Queen Coal? Why should we remember Victorian mining women?
Account of 'Drawer', Betty Harrison, aged 37
This extract is from the 1842 Royal Commission Report into Children's Employment (Mines).
A sub-commissioner collected evidence from miner No. 90, 37-year-old Betty Harris, who worked as a 'Drawer' at Mr Knowles’s, Little Bolton. This interview was recorded on 4 February 1841:
I was married at 23, and went into the colliery when I was married. I used to weave when about 12 years old; can neither read nor write. I work for Andrew Knowles, of Little Bolton, and make sometimes 7s. a week, sometimes not so much.
I am a drawer, and work from six o’clock in the morning to six at night. Stop about an hour at noon to eat my dinner; I have bread and butter for dinner: I get no drink. I have two children, but they are too young to work.
I worked at drawing when I was in the family way. I know a woman who has gone home and washed herself, taken to her bed, been delivered of a child, and gone to work again under a week.
I have a belt round my waist and a chain passing between my legs, and I go on my hands and feet. The road is very steep and we have to hold by a rope; and when there is no rope by anything we can catch hold of. There are six women and about six boys and girls in the pit I work in: it is very hard work for a woman.
The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog tops always, and I have seen it up to my thighs: it rains in at the roof terribly: my clothes are wet through almost all day long. I never was ill in my life but when I was lying-in.
My cousin looks after my children in the daytime. I am very tired when I get home at night, I fall asleep sometimes before I get washed. I am not so strong as I was, and cannot stand my work so well as I used to do. I have drawn till I have had the skin off me: the belt and chain is worse when we are in the family way.
My feller [husband] has beaten me many a time for not being ready. I were not used to it at first, and he had little patience; I have known many a man beat his drawer. I have known men take liberty with [assault] the drawers, and some of the women have bastards [children born outside marriage].
I think it would be better if we were paid once a-week, instead of once a-month, for then I could buy my victuals with ready money.
It is bad work to live on 7s. and rent 1s. 6d. I have been hurt once, I got on a wagon of coals in the pit to get out of the way of the next wagon, and the wagon I was on went off before I could get off, and crushed my bones about the hips between the roof and the coals; I was ill 23 weeks...
I have had bits of knocks or jolts: I had my arm broken by a wagon; I had gotten all out of the road but my arm, and it broke my arm. The women are frequently very wicked, and swear dreadfully at the bottom of the pit at each other, about their turns to “hook on”. They are like to stand up for themselves; keeping one from hooking on is like taking the meat from one’s mouth. There are some of the women that go to church regularly, and some that does not.
Women with a family can seldom get away to church. Some have a mother to look after the house. Colliers houses are generally ill off for furniture. I have a table and a bed, and I have a tin kettle to boil potatoes in. I wear a pair of trousers and a jacket, and am very hot when working but cold when standing still. They beat the children very badly; if they are very little they get beat.
There is a deal in managing a house, some can manage it better than others; those that can write and have been properly taught can manage it best. My husband can read and write.
- How did reading Betty Harris' account make you feel?
- What does her job as a drawer involve?
- Can you think of any difficult jobs like this that people still do today?
- What are the main dangers in Betty's job?
- Why do you think Betty has to work?
- Why would we be wrong to assume that life was this hard for all Victorian women?
Delivered - (in childbirth), when a woman gives birth to a baby
Lying-in - recovering from childbirth
Take liberty with - assault
Victuals - food