A Short History of Blame: Reckless, Imprudent Miners

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of essays by Susan Dodd on Nova Scotia’s history of blaming coal mining accidents on the miners themselves — a history that finally changed in the wake of the Westray disaster. You can read the first essay here.


What we see as “blaming” in Nova Scotia reports on mine accidents begins at a time when the intellectual and moral weakness of working class people, and especially people in dangerous, low-paying, menial jobs, was presupposed by the managers and owners of mines, and by the first members of the emerging bureaucracy.

This is the earliest period from 1830-1879 when, as Eric Tucker explains, “regulation” meant trying to get mining companies to pay royalties for the coal they were extracting, selling locally, but mostly shipping out to fuel the accelerating industrial revolution in England.

Bureaucratic monitoring and reporting began as part of the colonial project: the point was to bring colonies “up to” English standards.

Coal engine passing under Charlotte Street, Sydney, NS. 1893. (Photo by Umlah Studios via Beaton Institute http://www.cbu.ca/campus/beaton-institute/)

Coal engine passing under Charlotte Street, Sydney, NS. 1893. (Photo by Umlah Studios via Beaton Institute)


Nova Scotia’s first reports on mining and mine accidents are great examples of mid-19th century social thinking.

This was a contradictory time: hope ran high that human control of nature and society was progressing towards a kind of perfection, and yet to achieve this would require work, and specifically, a complete systematization of knowledge and human behavior.

The Nova Scotia mines reports of this era express this contradiction: the inevitable evolution towards a perfect society and the need for people to work to make that happen, and especially to begin to transform the moral life of all subordinates so that they could participate in this progress as fully as their limited abilities allowed them. In the reports, we read an expectation of ever increasing efficiency, and the elimination of human error…and that would be, worker, not managerial error.

This responsibility of the managerial class to correct the errors in workers was part of a wider belief in biological essentialism: race, gender, and class were all thought to define the level of self-control anybody had; and anybody who was not a white, property-owning Englishman was a kind of primitive, a not quite matured human who needed paternal care and correction from his or her “betters.” The remnants of pre-modern social hierarchies attracted activism: abolitionists, suffragettes, societies for the prevention of cruelty attacked the white, male, property-owning privilege that the owners, managers, and many bureaucrats sought to shore up and expand. In all, paternalism and emerging demands for liberal self-government filled the social and political debates, while at the same time, trade unions gave voice to the awakening political agency of workers as a class. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto came out in 1848, J.S. Mills’ On Liberty in 1859, Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labour in Society in 1893.

Durkheim photo by By heurtelions (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Durkheim cover photo by heurtelions, own work, GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

The astonishing increase in productivity and need for fuel that came with the development of steam power also brought a responsibility to reform or at least control the erratic and inefficient errors of workmen. In the earliest days, though the basic “causes” of disasters were known, ways of preventing them were not systematically pursued, in part because the loss of workers to death and injury did not cost much; neither in dollar terms nor, it seems, in terms of public censure.

The first ever Nova Scotia Mines Report in 1858 proclaims the triumph of science and modern efficiency, as personified in mines managers in Pictou county and in Cape Breton. The manager of the Albion Mines is a wonder of efficiency:

Mr. Scott… by the aid of his superior scientific and practical attainments as a mining engineer, has, to the astonishment of every person acquainted with the supposed difficulty of the task, effected an achievement in science, which it was thought impossible to perform—namely, the re-opening of the crushed mines. Not only has he succeeded in re-opening these works, but he has now brought them to such a state of efficiency, that they promise to yield an unfailing supply of excellent coal. (Nova Scotia 1858)

Meanwhile, under the “able, judicious and scientific management” of Mr. Brown in Sydney, “every difficulty seems to vanish.” This is because “the collieries under his control appear to be conducted upon the most approved principles of modern skill and economy.”

The 1858 report laments the fact, though, that while the collieries themselves are under the control of these excellent practical scientists, the men and boys who work there are not:

During the past year but one casualty occurred at the Sydney mines, and two at the Albion mines,—all of which I regret to say, proved fatal. That at the former colliery resulted from the carelessness of the deceased, who fell down the shaft while the pit was at work. The accident at the latter place was occasioned by the sudden escape of fire damp from the strata, which, however, was confined to a narrow space, into which unfortunately, the sufferers imprudently ventured with naked light, although it seems they had been warned that indications of inflammable gas had been discovered in that locality. (Nova Scotia 1858)

In 1860, the “speculative and visionary” work of coal mining was seen to guarantee Nova Scotia’s role in “colonial aggrandizement and prosperity” in the “age of improvement.”

Glace Bay Mining Co. Engine, featuring E.P. Archibald and three employees. (Source: Beaton Institute http://www.cbu.ca/campus/beaton-institute/)

Glace Bay Mining Co. Engine, featuring E.P. Archibald and three employees. (Source: Beaton Institute )


In consistent colonial style, the reports worry that they are behind England both in terms of their manner of reporting and their capacity to monitor and modify what goes on in the mines (and this would be, first and foremost, to make sure the government got its royalties). As for deaths and injuries, the mines reports routinely “find” these to be caused by wrong action by miners that is rooted in their kind of person’s inherently flawed intellectual and moral character.

For example, in the 1873 report, we see that:

In each of the categories under “Fatal Accidents,” moral failure by workers “caused” the casualties: “carelessness or inattention to orders,” and “gross negligence” accounted for all five explosions of gas. “A recklessness by no means uncommon in the handling of powder by miners” led to one death and serious injury. “Most of the casualties caused by falls of coal and stone were due to the neglect of the persons injured …” … “Accidents in the Shaft” were described also as failings by each particular man: “he missed his foothold”; he “lost his hold”; “[t]he deceased is said to have been subject to fits of giddiness after smoking much. A pipe was in his mouth when he fell”; the deceased “was incautiously leaning”. The report presented “illustrations of the utter recklessness with which men will expose their lives to dangers, when the dangers, although acknowledged imminent, are familiar, invisible and temporarily doubtful” (Taken from the author’s chapter in Eric Tucker’s Working Disasters: The Politics of Recognition and Response.)

The following year, the Nova Scotia Mines Report recorded the 1873 Drummond Disaster that took the lives of 60 workers.

Strangely to our eyes, instead of detailing the causes of the disaster, the 1874 mines report focuses on making sure that mines managers are certified, that mines have formal plans, and that better records will be kept in the future—there was a 20% shortfall in reporting production. The subsection on Pictou County notes a rise in worker radicalism: together, strikes and disasters hurt production—and slowed progress. The report states:

The bright prospects with which the coal trade of this county opened were early marred by strikes, and later in the spring the lamentable explosion at the Drummond colliery destroyed all hopes of the output exceeding that of the previous year. The falling off amounted to 38,767 tons, and the sales decreased 51,433 tons (Nova Scotia 1874).

The “blaming” here was a bit more subtle than in earlier reports, and while it does keep fundamental responsibility for action anchored in individual workmen, their general lack of education and responsibility was becoming a social and even systemic concern: the Mines Report calls for education programs in the mining community so that, “many among the working miners, who, possessed of the natural ability and determination to succeed, would strive to improve their position, by strenuous efforts in their spare hours….”.

This would “elevate” the level of education and the moral character of the entire mining community. By extending “book learning, we might then hope that great improvements would take place in the safety of our mines.” (Nova Scotia 1874). So the report on the Drummond disaster implicitly blames the miners in the sense that they “caused” the disaster by being typically undisciplined workmen, and at the same time, it lays the burden of improvement upon the managerial class and even more broadly on society as a whole.


The report on the “causes” of the disaster and deaths was an appended coroner’s report that found that the better judgment of the mine manager was undermined by the imprudent use of powder by a workman in a typical “carelessness or desire to save labor.”

Progress—and capital returns—were impeded by the Drummond disaster, and this turned attention to the social costs of loss of life in the mines. The Report calls for a bureaucratization of charity and of risk in the form of “a permanent insurance fund.”

After an occurrence such as that at the Drummond, when the slaughter is wholesale, the sympathies of the people at large are with the families of the sufferers, and contributions of money are freely made for their relief. But when a single fatality occurs—the public attention is not drawn to the trials suddenly imposed on the widow and orphans, and to their need of assistance. Beyond the temporary aid afforded by their local subscription, the care of her support is left entirely to her relations, who, most probably, are ill able to bear the additional expense. This system of alms-giving is manifestly unfair, and tends to blunt the natural pride of a people accustomed to fairly earn their daily bread.

While still the recollection of the terrible disaster is fresh in the minds of our mining people, I desire to point out to them a system of relief that has been proposed in England, and partly carried out in South Staffordshire; which is, that each district should establish a district permanent insurance fund for the relief of sufferers by colliery accidents. The scheme adopted supplies the required aid, as the payment of a just claim, and not as a gift of charity. Consequently it meets with the approval of all classes interested, and the inevitable law of averages has shown that a proportionate number of fatalities are here, as well as elsewhere, incidental to the growth of the coal trade. (Nova Scotia 1874, p. 37)

The Workmen’s Compensation Act would not be passed in Nova Scotia until 1916. This and other forms of bureaucratic ways of managing risk and compensation would bring new forms of “blaming”…but again, the most direct public rejection of the presupposition that miners, as a kind of person, are the causes of accidents and deaths would have to wait until The Westray Story of 1997.



Susan Dodd


Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), and co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).




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