Queen Coal? Why Remember Women in Post-War Mining Communities
Overview 1940s and 1950s
Key events for miners and women in the 1940s
The post-war period of the 1940s marked a significant change for women in two key ways: firstly, women’s work in industry, farming, health, the civil service and the armed forces had been vital to the war effort (1939-1945). There was now a wider choice of occupation for many women. Secondly, women’s work in the home was changing: more people were able to afford and benefit from labour saving innovations such as washing machines, electric cookers, gas fires (rather than coal) and so on.
Before the First World War, there was a strong belief that women’s most important roles were as homemakers and mothers looking after their families. Women’s place was ‘in the home’. Homemaking in the early 20th Century was an intensive and physical labour: buying and preparing food, washing, cleaning, mending and even making clothes were everyday duties for a housewife. A woman’s work in the home was physically demanding and took a great deal of time and attention. Many households ran a coal-fired range to cook or heat water. For those without a fridge, food like meat or milk could not be stored long; daily shopping was a necessity. This was a time before family cars and large supermarkets. Families with a higher income often employed women and unmarried girls as ‘help’. Although many women therefore worked outside their own homes, the realm of ‘women’s work’ was largely seen as running a household.
During the war mining became a ‘reserved occupation’, meaning miners were exempt from the armed services because coal supplies were essential to the war effort. Throughout the war opencast mining and machine cutting of coal increased, pit ponies were still widely used although electric winders were becoming more common for drawing the coal. In 1945, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed: British mines were producing 174 million tons of coal each year and mining was now a powerful industry. In 1947 the government nationalised the coal industry.