I was listening to a programme on the radio, in which the presenter suggested that women recruited into the workforce during WW1 were the first recorded instances of female industrial labour. But I could remember stories from my own past of women working down the mines long before then.
This was the start for me of a long period of research and exploration into the lives and stories of a group of women for whom almost no details exist, and whom History seems to have forgotten.
**I wanted to give a voice to these silent and forgotten women. The result is this series of 12 portraits.
[Note: Above the title of each image, is a row of three asterisks (they’re quite hard to see). Click on these to hear a recording of each girl’s testimony to the Parliamentary commission, with a transcript just below the recording.]
In the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for women and children to work down the mines, in appalling conditions and for next to no pay. In Wales, they were known as the “Pit Girls”.
The only record of them today is a series of photographs taken at the time by William Clayton (unfortunately, he didn’t feel it necessary to record their names or any other personal details).
Otherwise, there are the Court records from when the women, often frozen and starving, resorted to taking fragments of discarded coal from the slag heaps and were subsequently arrested; and their testimonies to the Parliamentary Commissioners who, in 1842, finally banned the practice. Even then, mine owners avoided the ban by simply transferring the women to work on the surface.
One extraordinary feature of all the photographs is that, despite the conditions and regardless of their own situation, they all wore elaborate hats, decorated with whatever scraps of fabric or beads they could salvage.
I hope these portraits do them justice.