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