Pit brow women, pit brow lasses, pit head women or tip girls were female surface labourers at British collieries. They worked at the coal screens on the pit brow[a]pit bank at the shaft top until the 1960s. Their job was to pick stones and sort the coal after it was hauled to the surface.
Before 1842 women worked underground but after the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. c. 99), usually known as the Mines Act 1842 is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that prohibited all females and boys under ten years of age from working underground in coal mines. was passed some found alternative employment at the pit head. Women continued to work at collieries in Scotland, South Wales, Cumberland, Shropshire and South Staffordshire and LancashireThe Lancashire and Cheshire Coalfield in North West England was one of the most important British coalfields. Its coal seams were formed from the vegetation of tropical swampy forests in the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago. where more were employed than in any other area.
Most pit brow women were unmarried and came from mining families; they often left pit work when they married and had families. They started work at six in the morning and worked either at the screening tables or pushing coal tubs. They worked outdoors and developed a distinctive mode of dress that was practical for the work involved but appeared strange to Victorian sensibilities and aroused considerable curiosity.
In the early coal industry women and girls worked underground alongside men and boys in small coal pits. It was common practice in Lancashire and Cumberland, Yorkshire, the East of Scotland and South Wales. The death of Elizabeth Higginson working underground was recorded in the register of Wigan Parish Church in 1641. An article in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795 described Betty Hodson aged nine who worked underground with her brother, aged seven, dragging baskets of coals for their father.
From the 1600s in Lancashire it was common for whole families to be employed in the pits. Colliers relied on their wives, sons and daughters who were employed as drawers. The daughters of colliers usually married within the mining community. As the industry grew the population expanded and more members of extended mining families obtained work. Pit work in south-west Lancashire resulted in the area around Wigan having the highest rates of female employment in the country in the 19th century.
On 4 July 1838, a flash flood at the Huskar Pit The Huskar Pit disaster occurred on 4 July 1838 when twenty-six boys and girls who were working underground were drowned by an overflowing stream. near Silkstone in Yorkshire caused the deaths of twenty-six children aged from seven to seventeen who were drowned while trying to escape. The disaster led to a public outcry and subsequent Royal Commission led by Anthony Ashley Cooper. Until the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 was passed prohibiting boys under ten years of age and all women and girls from working underground in coal mines, it was common for women and children to work shifts of eleven or twelve hours underground. Children as young as five or six worked as trappers opening and closing ventilation doors before becoming hurriers, pushing tubs of coal to the shaft bottom.
After the 1842 Act
The government appointed a civil servant, Hugh Tremenheere, to be the first Inspector of Mines. A barrister with no experience of mining, he had 2,000 pits to oversee, no powers but he secured compliance with the act in four years.
The prohibition of underground female labour caused much suffering and hardship and was greatly resented in south-west Lancashire. The employment of women did not end abruptly in 1842, with the connivance of some employers, women dressed as men continued to work underground for several years. Penalties for employing women were small and inspectors were few and some women were so desperate for work they willingly worked illegally for less pay. Children continued working underground at some pits. At Coppull Colliery’s Burgh Pit, three females died after an explosion in November 1846, one was eleven years old.
Not all women who had worked underground gained employment as surface workers. Lighter work on the surface had traditionally been reserved for older men and men who had been injured below ground and some colliery owners considered pits unsuitable places for women. Other colliery owners were happy to employ women who had proved themselves reliable and strong workers and were used to the language and habits of the miners. Male surface workers earned twice the wages of the women who worked twelve-hour shifts, five days a week and a shorter shift on Saturdays. Women surface workers were concentrated in Scotland, South Wales, Cumberland, Shropshire and South Staffordshire and Lancashire, particularly in the Wigan area. In Yorkshire women were completely excluded from the pits but “pit brow lasses” were employed in Lancashire; in Scotland they were known as “pit head women” and in Wales as “tip girls”.
By the 1851 census, most pit brow women were unmarried and under twenty. From 1861 to 1891 the census returns show that most women working at the pit bank were in their late teens or early twenties. They had to be strong enough to move coal tubs and tall enough to work at the screening tables. Many were sent to work at the pit by their parents. About a fifth of the women supported elderly parents or widowed mothers, about a tenth were married many were from families that had worked in the pits for generations. More women were employed in this capacity on the Lancashire Coalfield than in any other area.
Work started at six. Women either moved the coal tubs when they came up to the surface and shovelled the coal onto screening tables where other women worked as the coal was riddled and sorted. They used rakes to move the coal on the tables, broke up large lumps, removed stones, loaded wagons and removed the dust and stones that fell through the screens. They worked outdoors in all weather.
Pit-brow women developed a distinctive “uniform” of clogs, trousers covered with a skirt and apron, old flannel jackets or shawls and headscarfs to protect their hair from coal dust. Their unconventional but practical dress drew them to the attention of the public, and carte de visite, cabinet card portraits and later postcards of them in working clothes were produced commercially and sold to visitors as novelties. Photographic studios in Wigan that produced such work were Louisa Millard in the late 1860s, Cooper, between 1853 and 1892 and Wragg, which produced a series of at least 18 studio images. Arthur Munby, a Cambridge University academic with an interest in women who worked in dirty and unusual conditions, commissioned many photographs. Munby visited the Wigan area many times over many years, interviewing working-class women and recording in his diaries what they had to say about their jobs, pay and living conditions. Their distinct mode of dress appeared strange to Victorian sensibilities.
Threats to employment
Around 1860 hostility to employing women became more overt. Many men working in cotton mills were out of work because of the cotton famine during the American Civil War and it was felt that women should not be doing jobs that could be filled by men. Once again the women came into the public consciousness, possibly stimulated by reports of calls to ban them. In 1863 the National Miners’ Association resolved at its conference to ask the government to prevent female employment in collieries.
The practice of employing females on or about the pit bank of mines and collieries is degrading to the sex, leads to gross immorality and stands like a foul blot on the civilisation and humanity of the kingdom.
— Petition to Parliament by the National Miners’ Association
The proposal came from a Barnsley delegate, an area that was staunchly against employing women.
The manager of Ince Hall Colliery produced studio photographs by Cooper of Wigan of pit brow lasses in their Sunday best, looking indistinguishable from any other respectable women. The parliamentary committee convened in 1866 to consider the work of women in the pits took evidence from many sources, and found allegations of indecency and immorality unfounded. Arthur Munby described them as lacking formal education, “rough and ready” in their ways and speech but not coarse, uncouth or immoral.
An even greater threat to women’s continuing employment emerged with a clause prohibiting the employment of women in the Mines Regulation Bill in 1886. The 1400 women working on the pit brow in the Wigan area received support from across the country. A meeting of support for the pit brow women called by the Reverend Fox at St Peter’s Church in Bryn near Wigan was attended by two hundred women and letters of support from the clergy, the nobility and others were read. Lord Crawford of Haigh Hall A historic country house in Haigh, near Wigan in Greater Manchester England. wrote that he did not consider the pit girls were immoral and that their clothing, “the inheritance of their mothers and grandmothers”, was only objected to by “ignorant prudes, who, if left alone would probably put a ‘frill’ round the ankles of their kitchen table”.
A deputation of pit brow women, accompanied by Mrs Park the Lady Mayoress of Wigan, The Reverend Mitchell and Mrs Burrows wife of the part-owner of Atherton CollieriesFletcher, Burrows & Company owned collieries and cotton mills in Atherton in northwest England. Gibfield, Howe Bridge and Chanters Collieries exploited the coal seams of the Middle Coal Measures in the Manchester Coalfield. , went to London in May 1887 to lobby the Home Secretary. They took with them their pit clothes and after the meeting the clause was withdrawn. While pit work remained open to women, hostility remained particularly from the unions who did admit women as members.
In 1911 women’s employment was again under threat. Miners were asking for a minimum wage, unemployment was high, women’s suffrage was on the agenda and an amendment to the proposed Mines Act threatened women with being excluded from work on the pit brow. Meetings were organised in Wigan where the Mayor, Sam Woods, and Stephen Walsh the Labour MP for Ince addressed the crowds in support of the women. Walsh asserted the women’s right to work at the pit head and denied they were degraded by the work, but would have preferred them to have more options for employment. The suffragette Annie KenneyAnnie Kenney (1879–1953) was an English working-class suffragette, the poster girl of the Women's Social and Political Union. of the Women’s Socialist and Political Union (WSPU) was sent to Wigan to help the pit brow women organise their opposition to the proposed legislation, and the organisation placed its campaigning expertise at their disposal. The WSPU objected to working-class women being denied the opportunity to work, rejecting the idea that conditions at the pit brow were any more harmful to women’s health than working in their own homes, and that the work was not physically beyond them.
On Thursday 8 August, the Lady Mayoress, Mrs Woods accompanied a delegation of forty-seven pit brow women from the Wigan area to London. The women created a stir as they headed towards the House of Commons dressed in their working clothes and clogs. More support came from local doctors who testified that the work was healthier than factory work. After much debate the amendment barring women from work at the pit head was withdrawn and women were free to continue.
During the First World War, numbers of women working on the pit brow increased to about 11,300 replacing men who went to fight. Women continued to work on the pit brow and in 1953 despite increased mechanisation, nearly 1,000 women worked for the National Coal Board. The last pit brow woman in Lancashire worked at Golborne Colliery until 1966 and the last ever worked in Whitehaven until 1972.