Saturday, July 2, 2016

Little mothers and Proto-proletarians: Growing up in Mining

By Lesley Hulonce

Elizabeth was using the last of the daylight to finish mending her brother’s trousers. The job often kept her until the early hours of the morning because of the long hours the miners worked. She hated the thick moleskin that prevented him being injured in the mine as it was almost impossible to get her needle through, and her fingers were hurting. The needle and thread had to be waxed for nearly every stitch before she could get it into the moleskin. He felt differently, these were men's trousers, miners’ trousers which showed that he was now a man, a wage earner and had at last joined the masculine ranks at the pit. Alan Burge identifies boys’ first pair of moleskin trousers as a ‘totem of manhood’. Getting their first pair represented their entry into the ethos of adult ‘manhood’ within the pit.

    (Welsh miners' children)

The South Wales coalfield was one of the few locations in Britain which adhered to a separate spheres agenda.  Unlike most of the country where working-class women went out to work as a matter of course, in the coalfield boys were trained to be miners and girls to be mothers and housewives. They were ‘little mothers’ as soon as they could look after their siblings, they could be taken out of school in times of crisis and were primed to marry a miner, probably from the same village and restart the cycle with their own (numerous) children. While American feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott felt able to claim with confidence that the ‘call for a history of women’ had been comprehensively answered by 1983, Welsh women's historian Deirdre Beddoe argued in 1984 that Welsh women were written out of Welsh history and, ‘if a creature from outer space landed in Wales and worked through Welsh history, she would be perplexed as to how the Welsh procreated. They were all men!’ Within the historiography of Wales, a complete work dedicated to Welsh women’s history was not published until 1991.

The study of childhood in Wales is an under-investigated area of scholarship. The gender roles and expectations of adult life were grafted onto children via the stratification of play, household chores and education. Building on Alun Burge’s study of miners’ learning in the first half of the twentieth century, a gendered analysis of both boys’ and girls’ positioning within coalfield society enhances our understanding of the gender roles ingrained during their formative years. Boys were widely seen as proto-proletarian heroes, union stalwarts and hungry for learning. But not by their mothers who imagined a different future for their children, one which did not include working a mile underground or struggling on after 13 stillborn births. As Dot Jones argues ‘the unremitting toil of childbirth’ killed and debilitated untold numbers of women in the South Wales Coalfield. Burge argues that boys were socialised and trained into the colliery ‘around the fireplace’.  Dai Dan Evans recalled that ‘all the young lads…in the village were steeped in mining, the only conversation you could get in the community was about mining…Therefore we were what you might term, trained for the pit, and nothing else’. Girls, it appears were trained for domesticity and very little else.

 (pithead bathing)

Although elementary education of working-class girls was intended to produce good wives and domestic servants, there is insufficient exploration of the offensive that exacerbated this widely held construction of femininity. Reports such as the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical 
Deterioration in 1906 set the tone for girls’ education as it thought that the ‘annual sacrifice of infants’ was not due to poverty but to the ignorance of mothers about hygiene and nutrition and it recommended the teaching of cookery, childcare and cleanliness in schools. ‘Schools for Mothers’ were also established which leant heavily on lectures on personal hygiene and the necessity to eliminate dirt from the home. Girls were trained to refute this charge of slovenliness in the home by becoming respectable and ‘tidy’ women.   

Amongst girls who attended and completed a grammar school education, entry into the teaching profession was regarded as an appropriate progression. Sian Rhiannon Williams highlights the limited occupational options of educated working-class women and men in an article that shows that teaching may have not been the girls’ first choice, but as teaching was held in high regard and considered an appropriate feminine profession, many young women were encouraged down this avenue by their parents. Williams has shown that this ‘feminisation’ of teaching from the late nineteenth century did not necessarily lead to a fall in the social standing of teachers.

 (waiting for news)

However, a more complex gendered exploration of why the profession was considered so suitable for women, could deepen our understanding of a coalfield society in which teaching was perceived as the primary ‘escape’ from the pit or domesticity.

Elizabeth Andrews didn't grow up to darn her own sons’ moleskin trousers as she and her husband did not have children themselves. She became the Labour Party’s Woman Organiser for Wales for 29 years and following her retirement in 1948 she equated her work to that of a missionary ‘preaching this new Gospel of Social Justice and a new way of life’. Her long career of political activism had also included campaigning for women’s suffrage and the establishment of several branches of the Women’s Co-operative Guild in the Rhondda. She was a leading figure in the campaigns for pithead baths and better housing for miners; pit head baths were considered vital if women were to be able to stop carrying heavy coppers of hot water to bathe their coal-stained husbands at home. The evidence she gave before the Sankey Coalmining Commission in 1919 raised awareness of a coalfield society in which the health and life expectancy of miners’ wives and daughters was as damaged and diminished by the demands of mining as the miners themselves.

  (Elizabeth Andrews)

These were ‘tidy women’ women whose career was homemaking and mothering; ‘an army of women trained to wash and scrub and polish as men trooped in and out’. Mrs Hughes reminisces about cleaning:

‘I used to wash the path – and our toilet was down the bottom of the garden – and I used to ‘wash the path – we had flagstones – used to wash the path from the back door right down to the toilet…And then the front, flagstones was in front then, and I used to wash the pavement from the front door, right past the window, right down to the drain. The pavement, I used to wash all that. Beautiful, lovely. 

‘Coal House’ was a reality TV series, in which three 2007 families lived and worked in the south Wales coalfield of 1927. while the programme tried to follow the way life was in 1927, it was of course impossible to recreate the fear, worry and hardship that Welsh children and their families experienced on a daily basis. I was drawn to the way the women failed to keep the range up to a temperature for cooking and water for baths. Women in 1927 would never have let the range temperature drop – if they had done, their miner husbands would have come home dirty and hungry and been unable to bathe or eat; it was unthinkable.

(coal house)

A 1916 Local Government Report showed that some counties in Wales had more than double the average maternal death rate of England and Wales. Stillbirths in Wales were also over a 1/3 higher than England, and in Glamorgan and Monmouth maternal mortality had increased from 14.2% in 1929 to 42% in 1933. A damning report on Maternal Mortality in Wales in 1937 showed that maternal mortality had risen steadily and was over a 1/3 higher than England. Similarly In ‘Counting the Cost of Coal’, Dot Jones shows that in 25-44 age groups in Pontypridd, the female mortality rate was significantly higher than men.

Little girls were growing up to die in childbirth, and little boys were sent into mines where safety standards were low priorities. Mining companies in South Wales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took the children for the pits and lost them early to the killing fields of coal.
Select references:

For an insight into the pride taken by these ‘tidy women’ listen to
Deirdre Beddoe, ‘Towards a Welsh Women’s History’ in Llafur, 3:2 (1981).

Alun Burge, ‘Swimming against the tide: gender, learning and advancement in South Wales, 1900-1939’, Llafur, 8, 3 (2002), 13-31

Joan Wallach Scott, ‘Women in History: The Modern Period’, Past and Present, 101 (1983), 141; 

Angela V. John, ed., Our Mother’s Land, Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830-1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).

Rosemary Crook, ‘Tidy women: women in the Rhondda between the wars’, Oral History Journal, 10 (1982), 40-6.

Neil Evans and Dot Jones, ‘“A blessing for the miner’s wife”: the campaign for pithead baths in the south Wales coalfield, 1908-1950’, Llafur, 6:3 (1994), 5-28.

Elizabeth Andrews (ed., Ursula Masson), A Woman’s Work is Never Done and Political Articles (Dinas Powys, Honno, 2006 edition).

Diana Gittins, Fair Sex: Family Size and Structure, 1900-39 (London, Hutchinson, 1982).

Francis and Dai Smith, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (London, L&W, 1980; UWP, 1998).

Carol White and Sian Rhiannon Williams (eds), Struggle or Starve: Women’s Lives in the South Wales Valleys Between the Two World Wars (Dinas Powys, Honno, 1998).

Graham Goode and Sara Delamont, ‘Opportunity denied: the voices of the lost grammar school girls of the inter-war years’, in Sandra Betts (ed.), Our Daughters’ Land: Past and Present (UWP, 1996), 103-24.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is a historian and lecturer in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Swansea University. She researches children, women, disabilities and prostitution and can be contacted at
She tweets at @LesleyHulonce and @histhealthcult and blogs at Workhouse Tales
Her first monograph is available to preorder at Amazon for £2 (a pound of which goes to the Careleavers trust) Pre-order


  1. What a wonderful, in-depth article!

  2. Just 100 years ago ... did they ever find out why so many more women died, and there were so many still births? Coal dust ...? Stress ...? Bad nutrition ... poor people everywhere had that.

    1. Hi Sally, probably all the above, and they were just plain worn out...

  3. I was born and brought up in Abertillery and my father was a coal-hewer in the Vivian Sixbells coal mine, until he was unable to work through ill health. My mother not only fought a constant battle with coal dust in the house but also took jobs cleaning for professional people, helping in a café and doing outside catering, making clothes for us and hand-washing football strips whilst also nursing my poor father. She did not have an easy life, bless her but I learned by her example.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I imagine there are many memories such as this, maybe we should put a book together

    2. My mother also taught me to sew, knit and cook. I could also read before I went to Infant's school.

      You have set me off remembering the deep snows of winter and walking to school in ankle boots and snow falling into the tops making our ankles and feet wet.

  4. Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

  5. ... they sing so beautifully, and now I wonder why,it doesn't seem they have/had much to sing about I've met many Welshmen/women over the past 70 years or so, and they are the most amazing people, indeed I've just posted a blog highlighting my regard for the Welsh


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