Did any women at all work in the quarries?

Picture courtesy of Lynne Myers

Picture courtesy of Lynne Myers

"No women worked in a slate quarry in any capacity..."

According to Merfyn Jones' "the North Wales Quarrymen 1874 - 1922"...

"Little is known about the quarryman's wife and daughter ... Slate quarrying was a male industry and as far as is known no woman worked in a slate quarry in any capacity, certainly not after the early period of capitalisation and development of the industry. Moreover, since slate quarrying was the only major source of employment in the quarrying areas, women who stayed at home found difficulty in gaining any employment at all... of 2,289 women over ten years of age in Bethesda in 1901, 83 per cent were not in employment; of the 381 who were in work, 141 were domestic servants and 117 tailoresses."

We have also heard, that "the two main rules of quarrying were ‘no women in the quarry’ and ‘no whistling’ as both were considered bad luck, likely to bring the devil." The closest we've found is women who taught in quarrying communities (eg Kate Griffiths at Rhiw Bach), in quarry hostpitals (eg Laura Humphries at Dinorwic). However, women in Blaenau, one of whose relatives worked in the quarries for 5 generations said that “Mae lle i ferched yn y felin ond yn amheus am iddynt weithio o dan ddaear - sexist neu beth?”. It is thought that women worked ‘secretly’ in the workshops and mills, helping the men to make their quotas.

This seems to stand in stark contrast to the role of women in other quarrying - and mining industries - including slate quarrying elsewhere.... The following is based on email conversations with two epic researchers into quarries and mining: David Linton, who maintains a searchable database of 5,200 North Wales quarries/mines, their owners and operators in North Wales, and Lynne Myers, who has been researching the role of women in quarrying and mining across the world, including a searchable database of 29,951 women working in quarries and mines in Cornwall.


The role of women in North Wales slate quarries before the mid-1850s

David Linton asked industrial archaeologist and historian, Dr Dafydd Rh. Gwynn,  whether he knew of any women in quarries in North Wales:

"He said he was not aware of any reliable evidence of women working in the quarries, although he did mention (off the top of his head!), a list of 'Masters and Men' at Cilgwyn Quarry in 1782 included some women's names. He thought that the groups in the list were family or similar groups and that it was probably that the women worked as carters or drivers of pack animals.

He also mentioned female slate carters at Penrhyn Quarry. He suggested what little involvement there was of women in the industry probably declined with the development of the railway systems for the transport of slate to the ports (this again being much more capital intensive) and the rise of a formally managed work environment and waged employment".

And then… At Last! December 2018, Einion Thomas found evidence of women working in Chwarel Penrhyn Quarry in the 1740s, and sent it to Dafydd Gwynn who sent it on to us. Of course, this WAS before the industrialisation, pre 1850s, but it is the first written evidence we’ve found! So now we have some names of slate-working Merched Chwarel! Margaret ûch Hugh; Anne William, Mary Shone; Elizabeth Rowland; Judeth Owen Shone; Ellin Jones; Jane ûch Roberts; Anne William Preer…

Women working with slate Dyffryn Ogwen 1740s.jpg

Quarry women owners/operators

David Linton's on-line searchable version of the late Jeremy Wilkinson’s Gazetteer and Bibliography of the Mines and Quarries of North Wales, contains around 30 women as owners / operators (and more as shareholders). Although women were associated with a couple of slate quarries in Blaenau, most seem to be involved with mineral mining. For example,  Cell Fechan manganese mine in Llanaber (SH613166) lists as many female as male operators:  

1899 Abraham, Edith M Operator

1900–1902 Abraham, Thomas Operator

1903 Abraham, Mary Edith Operator

1903 Abraham, T Mine Agent

1904–1905 Williams, L, Mrs Operator

1906 Jones, Edward Mine Agent

1906 Jones, Edward Operator

1907–1908 Williams, Laura, Miss Operator

Females at Mineral Mines in North Wales

Lynne Myers is currently compiling information about women working in mineral mines across the UK. If you have any information, she'd be delighted to hear from you!

The text below is written by Lynne, for which many thanks!

Copper Mines

The copper mines on Great Orme at Llandudno, were employing between three and four hundred miners during the 1840s, and it is during this period that females may have been employed. In the mid-19th century Sarah Lloyd, widow of David, who had been manager of the copper mines on Great Orme, bravely struggled on with a failing enterprise for five years, until she died in 1880.

At Sygun Copper Mine, near Beddgelert, Captain William Pascoe built drying rooms in about 1840, for the twenty or so girls employed there, saying ‘to keep them as comfortable and happy as possible, for I assure you they are quite essential to our success’. The 1841 Census recorded six female copper dressers resident in Beddgelert or near the Sygun Mine, all of whom had been born out of county. Seven, despite the enumerators rendering of unfamiliar surnames, have recognisable Cornish names, one by the name of Pascoe, although not apparently related to the Mine Captain. All were recorded as 20 or 25 years old (to nearest five years, of course) and appear to be lodging singly or in pairs with local families. It is possible they formed a ‘flying squad’ of experienced dressers, either to dress in their own right or to train local girls and women. By 1851 they had gone, one having married a local miner and migrated. The 1851 census records one female copper dresser working at Llangurig.

With the phasing out of the ‘coper ladis’ in Anglesey, a few made their way to the copper mine at Drwys y Coed, in the Nantlle Valley, Gwnnydd, in the last decade of the 19th century. They were probably among the last female copper dressers in the realm.

Lead Mines

Few records have been found for women and girls working at the lead mines of North Wales, but a very early one has been uncovered for the Gwydyr Forest area, in the Conwy Valley. In April 1762, Ann Walsh was advanced £4 4s 0d for washing the lead wastes at Nants Mine. It seems she was part of a group women working together, or possibly a contractor in her own right. In the following month she was paid £1 4s 0d for ‘washing ore, making buddles etc.’ so her combined duties went beyond just dressing the ore.[

Apart from the Conwy Valley, there were also lead mines operating in the Clwyd Mountains area and towards Wrexham. The only records found so far of female employment here is at the Minerva Lead Mines, where those young women who were cobbing were being replaced by crushers, from about 1820. Traditionally here, the picking of the lead ore was also done by women and children.

Lead mines in the Halkyn Mountains and around Holywell seem to have employed boys on the dressing floors, although one woman lead washer was resident in Whitford in 1851. Likewise, no females have been found at the Denbigh Lead Mines, with the exception of one resident at Dyserth in 1841, who was probably working at Targoloch Mine.

Slate Packers Port GaverneLR.jpg

The role of women in quarrying elsewhere

It is extraordinary to compare this parcity of information about women in the quarrying industry of North Wales with the wealth that has been gathered by Lynne Myers about Cornwall.  She also says that the lack of information about North Wales women stands "in complete contrast to the hundreds employed in the Rheidol Valley and around Llanidloes/Machynllech." Lynne has also compiled information on women working in Northern England in the pits, and elsewhere in the UK and across the world: See her website for lots of info and picture.

We received an interesting email from Steffan ab Owain in June 2019 that further elaborates the picture:

“Byddai merched yn nyddiau cynnar y diwydiant yn cludo llechi mewn cewyll ar gefn mulod, ac yn ambell ardal chwarelyddol gyda cheffyl a throl at y cychod a'r llongau a fyddai yn eu hallforio i wahanol rannau o Brydain a phellach.Ceid rhai yn gwneud y gwaith hwn yn ardaloedd Bethesda, Llanberis, Nantlle a Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Ceid merched yn gweithio ar beiriant 'jenny lind' hefyd yn caboli (polishio) y llechi yn ardal Corris,neu Abergynolwyn.,Enwir hwy ar un o'r cyfrifiadau,efallai mai un 1871, os cofiaf yn iawn.”

Steffan confirms that women in the early days of the industry carried slate in cages on the back of donkeys, and in some quarrying areas with horses and carts to the boats and ships that would export them to different parts of Britain and further afield. This work was carried out in the Bethesda, Llanberis, Nantlle and Blaenau Ffestiniog areas.

He also mentions that women were also working on a jenny lind machine polishing the slate in the Corris area, or Abergynolwyn in 1871.

Cornish slate and the Bal Maidens

In Cornwall, girls and women worked as packers but also in skilled roles as slate splitters in the early years.

Here too, however, most employment of women was up to mid 1850s. One quote that Lynne found seems to explain something about the change: "For many years women and girls were employed in the splitting of slate and some were expert at their work. Sometime in the [eighteen] fifties it was necessary to reduce hands and in order to retain males the females were discharged and since then none have been employed".

The most common surname on Lynne's database of quarry women is Williams! 900 of them. Williams is not a typical Cornish name, so it is reasonable to suppose that there is a strong connection to Wales somewhere....

"Although the 1841 Census for the Delabole area does not identify any women as working at the quarry, other than possibly two widows who are recorded as ‘labour women’, Delabole Slate Quarries were clearly employing females at that time. According to the 1842 Royal Commission, there were nine girls under the age of 13 years, and seventeen between the ages of 13 and 18 in 1841, a total of twenty-six; but no figures were given for adult females. In 1842, 10% of the workforce of 700 were reported to be women. These women and girls were usually hired as daily labourers, with their wages ranging from 2s to 6s per week, depending on age. They were employed across at least three of the quarries. As at the copper and tin mines, a deduction was made from their earnings for their tools.

Bal Maidens at Dolcoath, 1890

Bal Maidens at Dolcoath, 1890

The 1851 Census also records a 60 year-old widow working at a slate quarry in St Clether, and a 39 year-old widow, Mary Rush, in Tintagel. The latter entry is particularly interesting as her two young sons are also described as ‘sorting slate’. They may all have been ‘cullers’ or ‘hullah bobbers’ as mentioned earlier. Lorigan 55 has traced the fate of some of the 1851 Delabole slate dressers. By 1861, one had died, four had moved from the parish, eight (one of whom was a domestic servant) had married quarrymen, and one was single and unemployed.

It seems that no women were employed at Delabole after the mid-1850s, other than for office work, lighting the fires and delivering post. However, in the 1881 census, the 64 year-old Mary Abbott, of Delabole, was recorded as ‘a slate quarry labourer’.

Although women and girls did not work at Delabole Slate Quarry beyond about 1855, they continued to be employed at Port Gaverne, packing slates into ships for export (employed by the ship captain rather than by the quarry), until about 1890." - Lynn Myers



South Wales

The work of Arthur Munby - compled from over 50 in an album assembled in 1865 by  James Gurney

The work of Arthur Munby - compled from over 50 in an album assembled in 1865 by James Gurney

Women were forbidden to go down the mines in Victorian times, but could be employed in equally heavy industry on the pit face.  For example, the so-called "pit brow wenches" worked at the top of coal mines to shovel the chunks of coal into waiting railroad trucks.

They wore trousers and would come home black with dirt. Other women worked inside the mines, crawling on their hands and knees, pulling mine carts with chains attached around their waists.

Arthur Munby with Ellen Grounds, a "pit brow wench," 1873

Arthur Munby with Ellen Grounds,
a "pit brow wench," 1873

The work of these women might have been largely forgotten were it not for Arthur Munby, who had a fascination and an admiration for them.

He convinced many of them to pose in photographic studios, as cameras in the 1860s couldn't function in the low-light conditions that prevailed at the worksites.

He also carefully documented them in interviews and notes, leaving behind a rich sociological record.










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Female worker/s from the Tredegar ironworks in ragged clothing with protective headwear and tools, by W Clayton of Tredegar, Wales, 1865.





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The Wigan pit brow girls scandalized Victorian society by wearing trousers for their dangerous work in the coal mines. They wore skirts over their trousers and rolled them up to their waist to keep them out of the way.