‘They did not look like women, or at least a stranger new to the district might easily have been misled by their appearance, as they stood together in a group, by the pit’s mouth.’ As opening sentences go this is a cracker, but few modern readers of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s That Lass O’Lowrie’s get far beyond it because the novel’s characters speak in a Lancashire dialect that makes Mark Twain’s Huck Finn sound like a Harvard preppy. In real life, though, it wasn’t the Lancashire pit girls’ lingo that put contemporaries off so much as their costume. For these ‘pit brow lasses’, as they were known around Wigan, strutted about in the Victorian era wearing what the Manchester Guardian fastidiously described as ‘the article of clothing which women ought only to wear in a figure of speech’. Trousers!
The last pit brow lass retired in the 1970s, but for more than a century before that the women of the northern coalfields had pulled their financial weight by working at the pit mouth emptying coal tubs, sorting coal and shifting it on to wagons. Until the passing of the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act, women had worked down the mines themselves as ‘hurriers’ hauling coal to the pit bottom, stripped to the waist like their menfolk when the heat was unbearable. Curiously, toplessness seems to have caused less offence to Victorian sensibilities than trousers which, as Lord Ashley reported during the parliamentary inquiry leading to the Act, were sometimes holed at the crotch ‘by the chain passing high up between the legs… Any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work,’ he told a hushed parliament. ‘No brothel can beat it.’ The noble Lord was obviously an authority on brothels.
After that, women were banned from working underground, replaced with more expensive pit ponies and kicked upstairs. On the surface, of course, their masculine dress was more plainly visible and calls for them to get back in the kitchen continued. The lasses, though, were having none of it. In 1887, supported by the Mayoress of Wigan, a 22-strong deputation marched on parliament in their work clothes to meet the Home Secretary. Greeted by the press as an ‘invasion of colliery Amazons’, they successfully defended their right to work.
With the current clamour for more statues of women in public places, the pit brow lasses would seem ideal candidates for a bronze group à la ‘Burghers of Calais’ outside parliament. But for now these pioneers of female empowerment and unisex clothing are being recognised in a small exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Opened last year in the turreted gothic premises of the former Backhouse Bank on Market Place, this enterprising little gallery is the first devoted to miners’ art in the country. Its images of mining life above and below ground have a gritty authenticity conspicuously missing from professional artist Henry Perlee Parker’s ‘Pitman at Play’ (1838) on show in the lobby. The first colliery painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, it portrays the black-faced miners as an exotic race of gypsies.
To a prurient public the pit brow lasses seemed equally exotic, sensationalised in tinted photographs sold as souvenir postcards, for which the lucky sitters were paid a shilling. One example shows them posing with sieves and shovels like so many pithead Britannias against a woodland backdrop worthy of Reynolds. Few serious artists, though, regarded them as worthy subjects. An exception was Archie Rhys Griffiths, a South Wales collier who took up painting during a miners’ strike and went on to the Royal College of Art. The heroic women shouldering sacks in his ‘On the Coal Tips’ (1928–32) anticipate Josef Herman paintings of Welsh miners by 40 years and make his ‘Mother and Child’ (c.1968–69) hanging opposite look sentimental. Griffiths died in obscurity; the public preferred sentiment.
It has been left to a living artist, David Venables, to immortalise these women for posterity. A descendant of Lancashire miners, Venables set off to Wigan in the 1960s in search of his roots and witnessed some of the last lasses at work. Three years ago he came across his sketches and painted the retrospective double portrait ‘Pit Brow Lasses’ (2015). Its subjects come across as far more human than the shovel-toting Amazons of the souvenir postcards. Like ‘Letting Go’ (2015), his painting of a colliery pigeon-fancier in the permanent collection, ‘Pit Brow Lasses’ is less a portrait of two women than an elegy for a lost way of life.