MAC: Mines and Communities

Donkeys Work

Published by MAC on 2010-10-04
Source: Nostromo Research

London Calling extols mining's unsung heroes

This column isn't given over to advertising charitable "causes" - nor soliciting money for them.

A donkey working in brick kilns in IndiaSometimes, however, we come across a neglected issue that simply cries out for further attention - and learn of people addressing it who aren't seeking gratuitous kudos for doing so.

Such, we believe, is the case with hundreds of thousands of beings whose labour is integral to one of the most important of all extractive sectors.

These are the donkeys and horses who toil each day from sunrise to sunset for numerous South Asian brick kilns, and sometimes scrap dealers.

Just how many animals are still employed to bulwark the global minerals' industry is anyone's guess.

Even their vital past roles tend to be ignored - modern historical studies affording them no more than a cursory glance, if that.

200 years of exploitation

It does seem true that ponies are no longer anywhere sent down pits in significant numbers, as they were in the US, much of Europe and above all in Britain, from the mid-18th until the early twentieth century.

During this period many equine workforces were enlisted in Welsh coal and West Country metal mines, helping propel the world's first industrialised and industrialising state.

Although the advent of rail and tram roads began reducing dependency on these fellow creatures during the 19th century, they were still being employed at British mines until well within living memory.

In their account of Yorkshire's coal mining industry, published in 1956, Dennis, Henriques and Slaughter noted that: "Ponies are still used to haul tubs where it is not worth while or possible to install mechanical haulage ... Thus one man may have the job of 'driving' a pony with twenty empty tubs to a pair of rippers and taking away the full tubs one by one to the main railway".

According to researcher, John Bright, Britain's National Coal Board was stabling and using ponies underground as late as 1994. It took another five years before the country's last working equines were "retired" from mines in Wales.

"Marvellous little creatures"

There is a "flipside" to this sorry saga - indeed more than one. The relationship between man and beast wasn't just one of master and slave, since they often shared equalling gruelling conditions.

Emile Zola published his ground-breaking masterpiece, "Germinal" -  based around a French mineworkers' strike - in 1885. He depicted human beings who had effectively  been reduced to beasts of burden. A pony called Trompette is himself "lost in the nightmare of this black and endless cavern...tortured by longing for the daylight he has lost".

A century later, John Bright observes that: "The man was compelled by the system to force the animal to work extremely hard, yet aware that the pony and he suffered similar privations". Bright gives several instances of a mineworker's faith in the ability of ponies and horses to alert them both to impending danger.

Perhaps the most illuminating (if somewhat rose-tinted) assessment of such ambivalent relationships is given by one of Bright's interviewees:

"Of all the cruelties committed against the animal world, surely sending ponies underground to haul must be the worst. But I must selfishly admit that those marvellous little creatures gave me the happiest moments of the years I worked in the pit".

Employing four legs has doubtless also alleviated the burden, and prolonged the lives, of many who were born with only two lower limbs.

Without the benefit of donkeys' work, conditions for many children, women and men in South Asia's brick fields would be even less tolerable, and certainly less financially rewarding. The more bricks your animal is made to transport and offload, the higher the pittance you are paid (in theory at least).

But there's no longer any excuse for driving these "marvellous little creatures" to the point where they literally keel over and die.

And we'd be mistaken to believe that this is what the majority of their "masters" want.

Transports of pain

Enter a unique London-based organisation which ranks the livelihood of humans and the welfare of their animal as equally important; indeed linked inextricably.

The Brooke was founded in 1934 by Dorothy Brooke, the wife of a British army major general, appalled to find "hundreds of emaciated horses", formerly employed as warhorses by British, Australian and American forces, "being used as beasts of burden on Cairo's streets".

The organisation now employs 800 staff in Asia, Latin America and Africa, striving to alleviate conditions for more than 800,000 equines "labour[ing] on country roads, tracks, fields, farms, factories and city centres" while they "transport a huge range of loads from people, produce, food and water to building materials such as bricks and even iron girders".

Many of them, says The Brooke, "endure poor health, agonising pain, exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition as a direct result of terrible workloads, poor nutrition, handling and housing".

But the organisation doesn't simply blame the horse or donkey owners for the pack animals' plight, instead providing veterinary services and training to improve their mutual existences.

A practical example of The Brooke's work is to be found on the organisation's website where we are informed about Basanthi - "a small, white donkey with a gentle disposition" - and her owner, 14-year old Ram.

Both live in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh "where temperatures can reach a blistering 128ºF by six in the morning, when Basanthi starts her working day"[see photo above].

By breakfast time, "Basanthi will have trudged nine miles to the brick kiln and back carrying her own bodyweight in bricks. Before the white-hot sun goes down, she must repeat her back-breaking journey. What's more, Basanthi is heavily pregnant."

There's no need to continue here. You can read the story for yourself, learning how Ram "loves his donkey" while both benefit from sponsorship by The Brooke. See:

Bonded labours

Of course, that's not an end to the tale - nor should it be.

Ram (no other name provided) is still a very young man, engaged in intrinsically unhealthy and dangerous labour, having only just reached the age where his government officially recognises him as legally employable.

Both he and Basanthi are in, a real sense, "bonded" to their current toil, with little or no prospect of finding an alternative.

From what we know of conditions in India's stone-breaking, cement manufacturing and brick-firing fields, the fruits of their joint labour are almost certainly ending up in the pockets of others.

Confronting this reality raises awkward questions about the wisdom of alleviating - however valiantly - one intolerable set of practices, without changing the context in which numerous other injustices continue to occur.

This may not be the task of The Brooke.

It certainly is the mission of some Indians, such as the Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), which for fifteen years has striven to bring building stone workers "out of bondage" in Rajasthan.

Surely they too deserve our support.

MLPC can be emailed at:

For further information about The Brooke, contact it at: 30 Farringdon Street, London EC4 4HH, United Kingdom. Email:

If you're moved to "adopt" one of the Welsh ponies who survived the torments of working for British coal - you may pledge £12.50 a year to the National Coal Museum:


[Sources: Reference to industry histories: see, for example, Martin Lynch "Mining in World History" Reaktion Books, London 2001; Barbara Freese "COAL: A Human History" Perseus Publishing, Cambridge Mass, 2003; "Philip Payton The Cornish Overseas" Alexander Associates, Fowey, Cornwall, 1999; Advent of rail and tram roads: see DB Barton "Essays in Cornish Mining History" volume 2, published by DB Barton, Truro, Cornwall, 1971, page 133; Ponies in Yorkshire coal pits: see Norman Dennis, Fernando Enriques and Clifford Slaughter ,"Coal is our life", Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1969 p 55; John Bright's interviews with UK coal miners: see John Bright "Pit Ponies", Batsford, London, 1986; ISBN 0-7134-5226-9; Working ponies in Britain in 1994-1999 and reference to Zola's "Germinal": see "The pits for ponies" by Justine Hankins, The Guardian, 29 June 2002].

Photo credit:  Portrait of Basanthi, courtesy of The Brooke

London Calling is written by Nostromo Research, London. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of anyone else, including the editors of the Mines and Communities website. Reproduction is welcomed, provided acknowledgement is given to Nostromo Research as the author of this article.

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