Big Pit: The Advocate
“In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In every age, there is a tipping point that signals a dramatic shift in public sentiment. For the coal industry, it was the catastrophe at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. A fierce thunderstorm caused a stream to overflow into a ventilation drift. Twenty-six children died; eleven girls from 8 – 16 years of age, and 15 boys from 9 – 12 years of age. Queen Victoria was appalled when she heard the news and instructed Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (Lord Ashley) to conduct an immediate enquiry.
In every age, there are men and women who advocate for those who are powerless, who speak for those who have no voice. Lord Ashley, was such a man. His tireless support for the Victorian poor and working class, garnered him the title of the “Poor Man’s Earl.” Perhaps his capacity for empathy came from his unhappy childhood when the only person who seemed to care for him was the family’s housekeeper, Maria Mills.
Born in 1801, Lord Ashley was in his mid-twenties when he entered the political scene as a Tory Member of Parliament in 1826. Within a few short months he had been appointed to four parliamentary committees, one being the Select Committee on Pauper Lunatics in the County of Middlesex. The County Lunatic Asylums (England) Act 1828 and the Madhouses Act 1828, of which he gave an impassioned speech in their defence, ushered in better treatment of those with mental health issues. In his diary he wrote:
“So, by God’s blessing, my first effort has been for the advance of human happiness. May I improve hourly! Fright almost deprived me of recollection but again thank Heaven, I did not sit down quite a presumptuous idiot”.
Lord Ashley introduced the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, which banned the employment of women and children in the underground of coal mines. His speech earned the support of the Prince Consort who wrote him a note saying, “Best wishes for your total success.”
In our age, we need men and women to advocate for those who are powerless, who speak for those who have no voice…
“Doing the right thing has power.”