The scandal of female miners in 19th-century Britain

Images of topless women and girls working down mines caused a furore when they appeared in the British press over 170 years ago. However, as Denise Bates explains, accusations of immorality did not reflect the true situation

A sketch of a young woman miner pulling a cart filled with coal. From the report of the Royal Commission, c1842. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Respectable readers of the Morning Chronicle and The Times awoke one morning in May 1842 to disturbing reports of trousered women and girls working underground in mines. Harnessed like animals, they dragged heavy carts of coal. In the coming days increasingly scandalous details from the newly published Report of the Children’s Employment Commission appeared in newspapers and periodicals across the country. The greatest scandal was not the brutal work, which damaged women’s health, but revelations that they worked topless alongside naked men.

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