Pit Brow Lasses

(c) Wigan Archives Service

Before 1842 it was common for women to work underground at the pits, usually as drawers pulling carts of coal through tunnels up to the surface. Lancashire in fact had a much larger number of women working in the mines than elsewhere in Britain. The Mines Act of 1842 however made it illegal for women to work underground. The law was generally ignored, with women dressing in men’s clothes and bosses turning a blind eye. Women could earn 2 or 3 shillings a week more if they worked underground and the tasks above ground could be just as hard work and dangerous, but for less money.

Women that worked on the surface in this area were called ‘Pit Brow Lasses’. They carried out tasks such as emptying the coal tubs, loading coal onto wagons, screening the coal to remove any impurities, such as stones or dirt, and working in saw mills which provided timber to be used as props in the mines.

Although it was hard work, requiring a lot of strength, the Pit Brow Lasses generally enjoyed their work, with women from Wigan protesting in London when Parliament tried to stop women working in the mines. Many considered the job unfeminine and thought it would result in loose morals. However, women continued to work in the mines until the 1970s, when the last woman was made redundant in Cumbria.

Many were curious by the Pit Brow Lasses and so the women became the subject of photographs and postcards. The clothes the Pit Brow Lasses wore also became a source of fascination: they wore padded cotton bonnets to stop coal dust getting in their hair, replaced by a head scarf or shawl by the end of the 19th century; clogs to provide protection to their feet; and cotton shirts, usually handed down from an older brother. Before the end of the 19th century the women would wear trousers, or breeches. Although practical, these were not considered feminine. Towards the end of the 19th century however the breeches worn became knee-length and the women would wear a short skirt over the top, tucked up whilst they were working and then let down over their breeches for their walk home. The lack of femininity in their dress provided some with an excuse to object to women working in the mines.