Sunday, 16 May 2010

Women in the Victorian coal mines: Backbreaking labour and "bestial nakedness"

 Ann Ambler and William Dyson hurriers at Messrs Ditchforth and Clay colliery at Elland, Yorkshire (1841)

I've been wading through some of the 1842 Children's Employment Commission reports on coal mines looking for information on women workers. As well as neat rows of statistics there are hundreds of individual case studies, workers interviewed at the pit side by the commissioners, who carefully wrote up exactly what they said. The results make horrifying reading:
"an ignorant, filthy, ragged and deplorable looking object"
Patience Kershaw, 17, Booth Town Pit, Halifax
"I never went to school. I go to Sunday School but I cannot read or write. I go to the pit at five o’clock in the morning and some out at five at night...I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket. The bald place on my head is made by thrusting the corves [baskets of coal]...a mile and more underground...I hurry 11 in a day...
The getters that I work for are naked except their caps. They pull off their clothes. I see them at work when I go up. Sometimes they beat me if I am not quick enough with their hands. They strike me upon my back. 
The boys take liberties with me sometimes. they pull me about. I am the only girl in the pit. There are about 20 boys and 15 men. All the men are naked. I would rather work in mill than in coal pit."
The commissioner added "This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged and deplorable looking object and such and one as the uncivilised natives of the prairies and would be shocked to look upon."

"Many accidents happen..."
Helen Reid, 16, coal-bearer at Edmonstone Colliery, Newton, Scotland:
"I am frequently worked from four in the morning until six at night...I can carry near 2cwt. on my back. A hundred weight is 112lbs.; a quarter is 28lbs. I do not like the work but think I am fit for none other.
Many accidents happen below ground; have met with two serious ones myself. Two years since the pit closed upon 13 of us and we were two days without food or light nearly one day we were up to our chins in water. At last we got to an old shaft, which we picked our way and were heard by people watching above. All were saved. 
Two months ago I was filling the tubs at the pit bottom when the gig clicked too early and hook caught me by my pit clothes - the people did not hear my shrieks - my hand had fast grappled the chain and the great height of the shaft caused me to loose my courage and I swooned, - the banksman could scarcely remove my hand, the deadly grasp saved my life.
Commissioner notes: Very intelligent girl; reads well and writes; very well acquainted with Scripture history.

"Old women at 40" 
Jane Peacock Watson, 40, coal bearer, Dalkeith Colliery, Edinburghshire
"I have wrought in the bowels of the earth 33 years and have been married 23 years, and had nine children. Six are alive, three died of typhus a few years since and I have had two dead born. They were so from the oppressive work. A vast of women have dead children and false births which are worse, as they are no able to work after the latter.
I have always been obliged to work below till forced to go home to bear the bairn, and so other women. We return as soon as we are able, never longer than 10 or 12 days, many less if they are needed. It is only horse work, and ruins the women. It crushes their haunches, bends their ankles, and makes them old women at 40."
Download the 1842 Royal Commission reports from The Coalmining History Resource Centre


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