A fascinating new book by the borough’s archivist, Alan Davies, tells the story of Wigan’s pit brow lasses – the girls and women who toiled above ground at local collieries for a century or more. Borough Life meets one of the surviving “lasses”, Jean Millard from Ince, on the eve of her appearance in a new Channel 5 documentary.
“The Italian POWs thought we were working there as a punishment for something we’d done wrong – they were totally shocked when we told them we were there by choice!”
The year was 1951 and 17-year-old Jean Millard was working for the National Coal Board at Moss Pit, Ince as one of the mining industry’s famous pit brow lasses. World War II had ended six years earlier, but former prisoners of war from Garswood Park were still labouring around the area. They were horrified to discover that the Lancashire Coalfield was not a male preserve.
In fact, it never had been. And after 1842 when the government outlawed women and children working underground, they simply moved ‘upstairs’ to the pit brow where they were employed to clean the coal before it left the yard.
The youngest of William and Margaret’s 13 children, Jean went straight to Moss Pit on leaving Britannia Bridge School at Easter 1949. “I could have gone to Woollies or one of the beauty shops in town,” she explains, “but mining was in my blood.”
Indeed, for many members of Jean’s family the two mile walk from home to the Moss was a well-worn path.
“My father worked at Moss Pit for more than 50 years, firstly for Pearson and Knowles, then for the NCB after nationalisation. Brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles… many of our family were involved in mining.”
William was injured in action at the Somme in 1916 (“I still don’t know what the war was for,” puzzles Jean) and later returned once more to Moss Pit, only to be injured again. He lost his finger after getting his hand stuck in a conveyor belt and spent 13 weeks in Wigan Infirmary, but it could have been much worse.
“The belt was dragging him towards a coal cutting machine,” Jean explains, “and it was only turned off in the nick of time. The mines were dangerous places.”
When Jean arrived at Moss Pit, sister Lillian was already working there (eldest sister Catherine had been told her health wasn’t up to the job – she’s now into her nineties!).
Conditions were harsh and the workload heavy. It was hot and dusty in the summer, cold and draughty in the winter. And always dirty.
The ‘shaker’ conveyor carrying the coal for the women to clean rarely stopped. “The only time I remember it stopping” Jean recalls, “was 6th February 1952 when King George VI died. There was a two minute silence and the Union flag was hoisted at shaft five near where the royal train used to pass by.”
‘Screening’ the coal wasn’t simply a matter of washing it by hand – spades, picks and even sledgehammers were tools of the trade. It was hard labour. What the shaker left behind was wheeled away in tubs and dumped on local slag heaps, often by the pit brow lasses themselves.
“There would normally be eight or nine of us on the belt,” says Jean. “We wore turbans and scarfs, and aprons and stockings that we got from Alf Taylor’s in Spring View. On our feet we wore clogs and irons. At night we’d soak our hands in cold tea to soothe the cracks in our skin.
“We worked from seven o’clock till half past two, five days a week. Mum used to make us snacks for our break, like smacks (specials).She was a very good cook and did everything herself – we were always well fed.
“I had to hand my wages over to her – we all did – so at first I didn’t even know how much I was being paid.”
She later found out it was one pound, five shillings and eight pence (worth about £22 a week today) – less sixpence union subs.
But time was marching on in the mining industry, especially after nationalisation, and the days of the pit brow lass were numbered. In 1955 the NCB installed a mechanical washer to do what the women were doing by hand and that was that. “It wasn’t as good as the girls,” Jean insists, “and there was more dirt than coal going into the wagons!”
Moss Pit itself didn’t last much longer. In 1966 the now-derelict colliery was the site of a 50th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme – such irony would not have been lost on former miners like Jean’s father who experienced the horrors of the real thing first time around.
In the same year, Lancashire’s few remaining pit brow lasses, working at Golborne Colliery, clocked-off for the very last time.
Jean was 32 and a conductor on Wigan Corporation buses. Nowadays, she’s still as sharp and her enthusiasm as infectious as it surely was then.
And she has so many stories to tell… about how strict her father was when it came to boys and how when Lillian was courting she used to go with her as cover… about her wonderful prize-winning poetry… about eldest brother James who played football for Wigan Borough during the successful 1928-29 season and sang from the Barber of Seville every Christmas… about Ince and its people and places… about sneaking off to Spring View to watch Bert Trautman and the rest of the German POWs play football against the local lads…But memories of Moss Pit burn brightest. “I really enjoyed it,” says Jean, “and if it was still open I’d be there now!”