Changing Attitudes To Women’s Employment In The Coalmines

Pembrokeshire Women on Windlass (from 1842 Royal Commission report)

Sketch of Pembrokeshire women working on a windlass (from 1842 report); work like this above- and below-ground often the preserve of women

There has been an interesting series of emails on one of the family history mailing lists this week discussing the occupations women had in Pembrokeshire coalmining. The local mines in our area have a reasonably well-documented history of employing women. For example, a list of employees for the pits at Ridgeway, Moreton and Begelly shows that in 1776-77 about 20 percent were female although how many  worked under-ground is open to conjecture. Another source, coroners’ reports into sudden or unexpected deaths in the coalmining parishes between 1786 and 1820, shows that 20 percent of all pit-related deaths were for women working under-ground. There’s further evidence for their general employment in the 1841 census returns as well as the report of the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842. Women were employed because they were paid less than men and labour costs were as important then as they are today.

As many of you no doubt know, 1842 was a pivotal year in employment law relating to coalmines when Parliament passed the Mines & Collieries Act banning women as well as girls and boys under the age of ten from working under-ground. It may be thought that, following the passing of the Act in 1842, the local colliery proprietors would adhere to the new regulations. There is clear evidence that they did not. In 1846 a government  report, commissioned to assess how effectively the new Act was working, found that the Pembrokeshire colliery proprietors were reluctant to stick to the law:

“The practice of allowing females to work under ground was common in this district before the Act passed. It has now been pretty generally abandoned. In the few instances in which it is retained the managers pleaded as an excuse the very low rate of earnings of the colliers, and the difficulty the women had in obtaining work; also, that of the few who were so employed the greater number were either orphans or widows, or girls who had lost their fathers. Being made acquainted with the necessity of conforming to the law, the managers undertook to use their best endeavours to aid these poor women to obtain other means of getting their living, either by engaging them for work upon the pit bank, or putting them in the way of some other employment. From the disposition manifested by the managers of these works, I have great hope that this will soon be done, and that on a future visit to the district I shall find no need of further measures to put the law in force. The complaints of coal proprietors in other localities, that they are subjected to undue competition from those who continue to use female labour, will suggest an additional reason to the latter for the necessity of its final abandonment within a short period…”

Map (surveyed abt 1815) showing site of death of Martha John at Moreton Colliery, 1847

Map showing Moreton Colliery, scene of death of three youngsters in 1847 including Martha John, her presence under-ground contrary to 1842 Act (Map: copyright Cassini Publishing Ltd)

This optimism was mis-placed in the short-term. In July 1847 Martha John of Prouts Park and two boys, all aged about thirteen, fell to their deaths in the shaft at Moreton colliery as they were being transported down to the pit floor.

Six months later, a correspondent to the Pembrokeshire Herald reported that two boys and two girls of unknown ages were severely burned in an explosion under-ground at one of the pits on land owned by James Mark Child of Begelly House. This correspondent certainly took a stance, reflecting on the death of Martha John and the injury to the two girls that “it is to be much regretted that women, contrary to the Act of Parliament, are allowed to work underground in all this district”. His report concluded by suggesting that Child, in his capacity as a local magistrate, intended to write to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, complaining that this practice was still going on. (It is a pity that no correspondence between Child and Grey on this matter has so far come to light at the National Archives).

There was some logic in Child leading this campaign because, as a magistrate, if anyone had the rule of law at heart it was him. However, Child faced insurmountable problems as, according to Connop Price, the Act “lacked bite, because it made no provision for penalties, or for further inspections.” **

Of course there is a paradox here as Child had conflicting interests. On the one hand he was supposedly an impartial magistrate. On the other he was certainly a partial capitalist owning the land on which these mines were operating and in whose success he was keenly interested. After all, the more coal sold, the more profit Child made. Were he that conscientious about his role of magistrate, he could have obliged the lessees of his mineral rights through the terms of their lease to stick to the law!

Analysis of women’s occupations listed in the 1851 census for Begelly, East Williamston and St Issells parishes shows that 92 women had some sort of role working for the local mines. (Co-incidentally this figure represents 20 percent of all people shown in the census returns with pit-related occupations). The census enumerators describe their work in various ways and, although such terms as “collier” and “employed in coalmines” suggest that some women were still working under-ground, this is hardly incontrovertible evidence.

By 1853 it appears that the practice had died out, a conclusion inferred from the annual report of the government’s Inspector of Mines. While he makes no reference to the employment of women under-ground he suggests that a new concern had replaced it, one that questioned why women were employed at all in any manual pit work. He wrote: “Although the employment of women almost universally to bank the coal develops their frames and physical strength. I hear many objections made to this custom, and its influence in their moral and domestic duties.”

Women continued to find work at the collieries at least into the early 1900s. Government reports show that 40 women were at work in the Pembrokeshire coalfield in 1895 although by 1905 this number had dropped to just four.

Notes

** Connop Price pg 83

Sources

Primary

Children’s Employment Commission Report, 1842 (click for downloadable copy of South Wales report; this is required reading if you have ancestors in our area)

National Library of Wales, Journal of colliers’ turns (ref. Picton Castle 4076)

National Library of Wales, Court of Great Sessions Gaol Files containing coroners reports (click for list of and extracts from local reports)

Ordnance Survey map of St Issells area c. 1818 (Copyright Cassini Publishing Ltd)

Pembrokeshire Herald newspaper

Report of the Commissioner to inquire into the Operation of [the Mines & Collieries Act, 1842] and into the State of the Population in the Mining Districts, 1846

The National Archives, Annual Report of Inspectors of Mines, 1850-54 (POWE 7/1), 1895 (POWE 7/31) and 1905 (POWE 7/41)

Secondary

Pembrokeshire The Forgotten Coalfield, Martin Connop Price, Landmark Publishing, 2004

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