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Trapped in the Pit

To reflect on the experiences of some children in the past, and consider adult attitudes to child labour in Victorian times.

by Kate Fleming

Suitable for Key Stage 2

Aims

To reflect on the experiences of some children in the past, and consider adult attitudes to child labour in Victorian times.

Preparation and materials

  • Four Year 6 children to rehearse the script for performance.

You will need:

  • Play scripts
  • Costumes (optional)
  • Props as necessary

Rehearse the play beforehand, perhaps in a lunchtime or after-school drama club. You could expand the number of roles to turn this into a class assembly in the following ways:

  • Split the reading of the newspaper report between a number of children as narrators.
  • Enact the report, as it is read, in mime.
  • Expand the section at the end, giving it to a number of narrators.
  • Write prayers, poems and first-person accounts to be read out as part of the assembly.
  • Create a soundtrack of work down the mine to be played in the Time for reflection.

Assembly

This assembly takes the form of a prepared drama.

Trapped in the Pit

Characters:
Jacob Timberlake - wealthy pit owner
Victoria Timberlake - his wife
Emily Timberlake - daughter to Jacob and Victoria Timberlake
Martha - the maid

The scene is set in the home of wealthy pit owner Jacob Timberlake in 1863. The family has just finished breakfast. Emily is reading the newspaper. Jacob is adding up lists of figures. Victoria is sewing. Martha is clearing the table.

Emily: Listen to this (she reads aloud from 'The Herald' newspaper):
Trapped in the Pit.
Kingswood Lodge Pit near disaster.
On the evening of Friday 11th April 1863 the night shift, as usual, made their way down the 600-ft shaft to the working seam at the north end of Kingswood Lodge Pit. Among the men, women and children who made up that shift were six boys:

(Victoria and Martha stop and listen. Jacob goes on adding up.)

Andrew Farmer, Johnny Harker, Joshua Briggs, Arthur Crown, David Millbank and Joshua Groom. Their ages ranged from six to ten years old. During the night the water broke in, and while most of the workers escaped unscathed, the flooding trapped the boys in a small pocket just above the coal seam.
At first, rescue attempts were unsuccessful, and their ordeal continued for six days and nights. They were without light, or any form of sustenance. At the pit head, their families kept a constant vigil, only able to weep and pray.
Miraculously, the rescue team broke through on the evening of Thursday 17th April. Exhausted, unable to stand or see, and close to death, the boys were lifted from the shaft and delivered into the arms of their desperate parents.
With grateful ecstasy let Kingswood now rejoice,
and all her deep dark pits resound:
the dead are raised, the lost are found.

Jacob: (looks up from his figures for the first time) Cheap sensationalism! I shall speak to Frank Eliot, the editor of 'The Herald', this morning and cancel that paper as from now.

Emily: Father, Kingswood Lodge is one of your pits!

Jacob: Yes. Those six boys were the smallest on that shift, so Jack Shepherd sent them down that seam. It was a bit tight for full-grown men down the north end, or so I understand, but rich in coal. Much too good to ignore. You need littl'uns for that job.

Emily: You mean to say that you risked the lives of six small boys for a few sacks of coal! I think that is disgraceful.

Victoria: Hush, Emily. Don't speak to your father like that.

Jacob: I'll have you know, young lady, that a few sacks of coal, as you put it, keep you in fine clothes, pay for this comfortable home, and your privileged education. Those boys and their parents should be grateful that they have got work AND are being paid for it. Ten a penny these days, children to work down the mines. They survived, didn't they? We rescued them, which cost money.

Emily: But Father, the suffering, the agony those little boys went through, they must have been so frightened, not to mention the ordeal for their parents at the pit head. Children should not be allowed to work down the mines. The government must do something about it.
(Stands up)
I shall start a campaign that will lead to laws being passed to forbid the use of child labour in the coal mines.

Victoria: Emily, please!

Emily: Mother! Joshua Groom is only six years old. He is a child!

Jacob: You don't know what you are talking about, and if I hear another word on the subject I certainly won't be as tolerant as I have been this morning.
(To Martha, who is staring at him)
What are you staring at?

Martha: Please, sir, Joshua Groom is my nephew. The doctor thinks his eyes are so damaged that he will never see properly again. (She puts her hands up to cover her face.)

Emily: Oh, Martha! I'm so sorry!

Emily: Oh, Martha! I'm so sorry!

(Emily rushes across to the maid and puts her arms around her. Jacob looks back to his figures and Victoria to her sewing. Freeze.)

Teacher/Narrator: Emily felt strongly about children working in the mines and went on to campaign for social reform. Later in the century, laws were passed to stop child labour in this country. Now children like you go to school and enjoy all the good things about being a child.

Time for reflection

Dear God,
Thank you for the many dedicated and caring people
who campaigned tirelessly in Victorian times to banish the horrors of child labour.
Help us to appreciate the part they played
in laying the foundations for our childhood experiences today.
Amen.

Song/music

'Morning has broken' (Come and Praise, 1)

Curriculum links

English, History, PSE

Publication date: March 2001   (Vol.3 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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