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  • Grace Millar

Women Working in Coalfield Communities

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

In 1957, Glenys Hunt was 22 and working as a tracer within the planning department in Bestwood Colliery, Nottingham. She took a further education course in mining to learn more about her job. When she came top of her class, her success was reported in Derbyshire Miner under the headline ‘Girl Wins Mining Award’. Both the work Glenys Hunt did and how her work was seen was shaped by her gender. Everything about work for the National Coal Board (NCB) was organised by gender, the work itself, the culture of workplaces, how work was portrayed and discussed and what work was paid for.

A woman in a cleaning pinfaore holding hands with a man in a suit

NCB photograph, taken in 1980, of Lady Victoria colliery manager Peter Hastie with one of the colliery cleaners, Mrs Gaynor

This international women’s day post will discuss women’s work and experiences within coalfield communities. Women have worked to preserve their own experiences and there have also been contributions from academics, but there are important gaps, particularly in the post-war period. It is too early in this research project to address those gaps in a systematic way, so this post will explore what we do and do not know about women’s work in coalfield communities and what our project might add.

Activist women

In January 1992, Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures set up a pit-camp protest outside Houghton Main Colliery to try and prevent its closure. Women involved in that pit camp have recently worked together with historians at Sheffield University to write their history and the result, You Can’t Kill the Spirit, was launched this year. Last year, Maxine Peake wrote a play about the pit camp protests — and her interview with activists is available on-line. Women Against Pit Closures groups formed during the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike and the importance of their work has been recognised and written about from the time of the strike itself.

Banner with two women at a table and a range of images associated with mining and the 1984/5 strike

National Women Against Pit Closures Banner

Women involved in defending pit communities and their supporters have ensured that their work has been remembered. Work about activist peaks is strengthened the more that is known about the context that activists worked in. Academics at Reading and UCL are running a project on Women in the Miners’ Strike, which will discuss a wide range of women’s experiences. Our project will discuss women’s work in mining communities in the post-war period and doing so will deepen what is already known about the 1980s and 1990s.

Women working for the NCB

Women were banned from working underground in 1842, but there have always been women working in the mining industry. Some women, like Glenys Hunt, were one of a small number of women workers in a department dominated by men, but there were also areas that were considered women’s work: the serving of food, cleaning, paying wages, and other clerical tasks. Within these pockets women formed a work culture that was related to men’s work cultures, but not the same. Margaret, a canteen worker from Prince of Wales pit in Pontefract, was asked by a radio interviewer in 1979 how she dealt with miners and she responded: ‘We take them as they come love — and they take us.’ Her answer claimed equality in her interaction with men. However, NCB did not value women’s work; in 1970, a female cook was paid £6/-/-, while a male cook was paid £14/15/9. Eventually, women canteen workers took an equal pay claim. The work cultures and experiences of women within the mining industry have not been studied or remembered as much as those of men.

Coal News advertisement about Coal Queen pageant, woman in bathing suit by the seaside

Advertisement for Coal Queen Pageant

As well as a small female workforce, the NCB chose particular women to be industry figureheads. Each year local and national Coal Queens were crowned in a series of beauty pageants held across the coalfields. The winners performed ceremonial roles at events and openings. The Coal Queen pageants were part of longer history of beauty pageants in working-class communities, but after nationalisation the NCB expanded and formalised this tradition. Not a lot has been written about either the experiences of Coal Queens or the meanings of this female representation within the NCB. Leeds Museum of Industry is currently running an exhibition on Queens of Industry and we hope to write more about Coal Queens as we do further research.

Women’s unpaid work

Far more women did informal work for the coal industry than were ever employed by it. Historians looking at mining before nationalisation have demonstrated just how much unpaid work was involved before a miner even left the house: washing clothes in a copper, heating and filling a tin bath, and endlessly cleaning coal dust. Changes in the way mines organised work could have a substantial impact on women’s lives. Pithead baths, where men could wash before they came home, saved women from heating hot water and filling a bath and also ensured much less coal dust was brought into the house.

1960s Twin Tub Washing Machine

Women in mining communities in the post-war period still had their life shaped by the pit; they did the vast majority of washing, cleaning and cooking. Our study begins in 1947 and over the next five decades the level of women’s unpaid labour that was required to ensure a miner could attend work was greatly reduced. These changes were partly about technology, but more importantly the spread of technology — after all running hot water was available for some people long before it was standard in coalfield houses. In interviews, women whose husbands were miners have carefully described their early washing machines, how they paid for them and how they used them. The spread of washing machines in coalfield communities did not just happen. Women, who were responsible for managing family spending, had to plan and budget for them. The decisions made by women married to miners were key to the reduction of the amount of unpaid women’s labour involved in the coal industry.

What Next?

Our project is looking at coalmining communities as a whole — we’re aiming to integrate women’s experiences and work into our post-war history of mining. It’s useful to imagine what a history of the coal industry that thinks women’s lives and work was as important as men’s could look like (although this project is unlikely to be that history). The starting point to valuing women’s work is recognising agency. In the 1940s and 1950s women built and maintained the communities that other women would defend in the 1980s and 1990s. Women’s agency can be seen in Glenys Hunt’s decision to learn more about her work, in Prince of Wales canteen workers creating their own work culture, in every woman who entered a Coal Queen competition, and in the decision of a miners’ wife to buy a washing machine. Women’s decisions in coalfield communities always mattered, although they weren’t always as visible as the decisions of Women Against Pit Closures.

We would really like to interview more women who were connected to our case study pits: Annesley-Bentinck, Barony, Bickershaw, Easington, Markham, Point of Ayr, Prince of Wales and Tower. We would love to hear from women who worked for the NCB or British Coal, from coal queens, and all women whose lives were affected by the pits.


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