Notes: Five carte de visite (CDV) photographs of women employed in coal mining at Wigan and vicinity in the 1880s.
Pit brow women (or lasses, formerly) worked at the top of British coal shafts, sifting coal and removing rocks, which was some of the most physically demanding work done by women anywhere in England. They typically used shovels and screens to do this work and adopted a distinctive uniform of thick trousers, an apron-like skirt, and light-colored blouses. While middle-class society scorned them and their work— in 1891, the Wigan Observer newspaper described them as "weird swarthy creatures, figures of women, half-clad in man's and half in women's attire, plunging here and there, as some bedlamish saturnalis"—the women in these pictures stand proud before the camera, posing with the tools of their trade.
Unlike most CDVs of women at work from the 19th century, these images are not part of a series of regional "types", instead they were commissioned by the women in the photographs. Four of the CDVs seem to have been made by traveling photographers at the coal mines. The pit-brow women in these images stand in front of temporary backdrops (in the case of the CDV with three women, the backdrop appears to be a patched and stained sheet of canvas). In the fifth image, two women pose in front of a painted studio backdrop with large pieces of coal as props.
Five to seven thousand women were employed at the pit brows of Northern England in the last quarter of the 19th century, making up only a small fraction of the total pit brow workforce.
Four of these images were made by Wigan photographers (Wigan was the grim industrial city described by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier); the fourth photographer worked twenty miles away, in Liverpool. The image credits are as follows: Three women together by G. I. Moore, Liverpool; woman in striped apron by Pearsons' Stationers, Wigan; woman facing camera by John Cooper, Wigan; image captioned in ink "Lancashire Girl" by J. Cooper; portrait of two women by Millard..
The albumen silver prints are roughly 2-1/4 by 3-5/8 inches, somewhat irregularly cut by hand, on slightly larger thin cardstock mounts with printed backs.
See Catherine Burton, "Risking Life and Wing: Victorian and Edwardian Conceptions of Coal-Mine Canaries" in Victorian Review, Fall 2014.
Edition + Condition: Near fine images, with good contrast. The image of the woman in the striped apron is somewhat overexposed. These are particularly nice examples.
Publication: Wigan and Liverpool, England: (1870s).
Item No: #307614