The Women Miners in Pants Who Shocked Victorian Britain

In the Victorian age, coal mining in Britain paid so little that not only did a miner work long hours underground, so did his wife and children. Women and children were paid half as much as a man, but every little bit helped keep the family fed. An inspection of a Staffordshire mine in 1841 revealed women and children as young as five working underground. What shocked the commissioners the most was how the women were dressed. They would ditch their shirts to work in the hot mines, and even worse, they wore trousers!

But women miners had few options when it came to clothing: flimsier, cooler clothing, which revealed the contours of their body, were seen as “an invitation to promiscuity.” Trousers, and other practical garments, were “unwomanly”—and often led to wardrobe malfunctions. In his 1842 speech to Parliament, Lord Ashley described how the work sometimes wore holes in the crotch of these women and girls’ trousers: “The chain passing high up between the legs of two girls, had worn large holes in their trousers. Any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work. No brothel can beat it.” (What’s especially striking about these observations is that they seem more concerned about the modesty of the women than that they toiled in life-threatening situations.)

When women and children under ten were forbidden to work underground, they sought jobs up top sorting coal. The women at the mines in Wigan, still wearing trousers, became a tourist attraction for those wanting to witness such a scandal. Read about the pants-wearing women of the mines at Atlas Obscura. 

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