On 4 July 1838, heavy rainfall over a South Yorkshire coalfield left workers stranded at the bottom of a coal mine called Huskar Pit. A number of trapped children attempted to escape through a second route out of the mine, but a stream nearby had burst its banks and flooded the shaft: 26 children, aged between 7 and 17 years old, died in the disaster.
The shocking accident fuelled already growing public concern about the working conditions for children in British mines. It led to an inquiry, and in 1842 the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission was released. As well as sharing testimony from children as young as five years old, the report revealed that, in the cramped and hot conditions underground, some women worked topless alongside male miners, which stoked fury and was seen as evidence of the ‘immorality’ of the working arrangements.
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Later that year, the Mines and Collieries Act was passed. It stated that it was illegal to employ a female of any age, or a boy under the age of ten, underground at a mine. This was a significant blow for many mining families, who had relied on the extra income from labour; for some women, mining had been the only option. Soon, new communities of female workers began to spring up around the pit head. They were known as ‘Pit Brow Lasses’ in Lancashire and areas of the north, ‘Tip Girls’ in South Wales, and ‘Pit Bank Women’ in Staffordshire.
These were women who weren’t afraid of hard work, says Angela Thomas, who recently curated a new exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery, County Durham that commemorates the little-known contribution women made to the 19th-century coal industry. “They had worked underground alongside men, hauling coal tubs with chains wrapped around their chests,” she explains. “When they moved above ground they were still hauling tubs, sorting coal, moving stones – often after they had already walked miles to reach work. It was a really physical, hard job.”
Though records of working-class women are often difficult to unearth due to the nature of class and employment records of the time, Thomas explains how these Pit Brow Lasses were a source of fascination for social commentators of the time, such as diarist and barrister Arthur Munby. “He kept a diary and, possibly quite unusually for his time, had a fascination with working women, all kinds of working women, from servants to mining women to women who worked in match factories. He travelled around the UK and documented who he met and what they said. He sketched these women and later he would also take photographs of them.”
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In Victorian society, photographs such as those taken by Munby became a particular novelty to the middle classes, who were fascinated – and often shocked – by the women’s dress and the physical nature of their labour. Though the women’s work had moved above ground, there was still concern that the type of work they were doing made them unfit to be mothers and unsuitable as wives. “Their work didn’t fit the idea of what a Victorian gentleman thought that a woman should be doing,” says Thomas. “She should not be dressed in trousers, doing back-breaking work covered in coal dust. But it’s probably important to note that these concerns were raised about all women working at the time, whether they were in the factories or mines.”
As for how aware these women were of challenging social norms and ideas of Victorian womanhood, Thomas is pragmatic. “To be honest, these women didn’t think they were doing anything revolutionary. They were working a job, to make ends meet, in a working class area.
“Don’t get me wrong, this could be a hard, dangerous job, but given the chance between this and some of the factories of the period, I think it would be preferable to be working outside in the fresh air. We know there was quite a bit of camaraderie between the women above ground. But the Pit Brow Lasses didn’t think they were doing anything untoward or subversive; they were just doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
Breaking Ground: Women of the Northern Coalfields is at the Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland between 13 October 2018–24 March 2019.