When thinking of the UK’s coal mining past there are certain images that come to mind; soot covered men toiling at the coalface, pit ponies driven through the dark by lamplight and silhouettes of colliery towers now abandoned. Imagery backed up by films such as ‘Brassed Off’, ‘Kes’ and ‘Billy Elliott’ showcasing a hard world worked in by hard men. However, a new exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham is challenging this longstanding view. The exhibition aims to shed light on the little-known role played by many women who worked in Britain’s coal mines doing crucial roles.

The part played by the tip girls and pit brow lasses was radically different to the often portrayed wife or mother, sitting at home and caring for the family. The exhibition, Breaking Ground: Women of the Northern Coal Fields takes visitors through the stories of women in the 19th century mining industry through paintings and photographs.

Women were able to work underground until a ban was introduced in 1842. Following a tragic flood that killed 26 young miners at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone Common, near Barnsley, Queen Victoria ordered an inquiry which concluded, amongst other points, that the women miners were “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.” More formally, this inquiry resulted in the Coal Mines Act which banned all women and children under the age of 18 from working underground. However, many of the experienced female miners were not to be deterred from their work and ignored the regulations placed on them until inspections became more regular throughout the 1850s.

This introduction of new legislation did not spell the end of women working in the mining industry. Many women simply moved to work on the surface instead. Known affectionately as tip girls and pit brow lasses, women would shift heavy containers, separate coal and stone and haul heavy tubs from the pit face. In times of great tradition the women of Britain’s mining industry were outcasts in both their morals and their dress. They were left to fashion their own uniform from men’s breaches underneath hitched up skirts, with heavy boots and covered hair.

Gallery curator Angela Thomas said:

“With 2018 marking 100 years since women in the UK were granted the right to vote, this is the perfect time to shine a light on the significant but overlooked role of women in the Northern coalfields.”

“Their strength and fortitude were constantly put to the test, whether they were fighting to keep their jobs or determinedly keeping the home fires burning.”

She was also keen to celebrate these unsung heroines, a word they would not associated with themselves much like many of those who have worked in Britain’s collieries down the years.

“It was just a job for them. They couldn’t really see what the fuss was about.”

Records show that the last women were made redundant in 1972 from Harrington No 10 mine in Lowca, Cumbria. One of them, Rita Culshaw from Wigan, told the Daily Mirror this year she had loved the work and, despite being 83, “would go back to the mine tomorrow”.

As part of his research for the exhibition, Thomas put an advert in the press for stories of women who used to work as tip girls and pit brow lasses. One told of Margaret Morrow, a mother of 11 who was nurse and midwife for her community, using a big book of remedies to patch up anyone hurt in the mine. She also laid out those who died.

“Even though the pits were male-dominated, and when we think of mining we think of men, they couldn’t have done their work without the pit brow lasses,” said Thomas.

The dangers of the mining industry were prevalent throughout the tip girls’ time down the mines and many miners still suffer today with conditions like Vibration White Finger. Jordans Solicitors has a department working with ex coal miners looking into their Vibration White Finger claims as it has come to light that many miners missed out on £1000’s. If you’re an ex miner and think you may have a claim, contact a member of our VWF team free on 03303 001103.

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