PIT BROW LASSES

If you read my post on THE COURTING CAKE you might remember where I mentioned how the coal mines in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution were staffed by, not only men, but women too.  Today is National Women’s Day and, I feel, it’s the perfect day to shine a little light on these brave, incredibly hard-working women who never received the attention they so rightly deserved … Pit Brow Lasses.

Because of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century, coal production increased dramatically.  Not only was coal used for fueling the steam engines, it was also used for heating and lighting.   In the coal mining areas, from Yorkshire County to Wales, it was very common for whole families to work in the mines.  “Pitwork” in these areas, was usually the only work to be found.

Prior to the passage of “The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842” when it became illegal to employ women and children to work underground, it was commonplace for women, young and old, and their children to work in the mine shafts, alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers, with pick axes and shovels, hauling coal and moving stones.  Children as young as five often worked underground alongside other members of their family.  From 6am to 6pm, six days a week, the work was dirty, brutal and incredibly dangerous.  And for a mere six to eight shillings per week,  depending upon which owner you worked for, was just enough to keep them out of the workhouse.  The women and children, of course, worked for less than half what the men received.

The shafts were dimly lit, hot, cramped, with no ventilation.  Most often the children worked either as ‘trappers’, opening and closing ventilation doors, or as ‘hurriers’, pushing tubs of coal.  And with baskets strapped to their backs, or chains wrapped around their chests, armed with picks and shovels, the women worked right alongside the men, in the shafts, hauling coal.

Sweating profusely and stripped to the waist, if they weren’t completely naked, the women would wear trousers.  But they had very few choices.  It was extremely hot in the shafts, but if they wore lightweight, flimsy clothing, it would be seen as inviting promiscuity.  The trousers were practical, but often led to large holes wearing through, and provided no protection after all.  Needless to say, Victorian England was outraged.  No, not about the dangers of working in the mines, but about the clothing or ‘lack of’ which these women miners did or did not wear.  The mining women were then branded as “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.”

Devastating accidents occurred more frequently than not … fires and explosions were commonplace, but it was a flash flood in 1838 in a Yorkshire mine, which caused the deaths of 26 children, all of whom died trying to escape the pit … 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years.

This disaster led to a public outcry and finally came to the attention of Queen Victoria who ordered an inquiry.  Commissioners began to investigate the working conditions in the mines and seeing for themselves, they were appalled by what they found. The working conditions were horrific.  This resulted in the passing of the Mines Act  which prohibited the employment of women and children under the age of 10 to work underground in the mines.  But for many mining families who were dependent upon this income, it was a devastating blow.  These women were not afraid of hard work and needed their wages.

After the passage of the Act, some women, knowing there were few inspectors around, and that the employers (who paid the women half of what the men earned) would turn a blind eye, continued to work underground in the pits.  Others continued to work at the mines, but above ground, sorting the coal.   Slowly, however, these strong, hard-working women began to accept the inevitable fact that they had to work above the pits, and not in them.  These women and children were eventually replaced with pit ponies, horses who were bred to be miniature in stature, whose size and strength was perfect for pulling the coal barges in the mine shafts.

Above ground the work was still rough, cold, dirty and physical.  But now the women chose practical clothing and dressed more as men than as women.  They wore thick boots to protect their feet, trousers under heavy, rough skirts to protect their legs, and kerchiefs tied tightly around their heads to keep out the coal dust.  These hard-working coal mining women quickly became known as ‘Pit Brow Lasses’.

 

Victorian society now feared these “Pit Brow Lasses” who dressed and acted like men, but somehow they became a sort of fascination for social commentators of that time.  Some social commentators had a fascination for not only mining women, but any woman who worked outside the home, from servants to factory workers.  But it wasn’t the fact that these women worked at the mines that caused the stir, it was only the fact that they wore trousers.

Photographers came from around the country just to photograph them.  Most of the “Pit Brow Lasses” saw this as an opportunity to make a little extra cash and began charging to have their photo taken.  Now many of these extraordinary images are on display in mining galleries in and around Yorkshire County.  As with most women, though, these Pit Brow Lasses didn’t think they were doing anything out of the ordinary.  They did what all women around the world do.  They had a job to do, a family to support, and they did it!


“A Pit Brow Wench For Me”

Anonymous

“I am an Aspull collier, I like a bit of fun
To have a go at football or in the sports to run
So goodbye old companions, adieu to jolity,
For I have found a sweetheart, and she’s all the world to me.

Could you but see my Nancy, among the tubs of coal,
In tucked up skirt and breeches, she looks exceedingly droll,
Her face besmear’d with coal dust, as black as black can be,
She is a pit brow lassie but she’s all the world to me.”

 

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References:  Balmaiden, History, Atlas Obscura, Daily Mail, Wikipedia, History Extra
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Mother’s Milk

I am the grandmother of yet another grandbaby … which number it is, honestly, I’ve forgotten.  All that matters is each one is perfect and I love them all.  Their name, however, may occasionally slip away from me (but just for a moment).  While visiting with the new Momma recently, it was necessary to reassure her that she’s doing ‘a wonderful job’ and, ‘yes, it will get easier’.   It was quite fascinating to discuss how many beliefs, ideas and customs have changed since I had my first baby (some 50 odd years ago) to today.  From swaddling to breast feeding to when to introduce solid foods – on and on.  Today, the issue at hand was ‘breast feeding’ … and not necessarily ‘should I or should’t I’, but how there was a time when it wasn’t an issue to be decided by the new mother at all.  Doctors discouraged it, opting instead for the “modern and scientific” way to nourish your newborn … “formula”.

When I think of it now, why was this manufactured substitute for mother’s milk the recommended method and why was it referred to as “formula”.  A name which has stuck to this very day.   Did a marketing genius decide the name “formula” would comfort the then new mother who only wanted to give her newborn all the nutrition and love it needed, or was it just a tag name that ‘stuck’.

It really wasn’t that long ago when, if a new mother did not have milk to nurse her newborn, or did not survive childbirth, there were very few choices.  In Israel, 2000 BC, breastfeeding was considered a religious obligation.  Wet nurses were not only practical, but necessary, and in biblical times, held in very high esteem.  From an Egyptian medical encyclopedia, 1550 BC …

“To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child:
Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it.
Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of 

soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant
.” 

A recent scene from the PBS program, Queen Victoria, showed Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s secretary, interviewing new, lactating mothers from the village to see who had the largest breasts and could possibly nurse the future heir to the throne for the soon-to-give-birth Queen.  Queen Victoria was never interested in breast feeding any of her nine babies, so a “wet nurse” had to be found for each of them.

The scene was actually quite disturbing when you consider that should the lactating new mother be chosen she would have been required to give up nursing her own infant in order to be available at a moment’s notice to feed the infant of the Queen.  Queen Victoria was not alone in her decision.  For many aristocratic women of those times, this was quite a common occurrence.  Because of the necessity of wet nurses, for some poorer women, it was actually a means of providing an income for their families … yes, a career choice.  But by the early 1900s, with the introduction of modern and scientific ways to feed infants, the career of wet nursing had pretty much disappeared.

Although feeding bottles of one sort or another had been in use in every culture since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until the 19th century when Elijah Pratt invented a functional and successful rubber nipple so that orphaned newborns could “latch” on simulating a mother’s breast.  Now the problem was what to put into those bottles that didn’t result in so many infant deaths.  They needed a “formula”.

Obviously, animal milk (cows, sheep, goats) was the most common source of replacing mother’s milk but nutritionally, it was inferior to breast milk.  In 1865 a German scientist,  Baron Justus von Liebig, suggested that if foods consisted of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, couldn’t these nutrients then be combined to replicate mother’s milk?  He did not challenge the idea that mother’s milk was the perfect food for an infant, but rather he claimed he had succeeded in concocting an emergency food, a “formula”, whose chemical makeup was identical to that of mother’s milk.  Two years later, the Baron introduced “Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies” to the European market and by the next year it was being manufactured and sold in London by the Liebig’s Registered Concentrated Milk Company.


Many doctors began proclaiming these “formula foods” (which consisted of dried cow’s milk, wheat malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate) to be superior to the milk of wet nurses.  With the Industrial Revolution now well underway and many women in the workforce, it’s easy to understand how this now “doctor recommended” infant formula food became so appealing.  Unfortunately, with the lack of necessary nutrients missing, “formula” fed babies did not thrive as babies nourished with mother’s milk.

Baby “formulas” continued to be improved and, with the introduction of evaporated milk in the 1910’s, began to be widely commercially available.  Milk corporations began funding clinical studies which suggested that babies fed with evaporated milk formulas thrived “as well as breastfed babies”.  Soon there were dozens of companies manufacturing these products.  The best known of which was Nestle.  Nestle’s advertisements said it was better for babies than milk, for “impure milk in hot weather is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.”  Their most effective marketing campaign was giving away free samples.  Another company, Mellin’s, combined this offer with free handbooks on proper infant care.  Not only did these handbooks convince new mothers of the reasons to feed their infants “formula”, they convinced many doctors as well.

By the 1940s, bottle designs had also improved, from those which lay flat with openings on either sides, to those which stood up straight, each with detachable rubber nipples.  Whatever the design, they were becoming very popular, and by the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain welcomed the introduction of heat-resistant upright Pyrex bottles.  These newly-improved, hygienic bottles could be sanitized, adding another layer of safety for newborns.

The aggressive marketing of “formulas” in not only the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries as well, contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding.  This decline generated negative publicity for many manufacturers of baby “formulas”, and beginning in the 1970s, the movement to promote breastfeeding began.

The controversy of whether to feed your baby naturally or with “formula” was not my intent.   My intention was merely to examine the original question of why do we call this alternative food for mother’s milk “formula”  and why was I never given the choice of whether to nurse my babies or not.  I think I’ve found the answers.

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References:  Food Timeline, Alimentarium, Domestic Geek Girl, The Journal of Perinatal Education,

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The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail