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.
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.
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.
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.