The Picturesque Pit Brow Lasses of Lancashire

The Picturesque Pit Brow Lasses of Lancashire

This week Tracey Jones (Teesside University) discusses the unique costume worn by Victorian female miners in Lancashire.

A question I am often asked – ‘Since when have women worked in mining?’ The answer is simple: Women have always worked in mining!

Women worked as part of a family unit that consisted of a husband or father as the ‘hewer’ or ‘getter’ who worked at the coal face; a wife or mother who pushed the ‘tubs’ or ‘corves’ of coal to the surface – called a ‘putter’, ‘thruster’ or ‘hurrier’; and children who would sit in the dark opening and closing the ‘trap door’ in tunnels. It was a real family affair.

Hurrier drawing a loaded corve in a mine, 1842. S.S. Scrivens, Hurrier drawing coal, 1842 [Ink Sketch]. This illustration from the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission shows a female in a low, narrow tunnel, leaning forward dragging a trolley full of coal, attached to a wide belt around her hips.

The Children’s Employment Commission was set up in 1840 by Lord Ashley, the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury, who campaigned to improve children’s working conditions and hours. This Commission produced the First Report on Children in Mines, published in May 1842. Evidence from these reports revealed that not only were children as young as four working in mining but also women were working below ground.  This caused a public outcry resulting in the 1842 Coal Mines Act which prohibited the employment of children (both boys and girls) under the age of ten and all underground female labour. The commission reported:

[I]t was evident that their [miners] wives and children should not be sent into the mines and collieries. Women, who were brought up in them, were unfitted to be good wives or mothers, their habits being wholly inconsistent with those domestic duties…[2]

Mining women were deemed to be ‘unsexed’ or ‘defeminised’ by their ‘manly garb’ and the brutality of their work in the mining industry.[3] It was even suggested that mining women would infect the next generation through their unfeminine occupation and dress! Lord Shaftsbury stated: ‘if you corrupt the women, you poison the waters of life at the very foundation’.[4] Furthermore, it was suggested that mining women were neglecting their primary roles as mothers and homemakers. Therefore they were expelled from the mines.

Many women lost their livelihoods but some of the luckier workers managed to obtain employment working on the surface screening and loading coal. In Lancashire these mining women were known locally as ‘pit brow lasses’ because they toiled on the pit brow.

Victorian Day Dress Fashion Plate, c.1880. Unknown Artist.

Whilst the pit brow women were wearing what we might consider suitable working attire for their working conditions consisting of a distinctive costume of breeches and clogs, middle and upper-class Victorian women wore a completely different wardrobe. They subscribed to a costume of corsets which artificially reduced their waists and crinolines and petticoats to extend their many skirts. These garments restricted women’s movement but the ‘all-pervasive’ assumption was that a woman’s primary function was to be a wife and a mother; therefore seeking to limit women to their ‘proper’ private sphere – the home.

Pit brow women challenged this ideology not only by working outside of the home but by wearing what was considered to be ‘masculine’ attire.

Female respectability was defined by socially accepted modes of behaviour and moral codes which sought to control women by locating them within the private domestic sphere.  These prescribed social mores extended to women’s behaviour, language and appearance in an attempt to ‘regulate both gender and class identities’.[6] This was often located around the idea that ‘dependency, delicacy and fragility’ were respectable female traits whereas ‘independence was unnatural’ as it ‘signified boldness and sexual deviancy’.[7] 

This middle class notion of femininity was juxtaposed to the image of working class women who were seen as healthy, hardworking, and often financially independent. Additionally, working class women were the objects of fear as they had transgressed into the public sphere of work and commerce, risking the ‘destruction of family life’ and challenged middle class definitions of respectability through their independence and financial self-sufficiency.[8]

The pit brow lasses of Lancashire wore a distinctive costume of serge or fustian ‘breeches’ –cropped trousers made from sturdy fabric; a ‘linsey kirtle’, which is a stripy hard wearing fabric skirt gathered up at the front; wooden soled clogs; a patterned head scarf; short sleeved coloured blouse; and a large over coat if they were lucky. Many of these items were well worn and handed down from male relatives who also worked in the mining industry.

Pit brow lass in working garb. Wragg Studios, Pit Brow Lass, c.1890 [carte-de-visite], Wigan.

This working costume was most remarkable for its bifurcated breeches – especially in a period where women’s legs were seen to be the most sexually titillating part of their body. Often these trousers were three quarter length and reached mid-calf or just above their ankle. Breeches emphasised the bipedal nature of women. Strict social and moral codes dictated that polite and respectful Victorian women did not show their ankles, let alone wear trousers!

Consequently these trouser wearing mining women were considered a curiosity and soon became a tourist attraction. Their notoriety became legendary, propelling locale sales of carte-de-visite depicting the mining women in their working clothes.

Hannah Keen, Pit Brow Girl , 1895 [Oil on Canvas], YKSMM: 2004.2736, National Coal Mining Museum for England.

However, despite wearing breeches, in their own exceptional manner Victorian mining women expressed their femininity through the use of colour, pattern, and embellishments to their costume in the form of ribbons, jewellery, decorated hats, attractive shawls and scarves, and coloured socks.

Although the surviving carte-de-visite of mining women are monochrome it has been possible to ascertain that in actuality the pit brow lasses wore a host of bright colours. In the words of dress historian John Styles ‘the poor did not live in black and white’.[11]  Unfortunately only two oil paintings of Lancashire pit brow lasses survive.

Hannah Keen’s painting clearly shows how these women choose to brighten their drab costume through the use of feminine colours.[12] Keen’s pit brow lass wears a pink head scarf and matching pink socks – overt signals of femininity. Arthur Munby, a middle class civil servant and minor poet, artist and diarist, visited working class women carefully collecting meticulous details of their occupations, dress, and lifestyle. He was particularly interested in the mining women of Lancashire. His diaries and sketches offer the historian a wealth of information about the distinctive regional variations in female mining costumes. And many of the images in his vast collection of carte-de-visite have hand-written details of the pit brow lasses’ costumes on the reverse.[13]

The material culture reveals that although these women toiled in dirty, dusty mines wearing what was often described as ‘masculine styled’ costumes they still managed to assert their female identity through the use of colour and womanly embellishments; each region, and indeed each mine, unique in this display.

There has been limited research undertaken on the role of clothing in the construction and performance of class and gender in the workplace; my research hopes to address this. However, this has not been without its challenges as working class women do not often feature in labour history and certainly their working attire seldom survives. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to access many working class voices, primarily due to the disparity in the number of sources that they created. And as Vivienne Richmond has acknowledged, working class voices in written records are often ‘filtered through socially superior intermediaries’.[14]  

Therefore my research interrogates representations of female identity and femininity in Victorian mining through the limited sources and material culture that exists.[1] S.S. Scrivens, Hurrier drawing coal,  1842 [Ink Sketch].This illustration from the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission shows a female in a low, narrow tunnel, leaning forward dragging a trolley full of coal, attached to a wide belt around her hips.

[2] The Marquess of Londonderry [sic ] Mines and Colliers, Hansard, House of Lords, 14 July 1842, vol. 65, cc. 101-24. Available from: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1842/jul/14/mines-and-collieries#s3v0065p0_18420714_hol_51 [Accessed 10/12/2017].

[3] Moring Chronicle, 3 January 1850; The Times, 16 May 1883.

[4] Lord Shaftsbury, Mines and Colliers, Hansard, House of Commons, 7 June 1842.

[5] Victorian Day Dresses Fashion Plate, c.1880, Unknown Artist.

[6] Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Wiley-Blackwell: 1990), p.28.

[7] Nead, Myths of Sexuality, pp.28-29.

[8] Nead, Myths of Sexuality, p.32

[9] Wragg Studios, Pit Brow Lass, c.1890 [carte-de-visite], Wigan.

[10] Hannah Keen, Pit Brow Girl , 1895 [Oil on Canvas], YKSMM: 2004.2736, National Coal Mining Museum for England.

[11] J. Stlyes, Treads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770 (2013, Reading: Lamport Gilbert Limited, 2016), p.53.

[12] Hannah Keen was an amateur artist. Her father was a colliery owner in Lancashire.

[13] The A.J. Munby collection is held in the Wren Library at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

[14] V. Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.15.

Tracey Jones is a PhD Candidate at Teesside University within the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Law. She is funded by the AHRC, via the Heritage Consortium Partnership and supervised by Dr Charlie McGuire, Professor Natasha Vall and Dr Nicola Verdon.  Her thesis investigates female identity by looking specifically at the relationship between dress, occupation and displays of femininity in Victorian mining in England and Wales. You can follow her research at https://pitbrowlasses.wordpress.com/ and follow her on twitter at @traceyej . Any enquires please email:  Tracey.Jones@tees.ac.uk