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.


** Connop Price pg 83



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)


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

Landshipping Pit Disaster, 1830

Another new item that has appeared during the six month hiatus on this blog is local historian Gerry Brawn’s article in Pembrokeshire Life magazine about a little-known disaster at a colliery in Landshipping. Although the pit is not strictly in the area covered by this blog as it is five miles or so to the west of Saundersfoot, it is important as it is the start of a sequence of increasingly serious accidents in the Pembrokeshire coalfield which culminated with yet another at Landshipping in 1844.  The 1838 Thomas Chapel disaster is part of this sequence.

Thanks to Gerry for providing the following abstract from his article:

“Landshipping, although some way from the coal mines of Begelly and its environs, deserves a mention because of the substantial coal workings in this area, known both as “The mines to the east of the Cleddau”, and also for the infamous accident at the Garden Pit in 1844 where some 40 lives were lost when the River Cleddau broke into the workings.

This church was much re-built in 1848-50

St Marcellus Church, Martletwy, much re-built in 1848-50, scene of the miners' burials in 1830

However on 3rd August 1830 a disaster occurred at Landshipping Colliery which was owned by Sir John Owen. Reported in The Cambrian newspaper of the 7th & 21st August 1830, it was the result of an explosion of firedamp and claimed the lives of 5 miners.  This is a list of the victims together with the dates of their burial and abode.

6th August ~ John Rees of Weston, age 24

6th August ~ David Rees of Weston, 20

6th August ~ Roger John of Weston, 17

8th August ~ Thomas Eynon of Landshipping, 19

23rd August ~ John Dally of Millbank, 16

They were interred at St Marcellus Church, Martletwy; the curate, J.K. Humphrey, was the officiating minister in all cases.

A fuller account of this disaster is published in Pembrokeshire Life, January 2011 issue.”


The above picture is copyright to Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Sudden Or Unexplained Deaths

An interesting source for the study of Welsh history** before 1830 are the Court of Great Sessions records held at the National Library of Wales (NLW). From 1543 until 1830 Wales had its own legal jurisdiction covering criminal, civil and Chancery cases. It’s the criminal side this post concentrates on.

"Hillside", Begelly (early 1990s); scene of inquest into death of William John in 1792

The Court’s criminal jurisdiction was similar to that of the Assize courts in England. Using the surviving records it’s possible to analyse the history of crime in Wales and, to help local and family historians get started, NLW has created an on-line database of cases heard in Wales between 1730 and 1830. One of the classes of documents referenced on the database are coroners’ reports. According to Parry, the coroner was “obliged by statute to go the place where any person was found slain or suddenly dead and was required by to summon a jury of local men to view the body…and to examine witnesses and suspects…”

It appears, from comparing another source, that all coroners’ reports have survived for the local mining parishes around Saundersfoot for the period between 1786 and 1820. Thereafter until the abolition of the Court in 1830, the survival rate is about half.***

What do these reports contain? The various coroners were not consistent in the information they recorded. In the late 1700s the then coroner was particular about recording all the types of data shown in the following table. His successor in the early 1800s was less so.

Types of Data Recorded by Pembrokeshire Coroners, 1786-1830
Always Included Sometimes Included
Deceased’s details
  • Name
  • Parish of residence
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • (If an infant) Name of parent/guardian
Venue of inquest
  • Parish
  • Date
  • Name of venue
  • Person who lives there
  • Relationship to deceased
  • Occupation and/or status of host
  • Names
  • Signature or mark
Circumstances of death
  • Date
  • Place
  • Witnesses’ names
  • Cause
  • Description
  • Verdict
  • (If died in mining accident) the name of both the owner the colliery itself

I have posted a list of coroners’ reports for the local mining parishes (including Amroth, Jeffreyston and Loveston) for the 1786-1830 period. The list includes the circumstances of death, the name of the deceased and the parish where the inquest was held. There is obvious value in this data for family historians. For example, anyone researching the Ollin mining family from around Wooden will find their ancestor, John Ollin, in the list. He died in a mining accident in St Issells in 1828.

For local historians the value is equally obvious. I  used this source in a previous post to describe the problem of uncapped pits in the area. Among the many industrial-related accidents, several men fell from wagons moving coal to, and also on, Saundersfoot beach for shipping. With a long shoreline it is no surprise that others drowned in the sea walking along the coast or in boating accidents. These records provide a few snippets of their history.


** excluding Monmouthshire

*** I will post the records for the period 1732-1785 in due course


A Guide to the Records of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales, Glyn Parry, National Library of Wales, 1995

The Deepest Pothole In 18th Century Saundersfoot

Writing in his diary in 1806, Dr Charles Collins left a useful account of the coal industry around Saundersfoot in the early 1800s. One phrase stuck in my mind:

“…the whole country is defaced by the large coal slack heaps, many in almost every field and common, and pits left open even close to the sides of the roads.”

I only realised how important this description is when indexing the 18th century coroners’ reports for the area. In his book, Martin Connop Price discusses the many pit deaths that occurred to colliers at work. He also refers to people falling into pits who were casual passers-by. What surprised me from the coroners’ reports was just how many of these there were, about a dozen or so in the last 30 years of the century. Cause of death was from the effects of the fall, from drowning or a mixture of the two.

The coroner’s report into Jane Harry’s death in 1781 illustrates the hazard. A stranger to the area she had come to Saundersfoot to hand over a message. On the way home

“…it being very dark and walking along the road… the said Jane Harry…fell into a Coal pit about seventeen fathoms deep**, which was within about four Inches of the road…”

Yes, the report does state “4 inches”! Judging from the address where the inquest was held, the scene was likely to be the Ridgeway, just west of Saundersfoot.

These accidents happened to locals as well and in daylight too. In Begelly, Mary Thomas, fell down a pit searching for her cattle. Mary Merryman met a similar fate blackberrying in Jeffreyston. Of course, if these accidents had happened in the pitch black of a pre-industrial night, there could have been some explanation for them.

For others the reason for their mishap is much clearer. Four died having been in alehouses just prior to their death. For example, on the night of 24th February 1771 somewhere close to Wooden on the Tenby/Narberth road

“James Lewis was come from his Day’s Labour, and on his way home called at Rees Beynon who keeps Ale to Sell where the said James Lewis drank pretty plentiful…went off and called at another Alehouse…after which he went off, as Supposed homeward, but was not heard of till the eighteenth of March…when he was found in a Coal Pit…”

To date I have found just two similar accidents in the 1800s, the last being in 1842 when Philip Davies fell down a pit at Thomas Chapel on his way home from work. Maybe by then a campaign to close up old pits had been waged to reduce the risk. Connop Price describes this practice of ‘tallating’ in his book as “throwing old trees, branches and rubbish of all descriptions into the shaft, before putting a timber cap topped with soil over the entrance”. If this was the practice in the late 1700s, Dr Collins’ diary shows us that it was not common practice, a reminder of the reckless attitude to life our ancestors faced.


** 17 fathoms is just over 100 feet


Pembrokeshire the Forgotten Coalfield, Martin Connop Price, Landmark Publishing Ltd, 2004

Narberth, Clynderwen and Whitland Weekly News

National Library of Wales: Court of Great Sessions records

The Importance Of The Thomas Chapel Colliery Disaster

From around 1800 onwards miners had to dig deeper to get to unworked seams of coal. Locals must have feared that serious accidents would result. On the 16th June 1838 their fears came true when six coalminers drowned in an accident at the Thomas Chapel colliery. It was the worst accident to date in the local coalfield – since 1732 anyway. What was their response?

A local newspaper report hints at raised emotions:

“A dreadful accident occurred at Mr Hughes’ colliery near Begelly Pembrokeshire on Saturday last in consequence of a very thoughtless…cutting in of water; by which means 6 poor men…were drowned. The quantity of water cut in was so great as to take the constant working of persons, night and day, at two pits, with the assistance of a steam engine at a third pit, from the day the accident happened, to Thursday morning, before the colliery was sufficient freed of water to get at the bodies of the poor sufferers…”

Scene of trial: Shire Hall (pale green building), Haverfordwest

No other report of the accident or the subsequent inquest has survived to corroborate the critical inference in the newspaper. However, a copy of the bill used in the prosecution of William Brace at the Pembrokeshire Assizes is extant. As manager of the pit, Brace was charged with the manslaughter of the six miners. Interestingly  the case was brought by James Thomas (of Thorny Park, East Williamston), father of one of the deceased. Alleging that Brace had “care…control and management” of the pit, Thomas believed that Brace had failed to exercise these properly in not using the correct equipment. In his eyes, this neglect caused the deaths.

The trial was held at Haverfordwest on 11 March 1839 with twelve experienced miners from the Begelly area ready to take the stand in support of the prosecution. But the case was not tried. At this time, Assize trials were subject to a two-step process. Firstly the case was examined before a Grand Jury to decide if there was sufficient evidence to hear it. Secondly, if this was proved, the case was tried in open court as we would expect today. However, the case failed to get beyond the Grand Jury where the examination was held in camera; no records survive to explain this.

The importance of this disaster for the local coalfield was that this was a unique prosecution. No doubt James Thomas’ anger at the manner of the loss of his young son was an important catalyst in bringing it. The failure of the case would have generated the same emotion throughout the community. More serious accidents, in terms of the number of deaths, followed with 40 killed at Landshipping in February 1844 and then three months later by seven men closer to home at Broadmoor colliery. Accidents such as these were a national problem and generated a national response: from the 1840s onwards, the government started to enact legislation that slowly brought the apparent recklessness of proprietors and managers under control.


Carmarthen Journal

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol records

The National Archives: Pembrokeshire Assize records


If you are interested in the details of the deceased take a look at the following site:

Above image of Shire Hall: copyright “Cerdiwen” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.