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Reviews of Pit Lasses
This is a serious re-evaluation of one of the foundation texts for modern British social and economic history and will be required reading for any student researching this subject in the future.
Coal mining was crippling, back-breaking work, carried out in stifling heat, low ceilinged seams and in darkness lit only by candles. 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.
The 1842 Mines Act 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.
Bates's 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)
The most enduring image of women to be associated with the old mining communities of the North is that of the stoical wife and mother holding the family together at home.
But what is less well known is that, like children, women also once worked at the pit head.
In fact they even worked underground – until the report of the Second Children's Employment Commission caused public outrage when it revealed that the half-dressed women were working alongside naked men.
Women's employment beneath the surface was banned within three months.
This year is the 170th anniversary of the publication of the report, in which hundreds of women and girls described their work, exposing their endurance of terrible hardships and also, quite often, violence at the hands of the men they worked with or under.
With its wider background of contemporary living conditions, it makes Pit Lasses an eye-opening, even quite shocking, read, illuminating, as it does, an aspect of Victorian life that mainstream social histories have hitherto largely overlooked.
Pit Lasses: Women and Girls in Coalmining c1800-1914, by Denise Bates, is published in paperback, price £14.99, by Wharncliffe Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword. Visit www.pen-and-sword.co.uk