Queen Coal? Why should we remember Victorian mining women?
The 1842 Royal Commission Report into Children’s Employment (Mines) highlighted the working conditions faced by children working underground. Investigators (called Sub-Comissioners) were employed by the British Parliamentary Commission to collect and collate evidence about the working conditions of children employed in the mining industry.
Sub-Commissioners were concerned about the explotiation of children underground and that women were vulnerable, needed protection and would be of greater value to society if they stayed at home to look after their families. The lower classes did not worry about these issues; they were concerned about a living wage and the poor conditions in which they worked underground. Although they were given no direction to look at working adult females, the Sub-Commissioners were so appalled by the conditions of adult women working in coal mines that they included descriptions condemning such unorthodox female roles.
The mines report was hundreds of pages long and the evidence took months to collect and record. The report documented the working and living conditions of coal miners and their families in much detail. Before this report the general public were largely ignorant about life in coal mining communities, and for many of the public this evidence was shocking: the resulting public outcry lead to the Mines Act 1842 which banned women and children under ten from working in mines.
In certain areas, women continued to be legally employed on the pit top, but there is evidence that some women evaded the law and continued to work underground. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, attempts were made, mainly by the mining unions, to prevent women from working on the surface. Pit brow lasses successfully campaigned against this and, unlike in 1842, they were able to have a say in deciding the shape of their own futures. In 1900 this part of the Act was repealed, giving women the choice to work underground.
Early Victorians saw the natural roles of women as wife and mother, and 1840s ideology of femininity stressed a woman’s position as wife, her need to acquire domestic skills and her role as a peacemaker in the home. A wife was regarded as the charge of her husband, and all her property belonged to him. Family life generally was seen as threatened by the notion of working women. This view persisted throughout the nineteenth century; Ruskin said: ‘Woman is a sacred vessel’, home is ‘a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by household gods.’
In 1842 Britain was a wealthy and influential country holding power over a huge trading empire – during this year Britain finished wars with both Afghanistan and China that were linked to trade. This was the century of the railways, and of great industry, and coal was the lifeblood of the economy. Meanwhile, many of the British subjects were very poor and living in terrible social conditions. This was the era on the Chartists, a social movement that campaigned for parliamentary and voting reform, including the right to secret ballots and suffrage for men over 21.
The Miners Association was formed in 1842, miners wanted more control over their hours and wages. They also objected to the working conditions of young children and women, whose low wages and poor conditions weakened miners bargaining power with colliery owners: why pay men more if women will work for less?