July 2022

Ghostly figures shed light on women’s work at the pit

The ghostly figures, in our first photograph in this blog, shed some light on a now forgotten aspect of coal mining – women’s work on the pit top.

Ghostly figures of pit-top women workers. Behind them, to the right, appears to be coal exiting the colliery top screens. These screens also employed female labour in manually sorting extracted coal and removing unwanted dirt.

At first we thought that these rare photographs (published here for the first time) might have been taken in the north eastern part of Derbyshire, possibly at a colliery of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company. We also thought that they were of the First World War period or later. The short series of plate glass negatives (of which we reproduce three), shows women engaged in pit-top work, sorting and stacking coal.

Though women were banned from working underground in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, following the Children’s Employment Commission report of the same year, this didn’t stop pit-top work.  Nationally this was fairly common – even by 1900 4,808 females were employed against 155,829 males working at coal, iron, shale and clay mines.  But it’s thought that no women were employed in the Derbyshire coalfield during the nineteenth century. This resulted in most women staying at home.

The Derbyshire Miners’ Association wanted to see ‘a total prohibition of female labour about our mines’ in response to a proposed Coal Mines bill of 1911. But this amendment to the bill was defeated, with the aid of women suffragists.  This caused some consternation with one MP saying that the ’university women’ responsible for the amendment’s defeat did not understand the hard nature of the work involved.

A filled tub of presumably freshly worked coal with three women pit-top workers. This looks as though it has been sorted from from the coal screens and comprises mainly ‘slack’. Colliery buildings loom large in the background.

In 1915, following the onset of the First World War, nationally it was thought that employers and workers would be best placed to look, jointly, at employing more women on the surface (along with other measures to increase productivity).

Though reports of actual employment in Derbyshire are scant some have surfaced. For example in March 1916 the Derbyshire Miners’ Association was protesting after it was reported that ‘women workers had been introduced to certain pits in the county.’ This appears to have centred on a dispute at Waleswood Colliery. The need to replace men at work had presumably started this move. In 1916 some 12,000 men had left the pits in Derbyshire to join the army.

In some areas of the country the employment of women is fairly well documented, but in Derbyshire, with its early absence of women, it is possibly less so. Later, as coal owners were forced to consider welfare provision at the pit top, women played their role in what might be termed traditional work – occupational nursing and canteen work are just two.

Although our ‘ghostly figures’ were first thought to be possibly of Derbyshire origin, but are probably not, they do throw some light on a sometimes-forgotten part that women played in the coal industry of past years.

Neatly stacked coal at an unknown colliery. We think the other two photographs are at the same location. Where could it be and who was one of of the unsung women pit-top workers pictured here?

Sources used in this blog:

Angela V John, By the seat of their brow. Women workers at Victorian coal mines, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1984).

JE Williams, The Derbyshire miners. A study in industrial and social history, London: George Allen & Unwin (1962).

Derbyshire Courier 11 March 1916, 22 April 1916 and 5 September 1916.

Our thanks to one of our VCH research group members for allowing us to share these photographs. We would be interested to hear views on where these photographs might be.

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Seizing Derbyshire church goods in 1553 – new book to be published

Our sister organisation, the Derbyshire Record Society (DRS) is publishing a new book Church Goods in Derbyshire 1552-1553, edited by Richard Clark

Front cover of the new DRS book.

About the book

The book is concerned with the national seizure of church goods in 1553, one of the major dispossession of ecclesiastical assets during the English Reformation. It contains the surviving documents relating to their confiscation in Derbyshire, including the inventories of church goods made in 1552 in preparation for their seizure. The book also contains the indentures made in May 1553 about the retention by parishes of vessels for the administration of Holy Communion and of their bells, and the returns made from Derbyshire and handed over to government officials in Westminster. The final item in the volume is a letter from the borough of Derby to the Privy Council in 1553 about its failure to report to it about its survey of church goods there in 1552.

Details of the goods itemised in the Derbyshire inventories and indentures have been available in print for over a century and a half, but the documents, appearing here, have never been printed in full. They have previously been exploited for their interest concerning surviving church furnishings and ornaments in Derbyshire before their final seizure by Edward VI’s government. However, without a full edition of the documents presented here a review of their administrative and political significance as well as detailed and critical consideration of their contents has not previously been possible. This volume aims to rectify these omissions as well as to provide a full critical apparatus to set these documents and their contents.

Anyone is welcome to join the DRS for the launch on Saturday 16 July 2.30pm, with talk by the editor at the Imperial Rooms, Imperial Road, Matlock, DE4 3NL.

The book will be available to purchase on the day for £30 (£20 for Record Society members). If you are unable to join the DRS on the , but 16th, but would like to order a copy of the book, this can be done online or by printing and completed the attached order form.

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