Monday, February 10, 2020

The Testimony of Sal Madge

by Dr John Little

The town of Whitehaven in Cumbria has a rich history and in it may be found local ‘characters’ who were famous, infamous or notorious, though quite why they were is no longer remembered in much detail. ‘Laal Piano’ Bobby McGhee was three feet tall and played the piano in pubs; he was much loved by children. Duck Foot Charlie Smith lost a foot in the navy and earned a living as a hobbler, tying up ships. Geordie Mitchell slept in a wheelbarrow and ‘Leatherlugs’, a seller of reddening and sill (used for doorsteps) was used by mothers to  deter misbehaviour by threatening them that Leatherlugs would ‘get’ them if they did not behave. Among the number of the local colourful characters was one woman and she stands out among them by a very long way.

Sarah Madgin, known as Sal Madge, was born in 1841 and as may be seen, she was of singular appearance for her time. In the twenty-first century the discussion of gender and the various lives lived by people who no longer conform to traditional male/ female stereotypes is commonplace.


By and large this was not so in the nineteenth century when people were regarded as male or female by most of the population and any deviation from this was regarded as monstrous. Male homosexuality was met with severe penalties and the fate of Oscar Wilde is the best known example of what could be meted out to any who transgressed the social ‘norms’ of Victorian Britain.

There were exceptions of course and lately there has been a popular television series called Gentleman Jack which is based on the diaries of Anne Lister, a wealthy Yorkshirewoman who had a string of passionate affairs with women in the early part of the century. She documented them well in her diaries which were disguised in code, an understandable caution, though lesbianism was not a criminal offence. The Ladies of Llangollen were a well born pair of ladies who lived together in Wales and numbered some very well known people among their friends, not least of which was the Duke of Wellington.

Sal Madge had hair which was cut short at the back and longer at the sides. Her dark blonde hair was always covered with a working man’s peaked cap. Her face was pugnacious and masculine and even now gives the clear impression that she was not someone to mess with. Her upper body was clothed as a man with a male style jacket, a waistcoat and a neckerchief. When sitting she was often taken for a man, yet below the waist she always wore a skirt, but given what she did for a living it was probably a regrettable looking garment. There used to be a saying in the district if you were unwashed, you were ‘as black as Sal Madge.’ For over fifty years Sal worked as a wagoner on a wagon railway, driving huge horses pulling cartloads of coal from where it was mined, to the top of an inclined plane where it was lowered down to the docks and shipped all over the world. 

Sal with horse and her dog Flirt

It was very much a man’s job; hard, tough and in all weathers, all year round. Her personality matched the job for she associated with her best friends who were all pitmen. She drank, played cards, and if anyone attempted violence upon her they would probably lose for she could fist fight as well as any man. She arm-wrestled, drank pints, smoked a pipe, chewed baccy and could throw men at Cumberland wrestling.

It’s tempting to wonder why she did not just live her life as a man since she took on many of what we today would call male privileges and held them against all comers. However if was not practical; she lived in a close knit community and was accepted with a lot of local respect. If she had started calling herself Bill or Ted then among a deeply divided working class community, strong in both Catholicism and Orange Lodge, then she might have met with a degree of resistance.

In the same measure it can be argued that her job leading horses along a railway in winter gales and rain might have been warmer in trousers; I have seen discussions as to why she kept to a skirt but I fancy the answer is a simple one. People working out of doors have to pee. It’s easy for a man, but a woman in trousers has to take them down and squat. Somewhere in the works of James Joyce is a description of a market woman in Dublin standing over a drain-hole with her legs apart and hitching her skirt up to her knees; she then leaned slightly forward and pissed straight down into the drain. It may be that this was once a common feature of working women’s lives that has simply been lost from folk memory since long skirts were abandoned as everyday wear in the early twentieth century.

It is very tempting sometimes to make of people what they are not. Sal Madge is in the census records all through from 1841 to 1891 and in many entries she is living in a house belonging to a woman; sometimes a woman who has been widowed and has children. It is entirely possible that Sal was a lesbian, but there is not a shred of proof of that. In my treatment of her sexuality I have considered her looks, her nature, her strength of character and her considerable ability to stand up for herself. I think it very likely that she looked at the way in which many of the women in her community had to live their lives, and decided that it was not for her. Childbirth, abuse, drudgery and inferior status were not something that she wanted anything to do with. It was clear to her that her world was run by men and they had privilege; she took some of it for herself and woe betide anyone who tried to take it from her. She had a reputation of using her strength to enforce her will; if she decided that to live as a woman was not her thing and that she would live as she pleased, then she probably had little interest in the whole ‘sex’ thing. In my book I have restricted myself to hints without being too definite as to her thoughts on sex. It’s in my mind that if the subject had come up, she would have told the person questioning to mind their own business and if they had persisted they might have got a thump. My Sal more or less says that, and I would think it disrespectful to do more on the matter.

The overarching question about her is to why her memory has survived  in the way it has. If she had been just another local ‘character’, half man, half woman, like something in a Victorian freak show, then she would not have been remembered with the respect and affection that she was held in during and after her lifetime. Part of her local fame may lie in the abundant charitable activity that she engaged in, collecting money for local good causes for she seems to have thrown herself into the life of her community and liked to do good. Another part of it is undoubtedly her membership of the local Rocket Brigade, a life saving organization which fired rockets carrying lines out to ships wrecked on the coast. They saved many lives and Sal Madge drove their wagon so was subject to call out when the two cannon by the harbour sounded out an alarm across the town. There is however more than this to her legend.

Sal about to lead the Rocket troop on a parade

It is rare in historical research that we find the proverbial ‘smoking gun’ that apparently explains things but I believe that I have found the answer to why Sal Madge has such a high status memory in the local community. Without giving any spoilers I discovered that Sal Madge did something rather heroic in the summer of 1887 and it is my thought that her actions elevated her from local colour to local heroine. The actual events themselves have been forgotten, lost in the minds of succeeding generations but when people speak admiringly of Sal Madge being ‘hard as nails’ there is a solid base of evidence for that opinion. It involves an incident that might have seen her receiving an award for bravery in other circumstances, a court case that caught national attention and a level of esteem that caused hundreds of people to drop what they were doing after she died just to attend her funeral. That the esteem survives is witnessed by the fact that her home town raised money for her to have a gravestone back in the 1990s and when that was smashed by vandals a few years ago, to repeat the process and give her a new stone. That sort of regard comes not from duty but genuine affection.

There is more to it that that of course; she is almost an emblem of the town as it was; working class, dirty, smoky and smelly, hard working, hard drinking, salt of the earth, strong of mind and body and no side to her at all. It is easy to see why Whitehaven remains proud of her; so they should be.


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Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. On 30th January 2020 his book about Sal Madge was published.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting article. One point: I usually wear long skirts (I find trousers/jeans uncomfortable) I've made use of these long skirts at times for research (how easy is it to go up/down narrow steep stairs for instance) One thing I did discover with a woollen skirt - they are MUCH warmer than trousers, especially with a couple of layers beneath. Good wool is also waterproof.

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  2. I believe you. There has been quite a lot of discussion on social media over the years as to why she kept to a skirt. My reading of the description of the market woman many years ago provides a simple practical explanation.

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    1. I think a lot of people today don't realise just how warm a long woollen skirt can be. Your point about a woman relieving herself is also very valid.

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Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.