Book review: Pit Lasses by Denise Bates

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When an early 19th century pitman chose a wife, it was rarely her looks or personality that won his heart ... a sturdy frame and evidence of muscle power were much more to his liking.

In those far off days when mining was becoming a thriving commercial enterprise, a woman was more useful to her man as an underground coal carrier than as a dedicated housekeeper.

While the men hewed out the coal with pick-axes, their wives loaded the rocks in tubs on their backs and hauled it to the surface where they ensured that everything the men mined was credited to their accounts.

It was crippling, back-breaking work, carried out in stifling heat, low ceilinged seams and in darkness lit only by candles. Young children were either left at the pithead to play unsupervised or taken to underground crèches and put into the care of unsuitable crones. When big enough, children – some aged only eight or nine – would also help to carry their father’s coal.

So when a Royal Commission into female miners was ordered in 1842, the nation was shocked ... but not so much by working conditions and labour too severe for a woman’s strength as the fact that half-dressed women and girls had been witnessed working alongside naked men.

Thus morality, rather than compassion, would be the key to the 1842 Mines Act which finally put an end to women’s work in pits throughout the country.

Denise Bates, whose own family history lies in the mining area of Barnsley, digs deep into the nation’s coal seams and beyond to unearth the story of Britain’s ‘pit lasses,’ the hardy women who were the backbone of coalmining communities.

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Commission into the Employment of Children and Young People in Coal Mines, she examines the social, economic and political factors affecting 19th century women miners and uses fascinating, largely untapped evidence to challenge the myth that these women were somehow morally inferior to other female workers of the time.

About 500 women and girls aged from nine to 40, many of them from Lancashire and Yorkshire pits, gave statements describing their lives and what working in mining was like both in 1842 and in earlier years. Bates shows how their evidence paints a comprehensive, and previously unexplored, picture of how they lived when not at work, how they were regarded by the wider community and just what they could achieve.

In Lancashire, women were an integral part of the underground work mainly because the seams were thin and there was a lack of investment in underground infrastructure. During a factory inspector’s brief visit to a mine in Worsley, near Salford, in1833, he discovered children working in holes too small for adults and concluded that ‘the hardest labour in the worst room in the worst-conducted factory was less hard and less demoralising than the labour in the best of coal mines.’

When the working conditions of women miners were finally investigated in 1842, the report’s authors came across some amazing individual stories including a Scottish woman who was employed as a ‘getter’ (those who dug out the coal) when her husband became too ill to work. She started work at 4am and on one occasion worked until only an hour before she gave birth.

At another Scottish mine, an 11-year-old girl moved a ton of coal each day using a basket worn on the back and fitted against her neck. Twenty times a day she climbed four 18ft high ladders and walked through miles of passages.

But hostility amongst male miners was growing. Many were members of miners’ associations who feared women were taking their jobs and held the view that ‘women’s work was anything men did not wish to do.’

When they were finally banned from working underground in 1842, not all women miners were happy. Parliament received petitions from women in Lancashire who claimed that they faced hardship, starvation and even prostitution in places where no other work was available.

But women were still allowed to work above ground and in the second half of the 19th century around 3,000 continued to be employed at the pit head. These were mainly the famous pit brow lasses of Wigan who caused much fascination by wearing trousers to work.

Enterprising photographers persuaded the pit women to pose in their trousers in studios and the pictures were sold as postcards to the middle classes who regarded them as ‘an exotic species.’

Bates’ superbly detailed and well-researched book, which contains photographs and new illustrations of the evidence of some of the women interviewed by the Commission, reveals that female miners were decent, moral women fully capable of making decisions about their own lives and their own jobs.

Pit Lasses adds enormously to our understanding of the role of women in coalmining as well as shedding new light on Victorian society and its values.

(Wharncliffe Books, paperback, £14.99)