Women in Mining and Mining Communities. — Rosemary Preece — 16th June 2014.

PitBrow3Rosemary gave us a thought pro­vok­ing insight into the harsh real­it­ies of women and chil­dren work­ing in coal mines over the cen­tur­ies. In the 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies, whole fam­il­ies worked under­ground – men, women and chil­dren, some as young as 6 years old.  Concern for safety was neg­li­gible with many of the mines were in isol­ated com­munit­ies and  unwel­com­ing to inquis­it­ive strangers.  Conditions were atro­cious and there were graphic descrip­tions of women haul­ing wagons/tubs of coal by a belt around their waist and a chain passing through their legs.   They worked on their hands and knees, in water, soaked through , with numer­ous blisters.  Women car­ried bas­kets of coal on their backs from the coal face and climbed lad­ders out of the mines. We have to remem­ber the women were often wives, moth­ers with many chil­dren and a home to run after her shift at the pit. They were shattered.

Men at the coal face were often naked and were assisted by girls of 6 and women up to 21, bare breasted. The girls and women were vul­ner­able and famili­ar­ity was common.

By the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, con­di­tions were still prim­it­ive and dan­ger­ous with women and chil­dren work­ing 12 hour days for lower wages than men. A freak acci­dent in 1838 in a mine in Silkstone near Barnsley ‚when 11 girls and 16 boys were killed, brought to the fore the whole issue of chil­dren work­ing in mines .   Queen Victoria ordered an enquiry. A royal com­mis­sion was set up chaired by Lord  Ashley-Cooper primar­ily with the dir­ect­ive to look at chil­dren work­ing in the coal mines. The scope  was later expan­ded to look at the employ­ment of women in the mines.  This was thought to be more con­cerned with Victorian prudery and morals rather than wor­ries about the severe work­ing con­di­tions.

PitBrow5The Mines Act of 1842 was passed which pro­hib­ited males under 10 and all­fe­males from work­ing under­ground.  Many mines obeyed the law but appar­ently the Wigan and Chorley  coalfields con­tin­ued to employ women under­ground for sev­eral years. Women con­tin­ued to work on the sur­face push­ing wagons and sort­ing coal until the 1930’s. In 1900 part of the act was repealed to give women the choice to work under­ground.  The mining unions were not sup­port­ive to women work­ing under­ground, believ­ing men should be the wage earners. Women would be of greater value to soci­ety if they stayed at home.

Women in the 20th cen­tury were still employed in the col­lier­ies but in more tra­di­tional roles in canteens, offices and nurs­ing but not in any duty down the pit. In 1943 the Bevin Boys were con­scrip­ted to work in the pits but not women. During the miners’ strikes of the 70’s and 80’s, women sup­por­ted their men and com­munit­ies in those uncer­tain times.

The mining industry has shrunk from 150,000 employ­ees to 4000 in a hand­ful of large and smal­ler pits . The coal mining industry has a noble his­tory but blighted by the exploit­a­tion of men, women and chil­dren in its past.