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Ray Challinor

Women miners

(October 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 58, October 1983, pp. 31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is a pity Ann Rogers and Colin Sparks had not studied the British coal industry before they rushed to pen a letter attacking me. Their defence of women (and children?) working underground is a mish-mash of misleading statements and errors.

On two points, however, they are perfectly right. The first is that the initial impetus for the 1842 Mines Act came from individuals deeply imbued with Victorian morality and, second, that progress for working people comes through developing their own separate, distinct, class organisations.

Ann and Colin would find these propositions advanced in considerate detail if they consulted the book The Miners’ Association: A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists, of which I am co-author. In it we maintain the Shaftesbury report, graphically describing the horrors of coal mining not only for women and children but also for men, had the effect of showing the coal owners in a highly unfavourable light while the controversy surrounding the report helped to widen miners’ mental horizons, making them realise that their own local problems were not unique but basically the same as miners elsewhere and could only be resolved by national organisation.

Two years later, the 1842 Mines Act was passed. Insofar as this restricted the supply of labour relative to the demand, it helped to give the colliers’ trade union greater economic muscle. The Miners’ Association grew to become the strongest working class organisation in Victorian Britain. So unwittingly – and this sometimes happens – what started as a scream of moral outrage helped to promote, from the capitalist standpoint, an unexpected and alarming development.

Ann and Colin wrongly suggest the 1842 Act was passed because of employers’ fears that, if women continued to work underground, the next generation of miners would possibly not be reproduced. In those times, however, all demographic studies show colliery communities had the highest birth rate of any occupational group.

Equally wrong is their contention female miners no longer suited the needs of the coal industry. Rather it was the coal owners’ leading representative in Parliament, Lord Londonderry, who argued certain seams were uniquely suited to female labour. He claimed that without them the quantity of coal mined would go down and the price would go up; since Britain’s industrial progress depended upon cheap and plentiful supplies of coal, these do-gooders were threatening the country’s entire existence with their silly measure.

Coal owners in Parliament, to a man, resisted the legislation. Their arguments have a somewhat familiar – may I say Thatcherite? – ring to them. They argued in terms of the national interest, of having the freedom to choose employment and of parents’ right to do what they considered in their children’s best interests. They hated the idea of Whitehall snoopers nosing round their collieries, believing in privatisation rather than public control of mines inspection.

If I were Ann Rogers and Colin Sparks, I would be rather disturbed by the company I kept. Let me challenge them to give me a single quote from the progressive camp – Chartist, trade unionist, miner’s wife, Marx or Engels – that comes out in opposition to the 1842 Mines Act. By the same token, can they cite any coal owner who wholeheartedly backed the measure? Currently, I am writing my fourth work on the coal industry, specifically relating to industrial law between 1830 and 1870, so, if they have discovered something I haven’t, it will be of great interest.

But in any case, whatever the response of Ann and Colin to this challenge, there still remains for them my final and fundamental point. Material being determines social consciousness. I recall reading recently that in 1900 the typical American wife did 100 hours of housework a week and was pregnant or breastfeeding a baby for 16.4 years of her life. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has produced comparable figures for colliers’ wives of the 1840s in Britain, but it would seem reasonable to assume they were as great, perhaps even greater.

When Ann Rogers and Colin Sparks talk about organising women miners in the 1840s, it is important that they understand the obstacles there are to it – 60 or 70 hours of physically exhausting work underground, often a long walk to and from work, 100 hours of housework, the cares and troubles of the children. On top of all this, our two comrades expect these overworked women to drag themselves out of the house again to a union branch meeting. It is more than Dick Turpin, on his famous ride to York, asked of his horse!

Yet, without organisation, there can be no resistance to oppression: women, like everybody else, remain simply fodder for exploitation.

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Last updated: 5 October 2019