The Turn of the Wheel

Women workers in Victorian metal mines.

Mining in the UK has been looked on as a male preserve in modern times. The work underground was deemed like many industrial jobs as being being too dirty or difficult for a woman. This is a brief summary of a woman’s role in the Ceredigion metal mines of the 19th century. I recommend those who are interested to look at further reading, with authors such as Lynne Mayers on Cornish mineworkers.

The history books of the Ceredigion mining belt pay little attention to the role of women in the mines, although they had their roles to play.

That is not to say that women did not work in the mines. In the early 19th Century, it was not uncommon for women and children to be seen underground in various roles – from actual mining, to pushing trams. Small children as young as five years old were exploited by coal mines to operate ventilation doors. Following a parliamentary commission into the exploitation of children underground, the Mines Act in 1842 banned women and children from working underground.

The main problem with women, for the prudish Victorians was the clothing – or lack of it, that could be worn by miners. The tunnels, lacking in ventilation could get very warm – the further you were from the shaft and from the surface. On occasions, men were reduced to working in their underpants (retained for modesty). Imagine what that meant with a mixed workforce doing the same! there was also a worry that women would pick up the coarser language and habits of their male colleagues.

Women and children were still employed by mines from that point, but on the surface. As Ceredigion metal mines tended to follow the Cornish working practices, so also the terminology crossed over. Thus, women were to be found in the dressing mills and ore processing and were known as bal-maidens (Bal being the Cornish word for a mine)

Bal maidens were key workers in ore processing. Metal ore was a heavy and voluminous commodity. The larger mines worked down to as pure a specimen of ore as possible in a mill, before being transported for smelting. The denser ore was crushed and separated by gravity and washing. The processing mill was of various sizes – and at Cwmystwyth and Frongoch in its latter days this was a large factory.

Women were employed at all levels in the mill, but depending on their age and ability depended on where they worked. The younger children were at the picking tables, which were revolving flat discs where the initial ore was dumped. Their job was to spot the purer examples of ore and pick them off the table – to by-pass the next stage. Older workers would be on hand to separate the ore from waste rock by means of a cobbing hammer.

The older girls would be employed at the jiggers. These machines, basically shook their loads, leaving the denser pieces to fall to the bottom, where they were taken and passed on to the next stage. Obviously, ore could be lost here, as shown when the spoil heaps were reworked a century later.

The next stage was the crushers, which would draw the rock in and crush it down to a fine sand. There was a lot of manual work in the tipping and loading of the machines in all the work, but here was especially important..

The next level were the buddles. These were like large conical panning devices, which allowed the sand to be washed and the lighter waste rock to be washed out and taken away as tailings, normally outside of the mill. Frongoch has a huge grey sand dune at the roadside, as testament to this. This then left the pure ore for export.

The mills were not enclosed in early days, or at least not with walls. This meant that workers there could be subjected to the worst extremes of weather. In Mid Wales, this could be snow as well as rain. (In Cornwall, the Levant mine had Bal-maidens working literally on the sea cliffs, facing the Atlantic Ocean)The later mills were more enclosed. The mill was normally set up on a stepped principle, so that each end product could merely be tipped down to the next one via chutes.

Such arduous and exposed work left the bal-maidens susceptible to what would now be called industrial injuries. The open buildings could create a situation whereby the workforce could develop bronchitis, pneumonia or fevers. In the 19th century, Tubercolosis was also rampant.

Even without the mills being enclosed, the noise was excruciating. Bal Maidens took to wearing ‘gooks’, which was a layer of heavy cloth, worn like a bonnet over the head and shoulders. This protected the bal-maiden from the elements and sunshine, but also acted as a minor protection from rock that was flung up by cobbing or the milling process, as well as dampening the noise. They also wore Hessian aprons and sleeves to protect their bodies. Other methods for noise cancelation were to bind the ears with cloth. However, these mitigating factors did not stop mill workers from having hearing problems in later life.

The machinery operated with limited protection, and the moving parts were water driven and thus not prone to stopping in an instant. Thus if you got caught, by hair or clothing, you would be pulled into the machine and crushed. there are many examples of this in Ceredigion and Cornwall.

The other issue was lung disease caused by long exposure to silica-rich rock dust in the atmosphere of these buildings. Thus the women suffered as much as the men underground in this terrible slow killer.

A bal-maiden tended to be single – either unmarried or widowed. Thus a married woman was assumed to be ‘too busy’ staying at home in the family household or raising children.

Mining was and still is, a hard way to earn a decent wage. The knock-on effect of the working conditions led to life changing illnesses. However, we do tend to ignore the role of women in the narrative of the mine and their work, although not as ‘glamorous’ deserves some acknowledgement.

By Geraint Roberts

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I'm there. Wish I'd picked 'there' as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore...but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I'm on a windy bridge, or a Devon beach, or a Cornish ti mine, or a submarine, or looking towards a Hebridean port...

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