CHILD labour is an uncomfortable truth of Victorian industry. For children as young as four, hours were long, pay was poor, conditions were hellish and life was cheap.

They toiled in mills, factories, potteries and laundries. They were street-sellers, servants, matchmakers, rat-catchers. They were sent up chimneys and down pits, put to work in the darkness for shifts of 12 hours-upwards.

In her extraordinary debut novel, Bearmouth, Liz Hyder presents an eerie subterranean world where hundreds of men and boys are packed into the deepening layers of a coal mine, living and working alongside each other. With the lift shaft costing more than any of them can afford, daylight is a thing of the past, and the rumble of explosions and rockfall is never far away. Worked to exhaustion, existing on a meagre diet of meets and tatties, and forced to pay for their boots, candles and matches, they’re kept prisoner in the mine they call Bearmouth, controlled by a sinister manager - and always at the mercy of the “Mayker”.

Next week Liz is at Ilkley Literature Festival, running a workshop on creating “vivid, original and distinctive fictional worlds”.

Bearmouth, a dark dystopian YA novel, is as vivid, original and distinctive as it gets. Set underground in a Victorian mine, it’s shocking and haunting, but moving and uplifting too. I was gripped from the first page - and I’ve never read a book like it.

Written in the phonetic language of the protagonist, known as Newt, the prose takes a bit of getting used to but, cleverly, it draws us in to this strange community.

Newt entered the mine as an infant, initially working as a trapper. Regarded by the others as a “YouNuck”, Newt’s gender is unspecified - “I am not one thing or the uvver”- until puberty comes, presenting its own risks and complications.

Taken under the wing of kindly Thomas, Newt accepts the miners’ lot - sent by the Mayker “down into the dark Earf to atone for the sins o our forefarvers an muvvers” - then a new boy called Devlin arrives. Newt takes against him, suspicious of his “talk o dayngeruss things”, but Devlin plants seeds of doubt and rebellion that soon start to grow.

“It only taykes one person to start a revolushun,” he whispers in the darkness, and before long Newt is starting to question the order of Bearmouth, from the daily grind to the Mayker himself.

“All I can think o is that word goin round and round lyke a spinnin coin up on one edge. Why? Why? I tryes and skwashes it, skwishin it flat in my thawts...but my brayne wunt stop goin over and over why why.”

This is a compelling, beautifully written novel that brings history alive, for readers of all ages. Based on stories of real 19th century child miners, it opens up a mysterious hidden world of hard labour, casual abuse and social injustice.

When we think of adults and children in these mines, they’re a faceless mass of unfortunates - barefoot lads covered in coal dust, blinking like pit ponies. But in Bearmouth we get to know Newt, Thomas and Devlin. And Jack, who digs the coal that Newt pulls in a “trayler”, young Tobe, who keeps a pet mouse and is “lernin letterz” with Newt, under Thomas’s tuition during precious time off on Mayker’s Day, and the other men in their dorm.

As tension rises, and the action unfolds to a thrilling climax, we’re rooting for these poor souls - the faces of the faceless mass in the hell-hole they call Bearmouth.

* Liz Hyder’s Building Fictional Worlds workshop is at Church House, Ilkley, on Saturday, October 19, 2-4pm. Suitable for 12 to 18-year-olds. Visit or call (01943) 816714.