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”
“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.”