The Welsh Mam

Woman and family. Image from 1964.

Last updated: 04 March 2011

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was normal for a married woman in Wales to spend around 15 years having children.

Miners' wives were just as much slaves to the coal bosses as their husbands, as their lives revolved around the miners' shift patterns. They needed to be on hand to provide hot baths and food for their husbands and sons when they came in from work.

The task of lifting and pouring boiling water was relentless and physically exhausting with no domestic appliances to make light of the work. On top of this there were the children, who were often ill, to be cared for.

During the time, in the Pontypridd area, across the 20-44 age range, the death rate for women was significantly higher than for men. The life of domestic labour could be more dangerous than working down a pit.

Child mortality was high, especially in the mining valleys. In the Rhondda, 10% of babies died before their first birthday. At that stage there were no trained midwives or National Health Service.

Change could only be brought about through political means, but the welfare needs of working class women were ignored in the male-dominated world of politics.

One pioneer was Elizabeth Andrews, a woman from the Rhondda who'd left school at the age of 12 and who had been a suffragette. As a member of the Labour party, she was invited to make a speech in the House of Lords in 1919.

She gave evidence about the strain placed on women by lifting and carrying hot water. This led to the installment of pit-head baths at collieries. Elizabeth highlighted how the introduction of these baths could save lives, and she got results - by 1924 they had become compulsory.

During the Depression years of the 1920s and 30s, Elizabeth Andrews was responsible for 800 children from the south Wales valleys being temporarily adopted by weathier families in London, Birmingham and Swindon.

Many birth control campaigners came to south Wales. Money was tight and an extra mouth to feed at the table added strain to an already thin paypacket. Abortion was illegal until the 1960s, and women put themselves in huge danger by turning to untrained people to carry out abortions.


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