In 1842 Britain was wealthy and influential. Expanding industrial towns and cities were connected by the new railway network - all powered by coal. Yet this was also an era of inequality, in which most people struggled to earn a living and a large proportion of children had to work to help support their families. Many of them toiled in coal mines.
The government became concerned that child workers were being exploited in the mines and needed protection. In 1842 a group of investigators visited mines all over Britain to find out whether the children working there were being treated well. They were ordered to create a special report on the working conditions faced by children working underground.
The 1842 inspectors were appalled by the conditions in which women, as well as children, were working within the mines. They produced hundreds of pages of evidence on the working and living conditions of coal miners and their families. When the 'Royal Commission Report into Children’s Employment (Mines)' was published, many people were shocked by it.
The resulting public outcry led to the Mines Act of 1842, which banned all women and children aged under ten from working in mines. Now, in certain areas, women (known as 'pit brow lasses') continued to be employed on the pit top, but there is evidence that a few did still 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 too. Pit brow lasses successfully campaigned against this and in 1900 this part of the 1842 Act was repealed, giving women the choice to work underground.
Working women, especially those labouring in dirty, difficult jobs, like mining were looked down on by many during the 19th century. At the time married women had no financial independence. Before the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, on marriage a husband became the legal owner of all his wife's property, even the wages she earned.
Early Victorians saw the natural roles of women as wife and mother, and 1840s ideology of femininity stressed that a woman’s ideal profession was as a home-maker. However, hard-working pit brow lasses proved this theory wrong!
Appalled - shocked and upset
Exploited - taken advantage of, treated unfairly
Femininity - idea of what it means to be a woman
Ideology - system of beliefs
Inequality - when people do not have equal rights or conditions
Influential - powerful
Outcry - when a large number of people complain about something
Pit brow - the section of a mine above ground
Proportion - amount
Repealed - overturned
Unions - organised groups within an industry who aim to protect workers' rights