September 4, 2023 - “Society thought they were masculine and society disapproved of masculine women. They smoked, they swore, they were bolshy. People said jump and they went: ‘No’. Society said: ‘Women don’t act like this – it’s not ladylike’."
These are the words of historian Norena Shopland, the author of new book Women in Welsh Coal Mining which tells the story of women in south Wales who worked in the mines and fought for acceptance for nearly 100 years to stay there. "It really is looking at women's history that we need to move away from this idea that women in the past were sort of locked in homes and couldn't get out and had to get a man to accompany them," said Norena.
Windlass women from Pembrokeshire winding coal up the shafts. It was such hard work men refused to do it
"Thousands upon thousands of women just passed as men and went off and did what they wanted to do. Some had to do it from necessity – there was no divorce and, if a man died or left, the woman was left to bring the children up on her own. In areas where there was limited work women had no choice.”
Women were working in mines across south Wales until 1842 when a report looking into working conditions of children also brought people's attention to working women such as those in the mines. “It's the first report in UK history that is specifically gender-related," said Norena. "And they were horrified at this idea of women working down in mines next to men. It was very hot and dusty so they didn't have a lot clothes on while they were working."
Women were banned from working down the mines from then on but there were only two inspectors for the whole of south Wales. The inspectors would send letters to the mine owners to tell them they were going to investigate them in advance which would buy them some time to ensure women were not working on inspection dates.
Although some women then passed as men to carry on working underground many women worked up on the pit brow. From the 1850s until World War One and beyond women worked on the pit brow, smoking like the men out of clay pipes and dressing in a masculine fashion.
But many people felt this work should also be banned and women were better suited to roles such as factory workers or domestic servants. One issue was that in towns across south Wales these roles were few and far between.
Those opposing the tip girls did not stop to consider the lack of jobs available in the local area, said Norena. “If they had all stopped working they would have ended up in the workhouse because unless you had a lot of boys in the family you wouldn't have been able to survive."
Norena explained that through her research of census returns from the 19th century she found that many women working in the tips were from families where the father or man of the house was unable to work due to injury. These women were often became the breadwinners of the family.
Although English women working in mines were referred to by names like the "pit brow lasses" the Welsh women were uniquely termed as "tip girls". In terms of appearance the Welsh women were known for their extravagant hats. Norena explained that in many old pictures of the tip girls they are wearing fancy hats full of ostrich feathers, fake pearls, buttons, and bows.
Despite being well-respected among men working in the coal mines Norena said many in society had a "bizarre attitude" that if you were dirty you were immoral. “It was over 100 years of constantly battling society and Parliament. There were so many questions asked in Parliament on how to stop these women. And over 100 years they fought to keep their jobs. They marched on Westminster twice. I love them," said Norena. "They were really feisty women."
The work on the pit brow was difficult and involved winding coal up the shaft, dragging the heavy coal off, and rolling it into a shed. Some of the women also had to oil and wash the trams that the coal came up in. Despite the hard, dirty nature of the job many women preferred it to domestic servitude as this involved living in a home and being at a family's beck and call all of the time. "The mining women finished in the evenings and they went off and enjoyed themselves," said Norena.
With more leisure time came more activities that the women could take part in. Choirs were hugely popular at the time and some tip girls found fame from singing in them including Morfydd Glantaf, Ddriw Vach, and Eos Vach.
To find out more about the tip girls of south Wales you can find Norena's book Women in Welsh Coal Mining here.