Sunday, 10 June 2012

Pit lasses: the truth about Britain's female coal miners

 Denise Bates's new book reveals the shocking truth about thousands of working women's lives. She tells us more about the 1842 government investigation that scandalised Britain, revealing thousands of 'half-dressed hussies' hard at work down the pit at a time when women were meant to be rearing children and taking tea in the parlour

In May 1842 the Children's Employment Commission broke a scandal that briefly transfixed Victorian society. Words and sketches by two investigators in Yorkshire led to female miners being castigated as brazen, shameless, half-dressed hussies or worse. Their sexual conduct was questionable, they failed to attend church, to keep a home decent or bring their children up in good ways. Banning them from earning a living underground was seen as the only way of banishing these horrors.

This negative view of female coal miners has persisted ever since, obscuring the horrific nature of the work they were doing and why they had to toil underground. When I discovered my 4x great-grandmother, Rebecca Whitehead, on the 1841 census, reputedly a pitiable, feckless creature who spent her days harnessed like an animal, dragging a coal truck behind her as she towed 'on all fours' with breasts swinging for everyone to see I took a critical look at the Royal Commission report.

My investigations challenge the view that females working without tops was a widespread occurrence. Topless females were only seen working by investigators at one pit. By a fortuitous inclusion of this pit as an example of a medium-sized colliery, it is possible to identify who these girls were. A maximum of five were involved. The youngest was 11, the eldest 17 and commended elsewhere for her propriety and reliable evidence. All went to church, chapel or Sunday school. They worked for family members and removed their tops at times to keep cool in a pit which was particularly hard to work.

After several readings of the report I realised the investigator who portrayed these teenagers as loose-moralled wrote hypothetically when he supposed that sexual misconduct must be occurring. As a sad footnote, before the Royal Commission published its findings in May 1842, three of these girls had died in an underground explosion because of the negligence of the pit manager.

Pictures which purport to show bare-breasted females at work can also be challenged. A topless woman dragging a cart has a masculine looking face. The supposed breasts may have been intended as nothing more than well-developed pectoral muscles for which male miners were renowned. A topless girl being hauled out of the mine sitting crotch to crotch with a teenage lad is named as Ann Ambler, the only girl working at that pit. In the text the only garments she is reported as lacking are shoes and socks. 

The shocking illustration of Ann Ambler from the Commission report
(courtesy of Ian Winstanley, Pick's Publishing and the Coal Mining History Resources Centre.)
The two investigators who created the sensation about topless working and sexual morality were a barrister and a doctor; intelligent men capable of weighing evidence and drawing appropriate conclusions. That they reported as they did was less Victorian prudery than Victorian compassion. Both men were shocked and disgusted by discovering girls who were knocked about by men they worked for, girls dragging coal carts on all fours with chains which had worn holes between the legs of their trousers and exposed flesh in intimate places, girls working in conditions which resembled a city drain and women being required to work harder than galley slaves moving coal carts which were too heavy for female strength.

A Wigan pit brow lass (image
From detail hidden within their individual reports it is clear that these investigators worked together to unearth evidence which would help the women to escape from their degradation. They called in two of the national Commissioners and took them to the most shocking pits they had found. It seems likely that these Commissioners steered the investigators to produce emotive reports about moral issues. From previous involvement in official investigations they knew that calls to reform working practices based on compassion for women would fail in a society which considered that Parliament had no remit to involve itself in regulating industrial practices. If females were to be taken out of the mines (and a number indicated that they would like this to happen) the grounds had to be moral.

Topless working was only one myth which surrounded female miners in 1842. My research has addressed numerous others also and produced a picture of respectable women of surprising talents.

There has been very little investigation into the lives of the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines. I'm hoping that Pit Lasses will stimulate interest in the subject and lead to new discoveries. My research to date has identified aspects of their lives where specific studies would be valuable if appropriate samples or sources can be identified. There may be family stories around and un-indexed papers in archives. I would be interested to hear from anyone who can contribute to research on this topic.

Find out more on or get in touch with Denise by e-mail ( Check out Denise's book Pit Lasses: Women and Girls in Coal Mining c.1800-1914 (published by Wharncliffe Books, 2012) here


Maire Claremont said...

Loved this post. Thank you for bringing up such an interesting subject.

Brett Payne said...

When I used an image of the engraving of Ann Ambler to illustrate an article of my own (Dreadful Calamity at Church Gresley), I had no idea of the relevance to pit lasses. Thanks for drawing my attention to the book and bringing, as always, a refreshing view to the story.

Ruth Kelly said...

I had no idea that women worked in those awful coal mines. I felt lucky that my great great grandfather joined the Mormons and left Wales and therefore, saved his life and children's lives by crossing not only the ocean but the plains to Utah where they farmed and had a full life.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. My mother's mother was a coalminer's daughter and did some work in the mines as a child. She and her siblings also scavenged for coal deep in the shafts to feed the stove of their home in eastern Kentucky. She shuddered at the memory 'it was so dangerous!' They were poor after their dad was blinded in a mine explosion and almost starved to death one winter.

biginabox said...

I'm trying to track down some figures on the death-rates for women in the home in mining areas. Especially related to laundry, when there were no pit-head baths, but the domestic dangers in general. But with no luck.
Any links?