Amazons among the Coal Tubs
John Hannavy investigates the perennially fascinating ‘pit brow lasses’.
‘Her face besmeared with coal-dust
As black as black can be,
She is a pit brow lassie,
But she’s all the world to me.’
Those lines, from a poem published over a century ago, were written in celebration of one of the hundreds of powerful, resilient, amazon-like women who worked the Lancashire coalfields in the early years of the last century. These ‘pit brow lasses’ belonged to a hardy group of women who eschewed the warmth and damp of the town’s cotton mills, preferring instead the outdoor life at the pithead. The pit girl to whom these lines were addressed worked in one of the many pits in and around Wigan, the archetypal mill and pit town, and butt of music hall jokes.
While most of the other mining areas of the country employed an exclusively male workforce, the Lancashire coalfield was one of several areas which had a tradition of employing women on the pithead coal screens. Here their role was to break up the larger lumps of coal and to remove the stone or other impurities which often accompanied them. Elsewhere in the pit yard they emptied the coal tubs which came up from the face, loaded the waiting railway wagons, or they tipped the loaded tubs into the barges which waited alongside adjacent canal wharfs.
The pit brow lasses, so visible in the colliery, were a source of widespread curiosity and fascination to many people, from the Victorian poet and eccentric Arthur Munby (1828-1910) to the postcard collectors of the early twentieth century. Despite sometimes awful working conditions, and poor wages – at nine shillings a week in the years before the Great War, they earned less than a third of what their male counterparts on the coal screens earned, and less than a quarter of the earnings of the men underground – these large and hardy women posed proudly in their working clothes for the photographers employed by the town’s postcard producers.