The ore's a-waiting in the tubs, the snow's upon the fell
Canny folks are sleeping yet but lead is reet to sell;
Come, me little washer lad, come, let's away
It's verra hard to work for four pence a day.
It's early in the morning, we rise at five o'clock,
And the little slaves come to the door to knock, knock, knock,
Come, me little washer lad, come let's away,
It's verra hard to work for four pence a day.
My daddy was a miner and lived down in the town,
'Twas hard and poverty that always kept him down.
He aimed for me to go to school but brass he couldn't pay,
So I had to go to the washing-rake for four pence a day.
My mother rises out of bed with tears on her cheeks
Puts my wallet on my shoulders which has to serve a week
I often fills her great big heart whenne she unto me does say
"I never thought thou would have worked for four pence a day."
Four pence a day, me lad, and vera hard to work,
And never a pleasant look from a gruffy-looking Turk,
His conscience it may fail and his heart it may give way
Then he'll raise our wages to nine pence a day.
abc | midi | pdf
Source: Singing Together, Autumn 1977, BBC Publications
These notes on lead mining are copyright Shirley Waldock (c) 2004. They appeared on a website which is either no longer available or temporarily down.
Once the ore was taken out of the mine it had to be crushed and all the waste washed away leaving the pure lead. This work was done mainly by boys, who were paid by the mine-owner on a daily basis.
The Washer Boy would start work at nine years old for 4d. (four old pence) a day. By this time he would already have been at school since he was six years old. He finished school by the age of twelve, when he would be earning 7d. a day. At fourteen years old a washer boy could work underground during the non-washing winter months when inclement weather prevented work on the washing floors. He would now be paid 9d. a day, when he was actually working, of course. At fourteen he could work underground perhaps helping with the Galloways or working the ventilation fans or just helping around the partnership, which probably consisted of his father or brothers or relatives, but he could not work as a miner until he was eighteen years old by which time he would be earning 1s.1d (one shilling and a penny).
Work as a washer boy was hard and long, in fact he worked longer hours than his father the miner! He worked twelve hours a day against the miner's eight hours a day. He worked under a disciplined regime and there were harsh penalties (mostly of wage reduction) for neglect of working hours.
The mines were open even when the washing floors were frozen up, unless the weather was so bad as to preclude any travel across the fells to the mining shop, then the fourteen year old boys could earn a small wage either from the mine owner, the Galloway owner or even perhaps within his father's partnership.
Some of the 'bargains' struck for washing ore:
Brekensike - 3rd July 1752
ANN MUNCASTER, MARY STEPHENSON, SARAH BARKER, to wash cuttings and deads at LITTLE SHAFT at 16s. (Sixteen shillings) per bing till 31st December 1752.
Brekensike - 23rd July 1753
Lett to MARGARET MILBURN to wash up the cuttings at the LEVEL HEAD SHAFT, from the KNOCKSTONE downwards at 12s. per bing.
Lett to THOMAS RIDLEY and THOMAS BROWN to wash up the wastes in the burn at LEVEL MOUTH at 14s. per bing, and to go no further than 20 fathoms below the DYKE NOOK.
Lett to ANN MUNCASTER and SARAH BAKER to wash up the wastes at the RANDOM SHAFT and LITTLE SHAFT at 15s. per bing, till 30th June 1754.
**Lett to ANN VIPOND and son to wash the cuttings above MARGARET MILBURN at LEVEL HEAD SHAFT at 15s. per bing.
Lett to HANNAH MURRAH and HODGSONS's Lass to wash the cuttings at RA.FEATHERSTON'S shaft from STEPHEN DAWSON'S buddle downward at 12.s per bing.
Lett to JANE SMITH, JANE STEPHENSON, JANE HOBSON, and 3 lads to wash cuttings above STEPHEN DAWSON'S buddle at RA. FEATHERSTONE'S shaft at 12s. per bing.
Brekensike 16th September 1754
Lett to JOHN RUMNEY and JOS. JAMES a bargain to get ore out of the old wastes, where ATHUR WATSON had his late bargain, at 18s. per bing to 30th June 1755.
NB: A bing was the equivalent of eight hundred weight. (8cwt).
About 1775 it is recorded that a workman named RUMNEY lost his life by a rockfall at the Ale Burn Cavern owned by the London Lead Company.
There are several lead mine museums in the UK worth visiting: Lochnell, Killhope are two I've been to.
The song itself has been parodied for both serious and comic purposes. A rewrite of it appears in Northern Ballet's version of "A Christmas Carol" describing the life of a child in the workhouse; a version around in the late sixties was about building site labourers taking advantage of Brithish weather:
The rain is falling on the site, the tea's upon the brew,
No trouble from the foreman, he's in the Union too,
Some want's the rain to go to Spain, we wants the rain to stay,
We're rained off and contented on four pounds a day.
Roud: 2586 (Search Roud index at VWML)