Shropshire Pit Girls

In the Ironbridge Gorge during the 19th century, women were employed in a variety of jobs from domestic service to making clay pipes and to painting tiles and china. In the coalfields however, the majority of women and girls worked on the pit banks of mine shafts. These women were known as ‘pit girls’ or ‘Shroppies’. It seems that women in Shropshire did not work underground in the mines, unlike women in other parts of the country, although the practice was made illegal by the Mines Act of 1842.

Earliest known depiction of 'Shroppies', painted at Adam's Engine and Ironstone Pit, Madeley Wood, Shropshire, by Warrington Smyth, 1847.

Generally, Shroppies were in their late teens and early twenties. Employment stopped after marriage if a family could afford it. The most common job for a Shroppie was to pick the ironstone nodules out of the clay at a mine waste tip. Gangs of girls would work across the bank, picking out the nodules and putting them into iron containers. The girls would carry these heavy containers on their head to the ironstone heaps called ranks. The nodules were then loaded onto railway waggons, which were sent on to furnaces. Life was tough on the bank. The work was physically demanding, the girls would have been battling against the elements, and fatalities were a part of life. For this work, they were paid as little as 1s a day (roughly £4 in today’s money).

Shroppies at Harlington, 1906. By the late 19th century, the gardens in London where Shropshire girls had traditionally worked were increasingly being covered with terraces and villas. It seems that the remaining Shropshire pit girls still migrated during the summer months, but to Harlington, Middlesex, to work in the strawberry fields.

Each year some Shroppies travelled to London to work from May until September during the fruit and vegetable season. It was a way of making extra money that they often used to start a dowry for marriage. They were paid between 8s and 9s per day, a small amount, but much more than they earned on the pit banks. This migratory practice was well established by 1820 and lasted until the 1870s. By tradition the pit girls walked to London, although after the opening of the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway in 1849, they may have gone by train. They worked first in vegetable gardens, weeding the crops. In June they carried strawberries from Hammersmith and Isleworth to Covent Garden Market. Later in the season they carried vegetables. The baskets containing strawberries were recorded as weighing between 40 to 60 pounds, which the girls carried up to 30 miles a day. A horrified observer of this practice described it as ‘unparalleled slavery’ (Illustrated London News, 1846). They returned to Shropshire at the end of September in time for the Oakengates Wake, an annual fair.

Census research has revealed the names of some of the pit girls living and working in Shropshire. For example, we know that in 1861 the Squatter’s Cottage, then at Burrough’s Bank but now situated at Blists Hill Victorian Town, was home to the Corbett family. Two of the daughters, Sarah aged 20 and Susana aged 14, were pit girls.

The Squatter’s Cottage, originally sited at Burrough’s Bank, and now located at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

One of the last Shropshire pit girls was Anny Payne, who began working at the Kemberton Pit, Madeley, in 1900 at the age of 13. She had to walk three miles to work, which started at 6am. She was interviewed by the Museum in the 1980, and the Library & Archive holds the transcript of the recordings. She commented that all the girls ‘used to go together [to work] so nobody would be missed out’. They often used to sing and people would say, ‘the women are coming down the bank singing’. Anny found it difficult carrying the iron boxes and cried the first day of having to do it, saying it gave her a stiff neck. In 1910, Anny retired from being a pit girl to marry Bert Payne, a blacksmith at the Coalbrookdale Ironworks. She went on to work in service at the Commercial Inn in Coalbrookdale, and she and Bert had eight children. Anny lived until the grand old age of 103.

From the mid-1870s onwards, when the Shropshire iron trade began to diminish, fewer girls were employed on the pit banks, and by 1912 only a handful remained. After the Second World War, women instead began to be employed at larger mines in the offices and canteens and as colliery nurses.  

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