2nd October 2018
Mining Art Gallery to present the stories of 19th century women in Northern mining communities, including newly uncovered photographs

The Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham will present the temporary exhibition Breaking Ground – Women of the Northern Coalfields (13 October 2018 – 24 March 2019) examining the diverse roles of 19th century women in the coal mining industry. Whether working as ‘Pit Brow Lasses’ hauling coal at the surface, managing enterprises, campaigning for social and political change or maintaining a rigorous domestic routine, these women battled the often difficult conditions of mining life. The exhibition combines archival material from the Victorian period with artworks from the 20th century, when mining artists began to depict the women who were the backbone of coalfield communities.

Women at the Pits

In May 1842 the Mines and Collieries Act was passed, prohibiting all women and children under the age of 10 from working underground. Coal mining had previously been a family affair, with men hewing the coal and their wives and children working alongside them as ‘hurriers’ taking the coal to the surface. However, a report published as the result of an inquiry into working conditions found women working alongside men in unsuitable proximity and dress, and deemed “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers”, shocking Parliament into banning women and children from the mines.

In areas such as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland women moved their work to the surface of the colliery and earned their wage by hauling tubs or picking stone from coal. These women – known as Pit Brow Lasses in Lancashire and areas of the North, Tip Girls in South Wales and Pit Bank Women in Staffordshire – were to become something of a cultural phenomenon for their lifestyle and unconventional appearance, wearing breeches under rough skirts, thick boots and kerchiefs tied around their heads. A particular novelty to the middle-classes, the emergence and popularity of photography during the Victorian era ensured that the Pit Brow Lasses were the subject of many photographs, some of which will be on display in the exhibition, as well as souvenir postcard..

However many continued to be outraged at the idea of women carrying out hard labour. In 1887, Margaret Parks, Mayoress of Wigan, organised a march on parliament with the Pit Brow Lasses to prove they were not the “degraded, unsexed, health injured creatures” they had been described as and defend their right to work. Whilst legislative attempts to force women out of the mines continued throughout the 20th century, the last Pit Brow Lass did not retire until the 1960s.

Artworks featured in the exhibition demonstrate that Pit Brow Lasses remained in the cultural consciousness throughout the 20th century. Highlights include a 1930s painting of women collecting coals from the tips above a Welsh mining village by former collier Archie Rhys Griffiths and a recent depiction of the Pit Brow Lasses by contemporary artist David Venables

Women’s Work

As well as the women who toiled on the edge of the pit, the exhibition will showcase other ways women contributed to mining communities, both inside and outside of the home. Artworks featured in the exhibition show the constant work women endured to maintain a rigorous routine of domestic, physical, and emotional support to the men of their community. Paintings and sketches by Herbert Cooper, Robert Heslop and Josef Herman show how the relentless toil of the coalfield was very much replicated in the sanctuary of the home.

With the prospect of injury or even death to the men in their families, some women also protected against the potential loss of earnings by running businesses, taking in lodgers, or undertaking agricultural work, as seen in Tom McGuinness’ painting The Potato Pickers. As a result of an open call for tales of women in north east mining communities, the exhibition features a number of 19th photographs of women who demonstrated such ingenuity and resilience.

Notable discoveries include a hand-coloured photograph of Hannah Porter, who lived independently after her miner husband began working in America. Resourceful and resilient, over the course of her lifetime Hannah undertook agricultural work, ran a hardware shop from her front room to help support herself and her two young daughters, and even campaigned for local education, though herself illiterate. The 1862 photograph was commissioned by Hannah, who must have only just heard of the advent of photography, to send to her husband overseas. Emily Chappell was another resourceful figure who started a business, selling second-hand clothes for profit when her parents died at age 12. She became well-known for her entrepreneurial skills and went on to become a respected and charitable local personality.

Women also innovated in the field of community healthcare. Margaret James, born in 1869, assisted at births and deaths in the village despite having eleven children of her own and a miner husband to look after. Margaret kept an extensive book of home remedies that she could use to cure all kinds of ailments, and ran a consultancy service for the local doctor, who would call at her home to see what his appointments were for the week and who had requested to see him.

Angela Thomas, Mining Art Gallery Curator comments:

“We are delighted to be launching a new temporary exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery to bring to light and celebrate the significant and diverse roles of women working alongside men in the Northern coalfields. With 2018 marking 100 years since some women in the UK were granted suffrage, this is the perfect time to foreground the pioneering attitudes and strength with which women in mining communities asserted their right to work and challenged the notions of womanhood. We look forward to raising awareness about their history and cultural significance in the UK, particularly in relation to mining art.”

Image Credit: David Venables, Pit Brow Lasses. Acrylic on canvas; 8cm X 73cm. The Artists Estate.