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.

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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.

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Down t’pit

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On the way back from the Hepworth in Wakefield the other Saturday we stopped off at the National Coal Mining Museum for England at the former Caphouse Colliery at Overton. We’d seen signs for the museum many times when visiting the Hepworth and the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park and had intended to pay a visit for quite a while. Although there are no pits left open in Lancashire these days (and not many in Britain as a whole – and we all know who was responsible for that) at one time Wigan was the capital of a major coalfield and quite a few generations from my Mother’s side of the family were employed as miners or were otherwise connected with the mining industry.

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Entry to the museum, and car parking, is free. On arrival you pay £2 per person and are given a “check” token like miners used to hand in before they went down the shaft so there was a check on who was underground. You can give the check in after the visit and reclaim your money, but I guess most visitors do what we did and keep the check as a souvenir and leave the money as a donation.

Although it’s interesting to explore the pit head buildings, the highlight of the visit is the guided tour underground. All the guides are ex-miners and as well as explaining the history of mining have their own tales of what it was like to work down the pit.

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Before you go down, you queue up to collect your helmet and lamp and hand in anything that could present a risk of explosion – that included anything with a battery such as mobile phones, cameras and car key fobs. One of the many hazards in a coal mine is “fire damp” – a mixture of explosive gases, the main one being methane.

After a quick briefing we were shown the “furnace shaft”. This shaft, 140 metres deep, was sunk during the early days of mining on the site. A fire was lit at the bottom of the shaft and as the hot gases rose cooler air was drawn into the mine through the lift shaft, providing ventilation. Not such a good idea, though – lighting a fire where there might be explosive gases!

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The shaft is now covered by a special, toughened glass, and brave visitors can stand looking right down into the abyss below their feet.

Then it was into the lift which descended down to the bottom of the mine – but at a much slower speed than would have been the case when the pit was producing coal.

The underground tour normally takes around an hour and fifteen minutes. Ours took a little longer as about half our group was French, and the guide made special efforts to make sure they all understood what he had to say, translation for the French children be provided by the adults. No photos, of course – our cameras and phones had been left on the surface.

Walking round a circular route, there were displays that illustrated the ways coal was mined in Britain, starting in pre-Victorian times when whole family groups, including young children, men and women, would work together underground in unbelievable bad conditions. Most of the time in the dark as candles had to be bought by the miners from the owners and were expensive.

We gradually worked our way through the centuries, eventually reaching the late 20th Century where we there were examples of the machinery used to cut through the coal, excavate the tunnels and roadways and prop up the ceiling.

Although we were able to walk around the mine, only occasionally dipping heads to avoid a bump, when it was a working pit the ceiling height would have been determined by the height of the seam – rarely more than 3 feet. The miners would have had to crawl where we could walk. And it would have been tremendously noisy and dusty and there was an ever present risk of exposure to toxic and explosive gases. Most miners would have developed occupational disease – noise induced deafness and respiratory disease including silicosis and lung cancer from exposure to the dust. And the work itself present risks from falls, explosions and entanglement in machinery.

Returning to the surface, we spent an hour exploring the pit buildings, including the winding house

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where we were able to see the engine and that at one time would have been used to pull the lift up and down the shaft

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and the pit head baths where the miners would have changed and showers before returning home after their shift

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It might seem hard to believe, but these were a relatively late innovation, mine owners being too mean to provide them. They were often paid for by the miners themselves or by charitable organisations. And in some pits they were only installed after the nationalisation of the mines in 1945.

There were also pit ponies

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and a locomotive to look at

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and exhibitions about miners, their lives and communities, and mining equipment.

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Time ran out before we were able to explore the whole site, and it would be worth paying another visit in the not too distant future.

It wasn’t pleasant being a miner – even in the 20th Century. But it was work. And the the nature of the industry and the type of work meant that miners needed to develop strong ties with their workmates. They relied on each other to stay alive. And strong, close knit communities consequently developed. Sadly, all this is gone. Although we’re still sitting on top of a lot of coal, it is expensive to mine and although coal is still burned to produce power in the UK today it’s cheap foreign coal that’s easier to extract that’s used. It is a “dirty” means of producing electricity, but the passing of a once great industry and the destruction of the communities, was done in one swoop  without a thought for the people who relied on it and their futures. Many of them still haven’t recovered .