According to Raphael Samuel, in the first half of the nineteenth century mineral extracting firms differed from factories by by having comparatively tiny buildings and equipment. For example, “in the simplest kind of mine — the day-hole, bell-pit or drift — there might be nothing more than a few barrows, some iron rails, and a hand-winch or gin to draw the minerals to surface: ‘scores of coal-pits’ in the Wolverhampton district were said to bear this character in 1850, ‘usually’ with about ten men underground ‘and a couple of men and as many women at bank’.” As this last comment reveals, women played a surprisingly large part in such industries, and Samuel quotes the July 1893 Labour Gazette’s description of girls — note, not women — operated a so-called balance pit:

At the mouth of the coal-pits. . . they alternately raise the loaded with iron-stone and coal, and let down the empty ones to be filled below. These girls work at what are called ‘balance-pits’ — the principle being to raise the full tram by the descent of the empty one, assisted by such a weight of water as will produce an equipoise. As soon as the loaded tram reaches the mouth of the pit these girls drag it away; two of them then step on the platform which supported the tram, and haul at a line passing a pulley overhead, which by a valve lets off the water from the tram at the bottom of the pit. In doing this, one foot of the girl on the open side of the pit’s mouth is often suspended over the abyss. One of these girls sets the drum in action, regulating the velocity of the ascending and descending trams by a ‘break’ acted upon by a pulley. [31]

In the Welsh coalfields “brickmaking was largely in the hands of women” (5). According to the 1850 Morning Chronicle, the specialized labour of creating firebricks “was done exclusively by women”:

I found the girls at work making bricks in a low shed having no windows or opening for the admission of light, except for the doorway through which I entered. Underneath the floors are flues for the passage of heated air, to dry and prepare the bricks for the kilns, which are built adjacent. The clay is ground in mills by steam power; and the women then saturate it with cold water, in a smaller shed opening by a door from the main building. They next temper it with their bare feet, moving rapidly about, with the clay and water reaching to the calf of the leg. This operation completed, they grasp with both arms a lump of clay weighing about 35 pounds, and, supporting it upon their bosoms, they carry this load to the moulding table, where other girls, with a plentiful use of cold water, mould it into bricks. They have to feed and attend to the furnaces used for heating the floors in the open air, exposed to the vicissitudes of the weather and the changes of temperature, alternating between the heat of the drying room and the cold winds outside. They told me that on average they earned six shillings a week when at work, but there are many weeks in the course of the year when, unable to get clay, they are compelled to be idle. [13]

Elsewhere in the process of explaining the process of making bricks, Samuel comes to the job of carrying clay to the those who moulded it into bricks:

Haulage, which was done more by boys in the southern brickfields, and more by girls in Staffordshire, was another arduous part of the work; a child might make 2,000 journeys in a day, carrying bricks from the moulder’s table to the hacks, each time with a 10 lb weight of clay. The puggers-up, who carried the clay from the clay pit to the moulder’s table, had fewer journeys to make, but more to carry. At the Tipton yard recorded in the Factory Inspectors’ Reports for 1865, the younger children carried ‘on average’ about 20 to 40 lbs of clay ‘on the head’ and about 10 to 20 lbs ‘in their arms’; the older ones — girls aged fourteen to sixteen years of age ‘and occasionally older’ — carried an average weight of 60 lbs each journey. For the heaviest loads of bricks a child would sometimes be harnessed to the barrow ‘like a little donkey’; Lakeman, Factory Inspector for East Anglia, recorded a case in 1871 where two of them were drawing the barrow in tandem, ‘one in the shafts, the other a leader pulling along with a rope’. Much of this work, including the heaviest parts of it, was performed by women and children, the men being chiefly employed as moulders or at the kilns (in South Staffordshire the women were the moulders too). [43-44]

Women also played an important part in making pig iron, for at some mills they provided the limestone. “At Dowlais in 1850 the ‘limestone girls’ who worked near the tunnel heads of the furnaces, breaking the limestone for use in the smelting, told the Morning Chronicle Commissioner that their work was very hard and trying, ‘owing to the heavy weights they carry, and the alternations of heat and cold they have to endure.’”

The Cornish tin and copper mines employed almost as many people above ground preparing the ores for market as they had miners below. “Most of this work was carried out by women and children, and until the introduction of stamping and dressing machinery, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the work was done with the hands; ‘spalling’ — breaking the lumps with a small sledge-hammer; ‘cobbing’, ‘in which the blow is directed with the object of knocking off a piece of poor rock from a lump of mixed ore and refuse’; and,* bucking’ — breaking the ore with a very broad flat hammer in order to reduce it to powder (‘ragging’, the breaking up of the very large lumps of rock as they came from the mine, was a work mostly done by men, using a large sledgehammer weighing about 10 to 12 lbs)” (34).

Related material


Clark, G. Kitson. The Making of Victorian England Being the Ford Lectures Delivered before the University of Oxford. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Samuel, Raphael. Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers. History Workshop Series. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

“Labour and the Poor, Mining and Manufacturing Districts of South Wales.” Morning Chronicle. 3 (21 March 1850): column 6.

Last modified 25 October 2020