Exhibition mines women's lives at Northern coalfields

Published
image copyrightMargaret Hedley
image captionCounty Durham woman Hannah Porter's husband moved to the United States to mine

The "strength and fortitude" of women in 19th Century coal-mining communities is the focus of a new exhibition.

Breaking Ground - Women of the Northern Coalfield, which features artworks, archive images and personal histories, is on show at the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

The gallery said it highlights the "significant but overlooked role" women played in mining communities.

They were allowed to work underground until a ban was introduced in 1842.

Employed alongside men and children, women had roles as "hurriers" taking coal to the surface.

However, following a flood which killed 26 youngsters at a mine near Barnsley, Queen Victoria ordered an inquiry which subsequently branded the women "unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers".

Many ignored the ban implemented by the Mines and Colliery Act, until inspections became more thorough from 1850 onwards.

Taking on roles as surface labourers known as pit brow lasses, tip girls or pit bank women, they would shift heavy containers or separate coal and stone.

image copyrightHerbert Wragg
image captionPhotographed in 1887, these pit brow lasses worked at an unknown colliery in Wigan

With trousers, boots and covered hair, their outfits were contrary to the moral codes of the day.

Victorian-era photographs are displayed alongside more recent works by North East artists Tom McGuinness and David Venables, and Welshman Archie Rhys Griffiths.

The exhibition includes an 1862 hand-coloured glass negative showing County Durham woman Hannah Porter alongside her two daughters.

Mrs Porter worked as a dress-maker, landlady and shop boss and the photograph was sent to her husband who had moved to the United States to mine.

Gallery curator Angela Thomas said: "With 2018 marking 100 years since women in the UK were granted the right to vote, this is the perfect time to shine a light on the significant but overlooked role of women in the Northern coalfields.

"Their strength and fortitude were constantly put to the test, whether they were fighting to keep their jobs or determinedly keeping the home fires burning."

image copyrightNorman Cornish Estate
image captionTitled Sarah darning pit stockings, this image is by Norman Cornish - a member of the Pitmen Painters
image copyrightNational Coal Mining Museum for England
image captionThis image of a pit brow lass adorned a postcard in the late 19th Century
image copyrightBill Hindmarsh
image captionCoal Pickers is one of a number of works by North East miner-turned-artist Bill Hindmarsh
image copyrightEstate of Archie Rhys Griffiths
image captionMany of Archie Rhys Griffiths' works of the 1920s and 30s depicted life at the mines

Breaking Ground - Women of the Northern Coalfields is running until 24 March 2019.

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