"History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."
[Mrs Lintott, "The History Boys" by Alan Bennett]
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Queens of Coal
There is currently a special exhibition on at the UK National Coal Mining Museum on the Coal Queen Beauty Pageant which ran in the 1970s and 1980s, but this seems such superficial objectification-of-women nonsense when compared to the backbreaking work of these girls' bucket-carrying female ancestors who are the true queens of coal and who worked in and around the collieries of Great Britain during the 19th century.
Up until 1842, women and children worked underground for a pittance doing hard labour that even robust men avoided or would find difficult. Some women actually wielded picks, but most were just treated as beasts of burden. They carried coal in baskets on their backs as they climbed up stairs out of the mine and in some collieries, they even had chains around their waists in order to haul wagons through narrow passages on all fours. Conditions were abysmal, the working day was long and there were no occupational health and safety regulations, and women and children were almost considered dispensible by many colliery owners. The accident rate was high - from falls or encounters with machinery and railtracks - some of which might have occurred due to the cumbersome female clothing of the era. Testimony evidence given to the Ashley Commission makes for distressing reading. Some women endured miscarriages as a result of the work and even after giving birth they would be expected to be back at work the next day. Some examples of the evidence can be read on the Victorian Web here
After the 1842 reforms initiated by Lord Shaftesbury came into force, women and children were banned from working underground but they were given other surface jobs such as sorting and screening coal by hand. But this was also arduous dirty work and they still had to carry coal in baskets on their backs.
A DVD has been produced by a local English history group about these often-forgotten women. To the men they might have been called the "Pit Brow Lasses", but they really were Coal Queens.