Women in the British Mines

The Ladies' Repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion./ vol. 14, iss. 7
July 1854,
Cincinnati, published by: Methodist Episcopal Church [etc.]; 612 pages.

Page 295



Woman's rights—New adjustment—Coal region—Mines—Seams—Females down there—Hottentots—'Do the heavy work "—Collier people—Sore work—No alternative—Begins in childhood—Harness—Hurry and push—Drams—Creel—A child's journey—Comes the end—Physical—Mental—Moral results—Parliamentary action—Humanity mania—The law—Dead letter—Eleventh commandment.

THE rights and prerogatives of woman are undergoing discussion in all the literature of the times to an extent hitherto unknown. Demands most unreasonable and unphilosophical are urged on one hand, and reasonable ones denied on the other. Perhaps the via media will be discovered, and in accordance with the legislative fashion of the times, the controversy will be settled by a "compromise," and THE UNION PRESERVED. But there is needed an adjustment of the industrial avocations of the sexes, that the honor, the safety, the bread, the freedom of each may be sacredly guarded.

This is not so in America. The thousands of half-starving seamstresses in our cities give a painful emphasis to this declaration. But bad as is the condition of female labor in our country, it is worse in Europe. The sympathy manifested by English ladies in behalf of American slaves is all proper enough; but perhaps if they will look among their sisters at home, suffering even under the "auspices of magna charta, they will find, to say the very least, an enlargement of the field of sympathy. Should the eyes of any such fall upon these pages, we ask them to take a walk among British mines, and to see how British females live and have a being. The authorities for thefacts of the article are British, and are mainly from the report made by the Parliamentary commissioners of 1840.

The coal and iron mines of the United Kingdom form the principal part of mining enterprise. The coal formations are dispersed through the middle, northern, and western portions of south Britain. There is a wide layer traversing the center of Scotland, from the shores of Ayreshire to the Frith of Forth. There are some coal seams in Ireland, but they are reckoned as small potatoes. That a proper idea may be had of the work of miners, some explanation must be given in advance. The coal-beds are interlaid with strata of grit-stone and shale, and, in some districts, of iron-stone. In the broken regions the coal is reached by vertical shafts, or "wells;" from the bottom of these extend horizontal roadways, long, dark, and narrow, through the coal strata, and by these, all that is hewn out by the "getters," is brought to the "pit's eye"-the bottom of the shaft-and is wound up to the "upper regions." Ordinarily there is more than one shaft in a mine; but where the deposits lie so deep as to make the sinking of a shaft a matter of serious outlay, a single large one is made. This is divided by wooden partitions. There must always be one channel called the "downcast pit," for the

air to descend; another called the "upcast pit," for the return draught. The machinery for lowering and ascending is usually in the "upcast," and is sometimes a steam engine, sometimes a horse power, and sometimes a hand crank. The seams of coal vary in thickness from several yards, as in south Staffordshire, to eighteen and twenty inches. Where they are several feet thick, the horizontal roadways are high enough for men to stand erect and quarry the coals, and for horses, mules, or donkeys to draw them to the pit's mouth. Where they are only a few inches in hight,'they can only be worked by children, and, in some instances, they must be in a stooping posture continually. These mines are dark, damp, and foul. Ventilation is extremely difficult, and new hands can be employed cheaper than new shafts can be sunk. In many instances the pits are very wet, and the hands work in water over knee deep.

"But surely females don't go away down those deep shafts and work in those horrid dirty pits, among coals and rocks, and standing in water?"

Why, yes, you delicate, nervous creature, they do. They dig coal; they draw cars or tubs of coal to which they are harnessed. Work in the mines? Ay, indeed, the mother and her daughters-they work among men rough as Hottentots, and almost, sometimes quite, as naked. Yes, woman, burying every feeling of refinement, of delicacy, of womanhood, clad often in but a single ragged garment, toils there for bread. There are some facts in the testimony on hand which may not be written, but may be readily imagined.

What do they do? Take the following testimony. "Margaret Boxter, fifty years old, coal-hewer. I hew the coal; have done so since my husband failed in his health; he has been off work twelve years. I have a son, daughter, and niece working with me below; we have sore work to get maintenance. I go down early to hew the coal for my girls; my son hews also. The work is not fit for women, and men could prevent it were they to labor more regularly. Indeed, men about this place don't want wives to work in the mines, but the masters seem to encourage it." Why did not the masters interfere? Why did they encourage it? Another witness gives us an answer. "They know that we [women] will do work that the men won't."

The capability of females to endure fatigue seems duly estimated by the masters (?) of the mines, as the following will prove:

"Hannah Bowen-windlass woman-aged sixteen years. I h'ave been down two years; work from seven in the morning till three or four in the afternoon at hauling the windlass. Can draw up four hundred loads, [a day,] varying from one hundred and fifty weight to four hundred weight each."

Ann Thomas, same age and work. "Finds the work very hard; two women always work the windlass below ground. We wind up eight hundred loads [a day.] Men do not like the winding. It is too hard work for them."

Page 296
This is not the only department of female labor, nor is it the most severe-surely not half so debasing as some others.

Mr. William Hunter was brought before the commissioners. He was the "mining oversman" of Armiston colliery. He had been twenty years in the employment of Mr. Robert Dundas, and had "much experience" in regard to "the collier people." How does he speak of the condition of women in the mines of Britain? It is thus: "Till the last eight months, women and lasses were wrought below in these works, when the manager issued an order forbidding their going below. Women always did the lifting or heavy part of the work; and neither they nor the children were treated like human beings, nor are they where they are employed. Females submit to labor in places which no man, or even lad could be got to labor in; they work in bad roads, up to their knees in water, in a position nearly double; they are below till the last hour of pregnancy; their limbs and ankles swell, and they are prematurely brought to the grave, or, what is worse, a lingering existence."

Robert Bald, Esq., an eminent coal engineer and viewer, says: "In surveying in the workings of an extensive colliery under ground, a married woman came forward groaning under an excessive weight of coals, trembling in every nerve and almost unable to keep her knees from sinking under her. On coming up she said,'O, sir, this is sore, sore work. I wish to God the first woman who tried to bear coals had broke her back, and none would have tried it again.'" What a condition for a woman! Is she more than a very slave, when such toil, such servile drudgery is exacted of her? But it may be replied, they did this voluntarily; they were under no compulsion. What else could they have done? It was delve in the mine-bear the heavy burden upon the breaking back-work among savage men, rude and unclad-work in the damp road-wind away at the windlass-or endure absolute privation. Many of them were born colliers. Their childhood was spent among seams and shafts. They had no other trade. They could not sew, and if they could, the thousands of destitute needle women, with aching fingers and hearts which ached still more, were eagerly asking for work, even at starvation wages. Could they go to service? What would have been the bread made by hands which had been, from childhood, picking "coals at New Castle?" Occasionally one did escape to service, and rejoiced as if she had been rescued from the shadow of death. There was no hope gleaming with starlight softness and luster any where within their dreary horizon. Their testimony to the commissioners was, that they were weary —the work was too hard, but they could do nothing else. This drudgery begins in childhood. Where the seams are thin the coals have to be drawn by hand. This operation is called "hurrying" and thrusting, and is done as follows: The wagons are tubs

mounted on wheels. They are rolled to the place of getting [quarrying] and filled. Thence they are to be hauled to the pit's mouth. The child in front is harnessed by his belt or chain to the wagon. The belt passes around the waist, a chain is fastened to the belt and the wagon, passing between the legs of the lad, who draws upon his hands and feet. Two others in the rear bend their whole weight against the wagon, which they push with their heads. By constant pushing many of the boys wear the hair from the crowns of their heads and become quite bald. Now, remember that they have sometimes sharp grades to ascend, acute curves and angles to turn, the loads are incredibly heavy, and the distance the loads must be pushed or hurried, sometimes several hundred yards, and you can form some idea of the painful toil. "Barbarous, barbarous," say you. Softly, reader, we have spoken of all this as done by boys. What will you say when told all the above-the harness, the belt, the chain, the pushing-are the heritage of females in the British mines? That girls of six and nine years of age, thus accoutered, clad-if clad at allin ragged trowsers, are set to hurrying and pushing, where the seams are only eighteen inches in thickness? That girl yonder, in a seam some thicker, is a larger sister, and in one still thicker, the mother, all harnessed to the wagons? Is the picture too revolting to be true? Look at some of the countless testimony. "The girls hurry with a belt and chain as well as thrust. There are as many girls as boys employed here. One of the most disgusting sights I have ever seen, was that of young females, dressed like boys in trowsers, crawling on all fours, with belts and chains, in clay-pits at Thurshelf Bank, and in many small pits at Holmfirth and New Mills." (Testimony of Thomas Pearce.)

Henrietta Frankland-eleven years old-" I draw the drains, [carts,] which contain from four to five hundred weight of coal, from the heads to the main road. My sister, two years older, does the same. The mine is wet where we work; the water passes through the roof, and the workings are only from thirty to thirty-three inches high." We have at hand testimony from females of all ages, between twelve and thirty-eight years, who were engaged as we have described. Other female children have a different work. A sub-commissioner, who visited a Scottish mine, gives us this description of a small girl's labor: "She had first to descend a mine ladder pit to the first rest, even to which a shaft is sunk, to draw up the baskets or tubs of coal. She then takes her creel-a basket formed to the back, not unlike a cockle shell, flattened toward the back of the neck, so as to allow lumps of coal to rest upon the back of the neck and shoulders-and pursues her journey to the wall face, or, as it is called here, the room of work. She lays down her basket, into which the coal is rolled, and it is frequently more than one man can do to lift the burden on her back.

Page 297
The tugs or straps are placed over the forehead, and the body bent in a semicircular form to strengthen the arch. Large lumps of coal are then placed upon her neck, and she commences her journey with her burden to the bottom, first hanging her lamp to the cloth crossing her forehead. She has first to travel eighty-four feet, from the wall face to the first ladder, which is eighteen feet high; leaving the first ladder, she proceeds along the main road, which is from three and a half to four and a half feet high, to the second ladder, eighteen feet high; so on to the third and fourth ladders, till she reaches the pit-bottom, [bottom of the shaft,] where she casts her load, varying from a hundred to a hundred and fifty weight, in the tub. Add the length of the ladders ascended, and the distance along the'roads,' and they exceed the hight of St. Paul's Cathedral; and it not unfrequently happens that the tugs break and the load falls upon the females who are following."

Thus the servitude of the mines begins in early life-in childhood itself-and where shall the end be? Alas! when the film of death comes upon the eye, and the shades of the dark valley gather around the poor pusher or hurrier, THEN shall come the end!

The physical results of such violations of the laws of being are startling. We have not room here for statistics; they are not needed. Remember this labor lasts for many hours; that it is in damp and unlighted caverns, and you will need no figures nor certificates to convince you that it causes melancholy, drowsiness, trembling limbs, and debility. The head becomes diseased by pushing. The spine curves-" from eight to thirteen years of age they lay the foundation for hypertrophy of the heart"-diseased lungs and stiffened limbs are a common heritage of those who toil in the mines.

The mental condition of the women of British mines is also most deplorable. This needs no argument, if the statements which have gone before are reliable. When can they read? What have they to read? They have no aspirations for knowledge. They know how to descend and ascend a shaft; they know how to hew, to push and hurry, to carry the basket, and what more need the female collier know? When she becomes a mother, she has simply given birth to a collier, which need know no more than she. How could they know letters, having never been taught?

Morally, what is their condition? Read Mr. Wesley's account of the Kingswood colliers. There is ever and anon one who has heard of Jesus, and who knows there is a Holy Ghost. But such are few. They live without God, and die cheered by no hope.

The moral sense is blunted and perverted by every association. That the refined delicacy essential to female purity can remain unsullied in the life of colliers, as lived, is clearly impossible. The Parliamentary committee, in their report, after specifying the causes, add that all the witnesses agree


in testifying as to the demoralizing effects of subterranean labor upon the female sex.

When the shrinking delicacy of woman is gone she is unsexed. She becomes the actor of masculine vices, with seldom the virtues of the other sex. If ever the heart becomes the home of Christian graces, that delicacy must be given back. Christianity demands it, fosters it, will create it, but can not live without it. The discipline of the mines crushes it-implants in its place a stolid indifference or wayward recklessness. Under its blighting influence the mother does not bow her knees with her children, and commend them, "many a time and oft," to the care of the great Father; does not go with them over the scenes of his life, who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." The Gospel she may have heard, but it was only to her the utterance of something unintelligible. It did not reach her heart-did not stir the fountains of emotion. We can not write farther upon this topic without presenting authorities and proofs which would be painful, perhaps indelicate. There is barbarism where stocks and stones are not worshiped; there is idolatry almost in sight of steeples rising above consecrated altars.

It would be injustice to close this article without stating the result of the Parliamentary investigation. After the committee made their report, so crowded with painful, revolting facts, Lord Ashley introduced a bill into the house of commons for the amelioration of the condition of the women and children in the mines. It passed the commons and went to the house of lords. These gentlemen were, many of them, proprietors of the mines-the facts of the report, of which the bill was predicated, was unpalatable. They manifested a disposition to kill the measure with studied contempt. Lord Londonderry curled his lip and sneeringly spoke of the "humanity mania." What were the miners but serfs-to build up colossal fortunes for noble peers? But there is a majesty in public opinion speaking in behalf of downtrodden, bleeding humanity, that even the aristocratic lords of England, separated so widely by disparity of position, wealth, and power from the masses, was obliged to yield. But there were alterations and amendments made to suit their interests. The bill, as passed, provided that no child under ten years of age, and no woman should work in the mines. This, so far as the children were concerned, was mere cant, as but few children, under ten years of age, could be of any service-they were too weak to push, hurry, or carry. The provision that no female should work in the mines, resulted as might have been expected. There were hundreds of females thrown out of employment whom the system had unfitted for any other species of labor. They had lived in the mines, and knew not how to live out of them. It is the sad result of any system of labor founded in wrong-founded in perversion of natural right, that it unfits its victims for any thing beside, and drives

Page 298
them back to it, as their only refuge and hope. But that result does not prove the rightness of the perverse system. Petitions came in, praying that females might be restored to the privilege of working in the mines, that they might not starve. There were enough who had interests in the return of the female miners and the cent per cent., to make the enactment a dead letter, at least partially so, and there is reason to fear that the condition of women in the British mines is but little if any improved. There might be some sarcastic allusions made to the English interference in some of the ills which trouble us as a nation, and suggestions of the observance of the old-fashioned eleventh commandment, "mind your own business." But we forbear. There is enough to do in both countries; there are evils to be cured in each. Let us help each other; let us work for the common interests of the race of man. God grant that the sighing of the oppressed may soon come to an end, and the voice of the exactor cease


Back to Women in the Pits