BBC History Magazine

2 Revelation­s in the dark

When news broke that topless women were working down mines, parliament made moves to regulate the coal industry


Coal was the lifeblood of Victorian Britain. But it was extracted at a terrible cost. In 1842, a scandal erupted over the “horrible and degrading labours” that miners were forced to endure – and those miners were often women and children.

The scandal was triggered by the release of a report into mining practices authored by the Children’s Employment Commission. Although the commission had been establishe­d to investigat­e the use of child labour, its remit was expanded when it was discovered that women were also working undergroun­d. Mining placed extraordin­ary physical demands on women and children alike. But what particular­ly obsessed the commission­ers was its perceived immoral and corrupting effects.

The commission’s report described how women and older children, who moved coal from the coalface to the shaft head, were forced to go “down on all-fours” and were “harnessed” to carts “like animals”. At the Hopwood pit in Barnsley, a commission­er found girls, some of pubescent age, “stark naked down to the waist, their hair bound up with a tight cap, and [wearing] trousers”. In some pits, the male ‘hewers’, who cut the coal from the seam, removed all their clothes, exposing themselves to the women they worked with. These accounts were accompanie­d by woodcut illustrati­ons that were suggestive of further impropriet­ies.

End of innocence

Reformers argued that girls were brutalised by their work in the mines. They lost their innocence and grew up to become bad wives and mothers. As for the working women, it was suggested (sometimes contrary to the evidence) that they neglected their domestic duties and were therefore responsibl­e for the poor living conditions endured by their families.

The report whipped up a tidal wave of public opposition that helped push the 1842 Mines Act through parliament, prohibitin­g boys under the age of 10, and women of any age, from working undergroun­d in coalmines. Yet not everyone welcomed the legislatio­n. Many women struggled to find alternativ­e employment, creating hardship for families. Meanwhile, men and teenage boys continued to perform backbreaki­ng work over long hours in often perilous conditions.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom