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  • Risking Life and Wing:Victorian and Edwardian Conceptions of Coal-Mine Canaries
  • Catherine Burton (bio)

During the afternoon of 15 February 1901, a devastating disaster rocked the mining community of Fife, a county situated on the eastern shore of Scotland. Leading articles in the local newspaper, the Courier, reported that labourers deep within one of the active mines had been overcome by a sudden release of naturally occurring poisonous gas. Some miners died following the initial onset of fumes—identified in the article as “carbonic oxide” and more familiarly known today as carbon monoxide—but most of the victims were volunteers who perished during the hasty first attempt to rescue incapacitated and trapped miners. Seven men died, and many others suffered varying degrees of injury from the toxic air.

One of the survivors, brickswork foreman Archibald Ramsay, descended into the mine as part of the more successful second-round rescue attempt. In an interview with the Courier, he emphasized the importance of properly preparing for the dangers below, describing how his group avoided succumbing to the fumes that claimed the lives of earlier volunteers. Ramsay declared that “the whole of the victims had been reached” due in large part to the mine manager’s foresight: “The precaution had been taken by Mr. Rowan to have birds with the rescue party, and this gave the rescuers timely warning” (“Mining Disaster”). The foreman explained that during the perilous trip, “The two canaries in the cages repeatedly fell off the perch, so that the serious nature of the risk being taken can be realized. Of course when the birds were taken back to the fresh air they revived” (“Mining Disaster”). Ramsay’s testimony highlights an important practice that was widely used in mining operations at the time but rarely discussed outside the industry: rescue crews’ reliance on so-called pit canaries. His comments draw attention to the birds’ crucial role in identifying risks for the rescue party, allowing the miners to perform their duties better and more safely. Significantly, Ramsay also alludes to a bond between men and canaries in which the latter are not expendable tools but rather deeply valued living beings. Like the sickened miners themselves, he relates, gas-stricken canaries were carefully brought back up to the surface to be revived and made well. Ramsay’s offhanded “Of course” reveals the miners’ deeply rooted and apparently unquestionable respect for the birds’ lives. His narration of the dramatic rescue compellingly [End Page 143] exemplifies how miners cultivated meaningful interspecies relationships in order to proactively—and quite progressively—mitigate the incredible risks of Victorian coal mining.

In an era plagued by industrial accidents and deeply divided over theories of evolution, pit canaries played a significant role as lifesavers, yet their involvement with the mining community was largely ignored by the Victorian popular press. Instead, canaries were most commonly known as domestic animals, the darlings of pet owners and professional breeders alike. Beloved for their perceived beauty, placidity, and cheerful singing, canaries represented the happiness and security of ideal domesticity. Bird manuals exuberantly praised their charms, and newspapers, periodicals, novels, and children’s books frequently featured canaries as symbolic markers of the home. By contrast, colliers valued coal-mine canaries for qualities that opposed the aesthetic characteristics and class status of parlour canaries. Thus, throughout the period, the discourse of the pit canary remained in constant tension with that of the pet canary.

Middle- and upper-class Victorians’ reluctance to acknowledge canaries’ industrial function reveals larger fin-de-siècle anxieties about coal mining’s perceived “disagreeable” properties: the danger, the dirt, the working class. However, I argue that the ostensibly disagreeable, liminal space of the mines created opportunities for colliers to express controversial sentiments that were missing from other contemporary discussions of canaries. In particular, the experience of risk shared between men and birds facilitated new ways of imagining and conducting human-animal relationships. Colliers and canaries were both victims of society’s pernicious objectification, but in the mines each worked to restore the other’s sentience—even subjectivity. This restoration, occurring deep below the surface of nineteenth-century daily life, became visible in written narratives seeking to record the distinctive...


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pp. 143-159
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