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Challenging notions of womanhood: The Pit Brow Lasses of the Northern Coalfields 1

a sepia studio photo of four women in working clothes holding shovels and sifting trays

Pit Brow Lasses from an unknown colliery in Wigan, Lancashire. 1887. Photograph_ Herbert Wragg. Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Coal Mining Museum for England

Pit Brow lasses and the women who worked the coalfields take centre stage in the latest exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery in Durham

Known as Pit Brow Lasses in Lancashire and areas of the North, Tip Girls in South Wales and Pit Bank Women in Staffordshire, the story of the women who worked in the coal industry is not one that is readily known today beyond the social histories of mining.

Yet the cultural phenomenon of the Pit Brow Lasses, who dressed in men’s clothing and performed hard labour at the pit head, has been relatively well documented – especially in surviving Victorian photographs that captured their distinctive style of dress on postcards and in the contemporary artists who are now increasingly portraying the ubiquity of women in mining landscapes.

This exhibition uncovers this story with some newly uncovered photographs of Victorian women from the Durham Coalfields, and mining art from across the 20th century depicting the diversity of ‘women’s work’ and the often transgressive steps the women took to continue working in coal mining, and how they politically defended their right to do so.

Whether working as ‘Pit Brow Lasses’ hauling coal at the surface, managing enterprises, campaigning for social and political change or maintaining a rigorous domestic routine , women have played an important role in mining life.

a colourised photo of a womna in rough working clothes leaning on a shovel

A Pit Brow Lass shown on one of The Milton Postcards. Circa late 19th century. Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Coal Mining Museum for England

a painting of three women carrying coal on their backs in sacks

Archie Rhys Griffiths, On the Coal Tips, 1930, Oil on canvas © Estate of Archie Rhys Griffiths

This is a story that begins deep inside the mines. In May 1842 the Mines and Collieries Act was passed, prohibiting all women and children under the age of 10 from working underground. Coal mining had previously been a family affair, with men hewing the coal and their wives and children working alongside them as ‘hurriers’ taking the coal to the surface.

However, a report published as the result of an inquiry into working conditions found women working alongside men in unsuitable proximity and dress, and deemed “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”, shocking Parliament into banning women and children from the mines.

“they were not the degraded, unsexed, health injured creatures they had been described as”

In areas such as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland women moved their work to the surface of the colliery and earned their wage by hauling tubs or picking stone from coal. These women, with their lifestyle and unconventional appearance, wearing breeches under rough skirts, thick boots and kerchiefs tied around their heads, soon became something of a cultural phenomenon.

The emergence and popularity of photography during the Victorian era ensured that the Pit Brow Lasses were the subject of many photographs, and a source of fascination to the middle classes who fuelled a demand for souvenir postcards. However, many continued to be outraged at the idea of women carrying out hard labour.

In 1887, Margaret Parks, Mayoress of Wigan, organised a march on parliament with the Pit Brow Lasses to prove they were not the “degraded, unsexed, health injured creatures” they had been described as and defend their right to work.

a painting of two women in working clothes and headscarves © Colin Davison www.rosellastudios.com

a colourised photo of a woman and her two young daughters in Victorian dress

Hannah Porter with her daughters, Sarah and Susanna, 1862. Copyright © Margaret Hedley

Whilst legislative attempts to force women out of the mines continued throughout the 20th century, the last Pit Brow Lass did not retire until the 1960s.

As well as the women who toiled on the edge of the pit, the exhibition showcases other ways women contributed to mining communities, both inside and outside of the home. Artworks show the constant work women endured to maintain a rigorous routine of domestic, physical, and emotional support to the men of their community. Paintings and sketches by Herbert Cooper, Josef Herman and Norman Cornish show how the relentless toil of the coalfield was very much replicated at home.

With the prospect of injury or even death to the men in their families, some women also protected against the potential loss of earnings by running businesses, taking in lodgers, or undertaking agricultural work, as seen in Tom McGuinness’ painting The Potato Pickers.

As a result of an open call for tales of women in north east mining communities, the exhibition features a number of 19th century photographs of women who demonstrated such ingenuity and resilience.

Notable discoveries include a hand-coloured photograph of Hannah Porter, who lived independently after her miner husband began working in America. Over the course of her lifetime Hannah undertook agricultural work, ran a hardware shop from her front room to help support herself and her two young daughters, and even campaigned for local education, though herself illiterate.

The 1862 photograph was commissioned by Hannah to send to her husband overseas.

a painting of people picking coal from a slag heap

© Colin Davison www.rosellastudios.com

Norman Cornish, Sara Darning Pit Stockings. Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison www.rosellastudios.com

Emily Chappell was another resourceful figure who started a business, selling second-hand clothes for profit when her parents died at age 12. She became well-known for her entrepreneurial skills and went on to become a respected and charitable local personality.

Women also innovated in the field of community healthcare. Margaret James, born in 1869, assisted at births and deaths in the village despite having eleven children of her own and a miner husband to look after. Margaret kept an extensive book of home remedies that she could use to cure all kinds of ailments, and ran a consultancy service for the local doctor, who would call at her home to see what his appointments were for the week and who had requested to see him.

Mining Art Gallery Curator, Angela Thomas, says the Durham Gallery hopes to “raise awareness” about women’s history in the mines and women’s history and cultural significance in the UK, particularly in relation to mining art.

“With 2018 marking 100 years since some women in the UK were granted suffrage, this is the perfect time to foreground the pioneering attitudes and strength with which women in mining communities asserted their right to work and challenged the notions of womanhood.”

a painting of a group of four women bent over picking potatoes

Tom McGuinness, The Potato Pickers, 1960s, Oil on canvas, 900 x 1200. On loan from the McGuinness family collection

Breaking Ground – Women of the Northern Coalfields is at the Mining Art Gallery until March 24 2019


Mining Art Gallery

Bishop Auckland, Durham

The first of its kind in the UK, Mining Art Gallery provides an emotive portrayal of coal mining through the eyes of people who lived it. Using original artefacts and artworks by prominent artists such as Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish, the gallery explores life both underground and in the…

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