his own.”
Dr. Mitchell’s report of the Collieries of South Wales, Children in Mines and Collieries, 1839, p38-39. “The History of Mining in Durham & Northumberland”, Newcastle University, (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/library/services/education-outreach/outreach/mining/children.php : accessed 17 January 2018).
[1] “Mining Occupations”, Durham Mining Museum, (http://www.dmm.org.uk/educate/mineocc.htm#inclineman : accessed 16 January 2018).
[2] “In Memoriam”, Durham Mining Museum, (http://www.dmm.org.uk/individ0/i06704.htm : accessed 16 January 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Life of a Miner: from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa.

johnbellas1859b
John Bellas (1859-1938)

I have always been fascinated by the life of my great-grandfather John Bellas.  Born into a coal mining family originally from Flintshire, Wales, he spent his entire life working down the mines.  John was born in 1859 in St Giles, County Durham, England.  He was the third child and first son for David Bellis and his wife, Margaret Williams.  There would eventually be 9 children in the family. David Bellis and Margaret Williams were both of Welsh birth but by 1851 the family had left Wales and moved to the coal fields of County Durham, England. [At some stage John changed the spelling of his surname from Bellis to Bellas].

english_coal_miners
County Durham Coal Miners.  Photo in public domain.

The 1871 England Census for Thornley, County Durham shows David Bellis and sons John Bellas (age 12) and Thomas Bellas (age 10) working as miners in the Thornley Colliery.

1871census
1871 England Census, Thornley, County Durham, Class: RG10; Piece: 4976; Folio: 31;  Page: 60, Ancestry.com

John Bellas’ life was marred at times by tragedy beginning with his first wife Elizabeth Jane Robson.  They married in 1880 and had 4 children together.  Tragically all four children died in infancy or early childhood.  Elizabeth herself died in 1886 at age 24, only one month after her 3rd child died. She left behind her husband John and 2-year-old son, also named John.   A year later, in June 1887, John married Anne Wilson.  John and Elizabeth’s surviving child (John) passed away in June of 1889.  John and his second wife, Anne Wilson went on to have 11 children, five of which also died in infancy.

In 1893 John Bellas left on his first trip to South Africa.  This was the beginning of numerous trips back and forth between England and South Africa between 1893 and 1911. It’s not clear what precipitated the trip to South Africa but perhaps prospects there were better than in the coal fields of County Durham. For many years newspapers had reported on the ease with which diamonds could be found in South Africa and implied a man could get rich very quickly.

diamondfields
Manchester Evening News, Tuesday 12 September 1871.

The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s caused a great influx of men, particularly experienced miners, seeking their fortunes in the diamond fields of South Africa. Because the labor needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labor migration to Kimberley.

kimberley
Diamond Mine. Kimberley, South Africa 1896.  Photos.com/jupiterimages

In 1893 John Bellas was hired by the De Beers Diamond Mines in Kimberley, South Africa.  Through correspondence with the De Beers Archivist and the Africana Research Library in Kimberley, and using employment records and passenger lists, I was able to track John Bellas’ movements in South Africa.  Between 1893 and 1898 John traveled back and forth between County Durham and Kimberley, South Africa four times.  Approximate travel time was 17 days via one of the Union Castle steam ships which traveled weekly between Southampton, London and ports in South and East Africa.

union-castle
One of the many advertisements for the Union Castle Line. Photo in public domain.

Throughout these years of back and forth travel, Anne Bellas and their 4 young children remained behind in County Durham. In 1899 newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley.  This must have caused great anxiety for Ann Bellas.

newspapersiege
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. Tuesday 31 October 1899

                               “The Siege of Kimberley.  Boers Building Forts.
                                      (Reuter’s Telegram) CapeTown, Monday.
                It is reported from Barkly West that the Boers are building forts
                     around Kimberley for the purpose of shelling the town.”

Ultimately the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the influx of foreigners as a result of that discovery, led to increased tensions between the Boers (Afrikaans speaking settlers) and the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners).  The Boers feared that the Uitlanders would seize all political power and therefore passed laws that made Uitlanders in effect, second class citizens.  Tensions escalated between these two groups. Britain was in control of the Cape Colony and wanted to incorporate the Boer Republics and keep them under British control.  Failed negotiations between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 and the failure to remove British troops congregating on the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the declaration of war.

John Bellas began serving with the Kimberley Town Guard ‘D’ Company Division II.  The town guard had been raised in October 1899 to defend the town of Kimberley from Boer attack.  The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces.

kimberley-town-guard-war
Dundee Evening Post. 30 March 1900.

Transcription: “The Siege of Kimberley:  Town Guard Defending Carter’s Ridge.
The Kimberley town Guard lost twenty-one killed and forty-one wounded in defending this position.”

 

kimberley-town-guard
Kimberley Town Guard.  Photo credit: angloboerwar.com

In March 1900 the Kimberley Town Guard was officially dismissed.  There was no work to be had at the mines which had shut down during the Siege of Kimberley and John Bellas returned to England in July 1900.

newspaper1900_kimberleytownguard-disbanded
South Wales Daily News. 12 March 1900

It was not long before John Bellas returned again to Kimberley and employment with De Beers Mines.  This time his family traveled with him.  John and Anne Bellas and their 4 young children made the journey to Kimberley about 1902/1903. Five more children were born in Kimberley between 1902/1903 and 1909.  Unfortunately 3 of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis.  My grandmother, Elizabeth Bellas, was about 7 years old when she moved to Kimberley and 15 years old when the family returned to England permanently in 1911.  In her older years she could still remember a word or two of Afrikaans which she had learned as a young child in South Africa.

Although Anne Bellas and children never returned to South Africa again, John Bellas traveled back again in early 1912.  He only stayed a few months, returning for the final time to County Durham in December 1912.

John Bellas seems to have been a man who didn’t mind adventure and many years spent going back and forth across the ocean between countries.  He was the first in the family to set foot in South Africa but certainly not the last.  His daughter, Elizabeth Bellas, would have a son, my father, who would eventually immigrate from County Durham to South Africa and raise John Bellas’ great grandchildren there.