Written in 2010 for
Lasses Down't Pit
In 1842 the Mines Act prevented women working underground. It was widely seen as an unsuitable job for a lassie and the practice had died out in many areas from its peak in the early decades of the century. In some pits the owners had banned it, in a few others the men themselves had done so.
Women began to work underground in the eighteenth century. It was an extension of female involvement in other types of economic activity. Traditionally, agriculture and cottage industries had drawn on the efforts of all the family.
Early mining was open cast or near the surface. Families worked small bell pits as a group with the stronger males hewing (cutting) the coal whilst women and children collected it. When the Industrial Revolution sparked an increased demand for coal these traditional practices transferred along with workers. Men were employed by the colliery managers to bring coal to the surface and were paid for the weight delivered. The miners needed help to move the loosened coal so that they could concentrate on hewing. Where family members were available it made sense to use them, irrespective of gender, rather than employ someone who would have to be paid.
The work most women carried out was 'hurrying'. This involved filling a wagon with newly cut coal and dragging it to the mineshaft. To do this a hurrier wore a belt around their waist. A chain was passed from the front of the belt, between the hurrier's legs and hooked to the wagon. The hurrier hauled the truck by crawling along low and narrow passages. Sixteen wagons was a normal day's work and it took up to twelve hours.
By the 1830's there was less work for adult women underground. Rails were fitted in larger pits. Wagons became bigger and needed the strength of males or two adolescents to push them. Smaller pits continued with the traditional methods using either boys or girls. In their mid teens when they had grown too large to manoeuvre through tunnels whose average size was twenty six inches (65cms) boys would become hewers. Many girls left, possibly for marriage. A younger sibling might take their place.
As pits were sunk ever deeper to get at the coal needed to power the expansion of factories and mills, appalling disasters occurred regularly. In 1840 a Royal Commission was charged with investigating the conditions in which children and young people worked in mines and restrictions on child labour were anticipated. Some families fretted at the thought of losing their child's wages. Some pit owners worried about having to pay adults higher wages.
Around twenty Commissioners toured the country in 1841 accompanied by a secretary to note the testimonies of several thousand witnesses; mine owners, miners, doctors and clergy. Despite their remit being children, in those areas where women still worked underground the Commissioners were horrified by what they saw. Few females were involved in mining in Staffordshire and Durham. In West Yorkshire the practice was largely restricted to children though with considerable local variation. Where women could find jobs in mills, factories, or in service they did so. Adult women worked in some localities in West Manchester and in West Yorkshire where there was a tradition of married women hurrying for their husbands. In parts of Scotland women regularly worked underground, even in the last days of pregnancy and returned within days of giving birth.
Profoundly shocked these Commissioners produced a grim snapshot of the life of a female miner. Witness testimonies across the classes show that it was considered undesirable for women to work underground. Several, including miners, testified that working underground diminished the capacity of a woman to look after her husband, children or home. Barnsley surgeon Michael Sadler reported 'the greatest differences in the homes of those colliers whose wives do not go into the pits in cleanliness and good management.'
Some claimed that the female character was destroyed by working underground. For the Godly the issue was moral with emphasis being placed on brutalising practices such as profanity of language and the corrupting effect of women and young girls working alongside men who wore no clothes whilst hewing the coal. Many young teenage girls were distinguished from boys only by their earrings as they worked naked to the waist down and wore trousers. Some considered females working underground bold and sexually immoral, though it is unlikely that the rate of illegitimacy amongst female miners was greater than amongst the working classes generally.
For the mining families the concerns were the exhausting nature of the work and the low standing in which girls who worked in the pit were held. Other than a couple of hours at Sunday School a girl's education ceased when she began work underground. The long and exhausting hours made it difficult for a girl to learn any practical home-making skills, even if she had a mother who could teach her or set a good example. Some mothers were former miners who had never learned these skills themselves and struggled to knit, sew or manage a budget. This made it harder to find alternative employment such as in domestic service where housekeeping skills would have been an asset. Some astute witnesses pointed out that girls who worked in factories also lacked opportunities to learn how to run a home.
By 1841 many regarded allowing a daughter to work underground as the last option. Deciding whether a girl should work at the pit would often depend on whether the family had boys who could earn a wage instead. Families without sons or whose sons were young often depended on the wages of the daughters who could earn a shilling (5p) a day moving wagons. Motivated parents tried to find jobs in service or above ground but this was not always possible. Mrs Fern, a miner in her youth, sent her step-daughter Ann down the mine but not her own daughter. Nine year old Esther Craven's feckless mother followed her to work with a whip on her first day to ensure that she went down the mine.
The harrowing testimonies highlight the practical difficulty a woman would have in keeping a home after spending a physically exhausting hours confined underground, probably still hurting from chaffed skin or bumps against the tunnel walls. Eighteen year old Ann Eggler whose family depended on her and her sister Elizabeth hauling trucks witnessed that 'sometimes when we get home at night we have not power to wash us and then go to bed.' The emphasis for a man returning from the pit was to eat a good meal to keep up his strength for hewing and relax, often in the local pub.
The Commission Report created immediate moral outrage, fuelled by national and local newspaper coverage. It was seen that the degradation of women could be addressed by preventing the employment of a relatively small number of women underground. The issue of child labour was less clear-cut. The public outcry added momentum to Lord Shaftesbury, a well-known social reformer who immediately introduced a Bill in Parliament to ban females working underground and restrict the age for boys to thirteen. This became the Mines Act which restricted female employment from August 1842 and banned females of all ages from working underground from March 1843. To the relief of many, mine owners and workers, boys of ten were still allowed underground.
It is unclear how many women were affected as the 1841 census does not identify all female miners or those working above ground. The number at that time was estimated at 2 to 3,000. There was no hardship fund for those families who were affected by the change. Mine owners and wider society were not unduly concerned with the economic plight of workers. Some girls found work in service. Others, including the Eggler, sisters married and brought up families. Some found jobs above ground. Some found the restriction of the labour supply a means of securing higher wages for males cushioning the loss of the female's pay. With no inspector appointed until 1844 some ignored the new law in the short term, particularly in the areas where wives worked with their husbands.
The work still available to females at the pit head involved picking stone or dirt from freshly hewn coal, grading it, operating winding gear and loading and moving trucks. Gradually becoming known as pit brow lasses in some areas women continued in some of these roles well into the twentieth century.