A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.

A Rose in Wigan – Part 1

I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith. Best known probably for his books set in Russia during the Cold War, one of which Gorky Park was turned into a film starring William Hurt that I watched quite a few years ago. This book, however, is set somewhere equally exotic – Wigan in the 1870’s.

It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

Rose, of the title, is a “Pit Brow Lass” – a young woman employed in a local coal mine. The Wigan Pit Brow Lasses were somewhat notorious. They worked on the surface (women being forbidden to work underground by the Mines and Collieries Act 1842) at the coal screens on the pit bank (or brow) picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface or loading wagons.

They wore distinctive attire– in particular, trousers covered with a skirt and apron, old flannel jackets and shawls or headscarves to protect their hair from the coal dust.  Although practical, their clothing was not considered to be feminine and this provided some with an excuse to object to women working in the mines. Underlying this, of course, were the real reasons, economic and social and there were attempts made to ban the women working. But they fought back with spirit and there were women still working at the pit brow in Wigan right into the mid 20th century. Not now, of course, there aren’t any pits left.

For whatever reasons (some probably not so savoury) there was a public fascination with the women and the way they dressed and portraits and postcards of them in working clothes were produced commercially. We saw this rather romanticised small statue of a Wigan Pit Brow Lass on display at the Hepworth in Wakefield (another mining area) a few years ago.

P1070475

 

A number of photographic studios in Wigan produced postcards showing posed images of local women. Here some examples from the Wigan World website.

Wigan Pit Brow Lass card.

4 Pit Brow Lasses

A Wigan Colliery Girl. 1909.

Colliery Girls, Wigan.

Dublin GPO – Witness Revolution

DSC01143

Easter Monday 1916. The First World War was raging on mainland Europe. But, believing “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, in Dublin just after midday on Easter Monday 1916, a band of rebels stormed the the General Post Office on Sackville Street (now known as O’Connell street, the main thoroughfare north of the Liffey in the city centre),. They ordered staff and customers to leave and seized control of the building. The Republican flag was hoisted and at 12:45 p.m., Pádraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Republic.

As the Rebels’ headquarters, the GPO came under attack from the British and Sackville Street and the GPO came under heavy bombardment. The building suffered serious damage leaving only the façade intact. It didn’t reopen until 1929.

Life_goes_on..._(6937669789)

(Source National Library of Ireland)

Given the GPO’s important role in the events of the Rising, it’s perhaps not surprising that An Post have decided to cash in on the interest created by the Centenary, and earlier this year opened a permanent exhibition within the historic building. I’m back in Ireland with work this week, but came over early on Sunday and decided to take a look.

I’d visited the other main 1916 exhibition in the city, at Collin’s Barracks, back in April, so was interested to see how they compared. I’d also recently seen the exhibition at the IMMA which was inspired by Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan, two women who took part in the events in the GPO.

DSC01124

The exhibition – Witness Revolution – is a mixture of displays of original artefacts (guns, medals, clothing, documents and the like), visual displays and multimedia including interactive touchscreen information panels and games. One of the highlights is an “immersive” widescreen video recreating the fighting inside the GPO and elsewhere around the city.

There were several “walls” with posters from different eras – before, during and after the Rising – which provided some historical  and cultural context.

DSC01125

This is a typical display case of artefacts – here relating to the Irish Citizen’s Army, which was formed during the 1913 Lockout. Led by James Connolly, who was seriously wounded while based in the GPO, they were a major component of the Rebel forces.

DSC01129

There’s also a  recreation of how part of the GPO would have looked during 1916

IMAG6276

The scope of the exhibition went beyond the events of Easter 1916, with some displays and information about the aftermath including the War of Independence and the subsequent civil war. Continuing upstairs there were further displays about the aftermath of Independence and the partition of Ireland – a story that continues today.

The inner courtyard of the GPO has also been developed by artist Barbara Knezevic who has created a special memorial to 40 children who lost their lives in the crossfire. I couldn’t actually get into the courtyard, but was able to look at the memorial through the large windows.

Leaving the exhibition, after passing through the obligatory café and gift shop, I took a look inside the Post Office to see how it looks today

DSC01142

It was an interesting exhibition. To be frank, I didn’t learn anything new (I have an interest in Irish history and the struggle for independence and am reasonably knowledgeable about the subject) but it is always interesting to look at artefacts from the period. I quite enjoyed the short film, even if it it’s version of events was rather simplistic. How did it compare with the exhibition at the Collin’s Barracks? They were similar in many ways and for me there wasn’t much to choose between them. The GPO probably has a slight edge, partly because of the video and other interactive elements, but mainly because there was  a real sense of history being inside the building which was the centre of the action. But the Collin’s Barracks is free to visit, while the GPO charge 10 Euros. Take your pick!

(There’s some good resources, including eyewitness accounts, about the events in and around the GPO during the Rising here.)

Going Underground – Corris Mine Explorers

The last day of our break in North Wales it was raining – and when it rains in Snowdonia it really rains. Not so much a heavy downpour, more like being submerged in a cloud of drizzle. Not a day for the outdoors then!

I’d seen an advert for the Corris Mine Explorers – a tour of an abandoned slate mine just a few miles south from where we were staying – and being interested in industrial history decided that it would be a good option. Mind you, as we soon found out, it wasn’t an option that would keep us completely dry!

Welsh slate was quarried and mined since Roman times, but the industry particularly took off in the 19th century when this excellent waterproof material was needed for the roofs of the houses that were being built in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Britain. Slate extraction was a major industry in areas of Snowdonia and we’d seen evidence of it during our walk in the Tarren Hills a few days before.

Although slate is often obtained from quarries, it was also mined, and this was the case at Corris. Braich Goch slate mine, in Mid Wales, which was first worked in 1836 and abandoned in 1970. The Mine Explorer’s website tells us

During its heyday, in 1878, the mine employed 250 men and produced 7,000 tons of slab and roofing slate. This was sent all over the world. Rising costs and falling demand saw the company collapse in 1906. Another 6 companies worked the mine, intermittently, until 1970 when the mine finally closed.

Today, part of the mine has been converted into Arthur’s Labyrinth, an attraction aimed at families with children, but a number of the levels have been opened up to visitors interested in experiencing what it was like to work in an underground slate mine.

We were given an introductory briefing by “Mark the Mole” and kitted up with wellies, helmet, lamp with heavy batteries fastened to a belt and a safety rope. We’d been told to wrap up warm and wear a waterproof coat as it was cool and damp underground. It was clear from the beginning it wasn’t going to be a gentle stroll through a floodlit tunnel!

(Photography is allowed but the low levels of light make this impracticable, so I’ve illustrated this post with a few pictures pinched from the Corris Mine Explorers website)

mine-explorer-kit-oldham-lamp

We followed Moley and  his dog through a door set into the hillside, after ducking under a stream of water pouring off the hillside, and entered the mine. We were underground for two hours walking along uneven floors and now and again crawling or squeezing through narrow gaps, occasionally attaching ourselves to safety ropes. There was no lighting other than our lamps. Moley explained how the mine was worked and talked about the working methods and conditions the workers had to endure.

mine_explorers1

The tunnels were originally dug by hand although explosives were later used.They gave access t the working areas where the slate was dug out by hand creating massive underground caverns. The work was hard. Lighting was provided by candles, which the miners had to buy themselves, so they were only lit when necessary –transit to and from the working areas, for example , was in the pitch black. The tools they used had to be hired from the mine owners and they could be fined if found using their own. Life expectancy was short. Very few miners developed silicosis from breathing the deadly slate dust as this takes 20 or 30 years of exposure for symptoms to fully develop – most of them were dead by then, the main cause of death being falls within the mine.

braich-goch-mine-quarry-corris-wales1

It was an excellent tour. the two hours went very quickly and Moley was a good guide, providing a good introduction and simple explanation about how slate was formed and won and the lives of the people who worked underground

On re-emerging into daylight (during the winter the miners wouldn’t have seen it) we returned our equipment and headed to the cafe for a warming bowl of cawl.

Dark Satanic Mills

image

Many people when they get to a certain age start to wonder where they came from. That was certainly true for me so a few years ago I started to research my family tree. Although there were a few surprises my research confirmed that I my family were ordinary workers. I wanted to find out about my roots, about my ancestors, where they came from and how they lived. And as an occupational hygienist I couldn’t help but be interested in what they did for a living and their working conditions.

Halifax Mill Chimneys

Coming from Lancashire it wasn’t a surprise to find that many of my ancestors who lived in the 19th and 20th Centuries were employed at some time during their lives in cotton mills. And working in cotton mills they were faced with a whole host of health risks.

I’ve always been interested in industry and when I was a boy my mother arranged for me to have a look round the mill where she worked. The first thing that hit me when I walked in the mill was the tremendous noise. Levels in weaving sheds were likely to be well above 90 dBA – often approaching, or even exceeding 100 dB(A)  (these days it’s accepted that regular exposure to levels in excess of 85 dB(A) is likely  to lead to hearing loss). Communication was difficult and mill workers soon learned how to lip read and communicating with each other by “mee mawing” – a combination of exaggerated lip movements and miming

image

Not surprisingly many cotton workers developed noise induced hearing loss – one study in 1927 suggested that at least 27% of cotton workers in Lancashire suffered some degree of deafness. Personally, I think that’s an underestimation. This is how the term “cloth ears” entered the language – it was well known that workers in the mills were hard of hearing.

This lady is a weaver and is kissing the shuttle – sucking the thread through to load the shuttle ready for weaving.

image

This practice presented a number of health risks – the transmission of infectious diseases, such as TB, but as the shuttle would be contaminated with oil, and the oils used then were unrefined mineral oil – there was a risk of developing cancer of the mouth.

Exposure to oil occurred in other ways particularly for workers who had direct contact with machinery or where splashing of oil could occur. There was a high incidence of scrotal cancer in men who operated mule spinners – and this was a problem even in the 1920s. In earlier times workers in mills had to work in bare feet as the irons on their clogs could create sparks which could initiate a fire due to the floorboards being soaked with oil. Contact with these very oil soaked floorboards led to cases of foot cancer.

image

And of course there was the dust. Exposure to cotton dust, particularly during early stages of production, can lead to the development of byssinosis – a debilitating respiratory disease. An allergic condition, it was often known as “Monday fever” as symptoms were worst on Mondays, easing off during the week. A study on 1909 reported that around 75% of mill workers suffered from respiratory disease.

image

The worst areas for dust exposures were the carding rooms where the cotton was prepared ready for spinning, but dust levels could be high in spinning rooms too.

image

Although control measures started to be introduced in the 1920’s workers continued to be exposed to dust levels that could cause byssinosis. Studies in the 1950’s showed  than more than 60% of card room workers developed the disease as well as around 10 to 20% of workers in some spinning rooms.

image

A lot of work was devoted to studying dust levels, developing standards and control measures by the early pioneers of occupational hygiene in the UK and I’m sure this contributed to improved conditions in the cotton industry in the UK. I’m not sure I’d like to have to operate their dust sampling kit though – it certainly wasn’t personal sampling!

image

Today things are different. The carding machines, spinning frames and looms are silent and have been sent for scrap. The mills have been abandoned and are derelict or demolished or have been converted for other uses.

image

Cotton is still in demand but it’s a competitive market and the work has been moved to other countries where labour is cheap and standards are not as high – Africa, China and the Indian sub-continent. Another consequence of globalisation. Although you could say that the industry is returning to where it originated in the days before the industrial revolution. Sadly, conditions and working methods in many workplaces in the developing world are primitive and controls are minimal. It seems like the lessons learned in the 20th Century in the traditional economies are rarely applied so not surprisingly those traditional diseases associated with the industry are re-emerging in developing economies.

image

Studies carried out in recent years have shown high incidences of byssinosis in some mills developing countries. One study in Karachi, Pakistan in 2008 found that among 362 textile workers 35.6% had byssinosis. (Prevalence of Byssinosis in Spinning and Textile Workers of Karachi, Pakistan, Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, Vol. 63, No. 3, 2008 ). A study of textile workers in Ethiopia published in 2010 showed a similar proportion – 38% had developed byssinosis,  with 84.6% of workers in the carding section suffering from the disease

image

Another study, this time into textile workers’ noise exposures in Pakistan indicated noise levels in the range 88.4-104 dB(A). 57% were unaware that noise caused hearing damage and almost 50% didn’t wear ear defenders

William Blake wrote of “Dark Satanic Mills” in 1804. This was still a fair description of the working conditions in Lancashire when my ancestors worked in the mills. And I believe its valid today in many workplaces in the developing world.

image

It’s not easy to get accurate figures on occupational health in the UK and so much more difficult in the developing world. The best estimate we have (and it’s likely to be an underestimate) is that 2.3 million people die due to accidents at work and work related disease (World health Organisation). And the vast majority of these are due to ill health

image

Some occupational hygienists might take a dispassionate, academic interests in dust exposure. But I think most of us are motivated by a genuine desire to prevent ill health at work and improve working conditions. Many of us work in countries where conditions although far from perfect are relatively good. But can we turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the rest of the world?

Personally, In my view, it’s something we need to be thinking about.

Canary Girls

A couple of weeks ago I visited the latest exhibition showing at Manchester City Art Gallery – The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014.

Included in the exhibition were a number of pictures illustrating the role of women on the “Home Front”. Due to sending many hundreds of thousands of young men to the trenches in Europe there was a shortage of workers to man the production lines in the munitions factories. The solution was to recruit women.

This lithograph by Archibald Standish Hartrick, who worked as a war artist, shows a young woman filling shells with TNT explosive.

16232624835_1f1289f78a_o

Women’s Work: On Munitions – Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) c.1917

The “munitionettes” were referred to as the “Canary Girls” as many of them developed yellow skin due to their exposure to the chemicals they were handling.

TNT (2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene) as well as being highly explosive presents a number of serious health effects such as anemia (reduced number of red blood cells and reduced hemoglobin and hematocrit), liver function abnormalities, respiratory complications, and possibly aplastic anaemia (ASTDR).

TNT can interact with haemoglobin to form methaemoglobin, reducing the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen and causing cyanosis – so it’s a chemical asphyxiant. It can also damage the liver, leading to jaundice and the yellow colour of the skin.

Exposure can occur by inhalation of dust and also by skin absorption – both potentially significant for the worker portrayed in the picture. The control measures leave a lot to be desired with what appears to be direct hand contact and only the use of a primitive mask to control inhalation exposure with no evidence of any engineering controls.

Conditions in munitions factories have improved considerably since the First World War and stringent control measures are implemented when TNT is handled to minimise exposure by both inhalation and skin contact.

For King and Country (1916) by Edward F Skinner Source: Imperial War Museum – used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Another aspect of the work of the munitionettes was that the women were paid considerably lower wages than the men they had replaced. But they didn’t take it sitting down!

The trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, led the campaign to protect the women forced to work in the munitions industry. She pointed out that women in the industry received on average less that half of what the men were paid. After much discussion it was agreed to increase women’s wage-rates in the munitions industry. However, by 1918, whereas the average male wage in the munitions industry was £4 6s. 6d. for women it was only £2 2s. 4d. (Spartacus Educational website)