The role of women in industrial history has often been overlooked, forgotten, or hidden. Yet thousands of women worked in industry across the Ironbridge Gorge, as well as industries across Britain. All these women made a vital contribution to the nation’s industrial past.

…young women, dressed partly in male attire, poised on the bleak summit of a ‘Pit Bank’, some thirty or forty feet high, exposed to wind, storm, and tempest…
W. H. Barclay referring to the work of ‘pit girls’ in Shropshire, 1857.

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, women of all classes were expected to fulfil domestic roles, however many working class women also had to take on paid employment. Most stopped working once they were married, yet in the Gorge almost a fifth of women employed in industry were married. These women had to take on paid work to contribute to their family’s income or to support themselves and were often solely responsible for their household’s domestic labour and childcare as well.

Until the mid-19th century, one of the main forms of employment open to young women was mining.  Very few women ever worked underground but hundreds worked as ‘pit girls’ or ‘Shroppies’ on the pit banks of local mines.

As the 19th century progressed, more opportunities opened in the clay and ceramic industries. So many women and girls worked in these industries that many of the roles at Coalport China Works, the Broseley tobacco pipe works and the Jackfield decorative tile factories were seen as ‘women’s work’.

Adam's Engine and Ironstone Pit Madeley Wood, Shropshire, Warrington Smyth (1817-1890), watercolour, 1847.

Hundreds of women worked above ground as ‘pit girls’ at local mines. They found and collected ironstone, which was smelted into pig iron in local blast furnaces. They worked during daylight hours from around 6am until 4pm and earned about a quarter of an unskilled miner’s wage.

Learn more about the pit girls and their work


This outfit is typical of those worn by pit girls working at local mines. It has been made by the Trust’s Costume Project team and is based on contemporary descriptions and images. Read the labels attached to each item of clothing to find out more.


The dresses and skirts worn by pit girls were several inches shorter than was typical in the Victorian era, which prevented them from tripping as they scrambled up and down the pit bank.


Bonnets like this were worn to keep the sun and rain off pit girls’ heads as they worked in all weathers throughout the year.

Protective Padding

Pit girls collected ironstone in iron boxes which they carried on their heads. They made themselves pads like this to cushion the weight.


In 1870 Arthur Munby, a diarist, described some Shropshire pit girls he encountered working as fruit pickers near London and noted the distinctive red neckerchiefs they wore. Like their bonnets, this would keep the sun and rain off their necks.


Aprons were worn to protect clothing from dirt. Pit girls sometimes made theirs from old flour sacks because they were cheap, and the robust hessian would last longer as the women crawled on their knees searching for ironstone.


Pit girls could be working on the pit bank in wind, snow, sleet, and hail so they would wrap up as warmly as possible. Many wore shawls but some were known to wear men’s overcoats.


The pit girls would go down past my house here at about 6 o’clock in the morning. We could hear them; they always wore clogs you know and you could hear them pattering down because they always came down in groups.
Elsie Day (1884-1986) (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1981)

Clara Bagley and Ida Bennet working at William Southorn and Co. Tobacco Pipeworks, Broseley, c.1956.




From the 17th century to the 19th century, women made clay tobacco pipes in family workshops alongside their domestic work. The industry moved into factories in the 19th century and most people employed in the industry in Broseley were women.




Years of training and practice meant that some female workers in the Gorge were highly skilled. Female painters at Coalport China Works could be especially skilled and employers were keen to retain their experience during marriage and motherhood. Women like Maria Richards (1806-1891), a china painter with seven children at home, were allowed to start an hour later so that they had more time for domestic work.

Female painters at work at Coalport China Works, 1890.

First when I worked there, it was all work that was not very much important. You see, we had to improve as we went on, and under the eye of the form-mistress - she knew when we were fit to do something, the better kind of work. Well, I was fortunate enough to get through all the stages during those seventeen years, and I finished up with some of the finest work anybody could wish to see.
Annie Gallear (1891-1982), Burnisher at Coalport China Works 1905-1922. (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1977)

Burnishers at Coalport China Works, 1906.

Some china would be decorated with 22 carat gold and after it had been fired, burnishers would polish it. This work was typically done by women.

...we had a piece of material like a teacloth and…a cup of water and one with white sand…You dipped your finger, with your bit of rag round it, in your water, then in your sand and rubbed and the gold came up. You know it looked like a dusty thing and it used to come up very nice but it gave you a sore finger.
Winnie McLeod (1906-1996) (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1985)

Julia Salmon

Much of the industrial work available to women was considered unskilled work. However, it was possible for women to develop their skills and have what we might recognise as a career today. One of these women was Julia Salmon who was born in Broseley in 1852.

The 1881 census reveals that she was a 32-year-old married woman with two young children who was employed as a labourer earthenware pottery”. This was unskilled work that involved a lot of lifting and shifting and was the most undesirable work for a woman at this time as it was viewed as unfeminine and dangerous for a woman’s body.

A decade later Julia had progressed to being a “wheel turner” at Coalport China Works. Julia was responsible for turning the wheel that powered a turntable that a potter worked on. This job required stamina but also skill as Julia would need to be sensitive to the requirements of the potter working the clay. They would be making complex shapes which could not be machine produced.

By 1901 Julia was employed as a ‘teapot spout maker’, a skilled role at Coalport China Works. The census only gives us a snapshot every ten years and Julia may have worked in other roles between each census, but it does show that over the space of twenty years she had progressed from unskilled to semi-skilled to skilled work at the china works, moving into more desirable and higher paid roles.




Many girls worked in industry to support their family’s income, but most would give up work when they married. However, some had to return to work if their husband died. After her husband died in 1893, aged just 37, Alice Ellis (1862-1939) worked for Craven Dunnill & Co. producing mosaics to support her four young children.

Mosaicists working at Craven Dunnill & Co., c.1890s.

Women Brickmakers at Work, 1905.



Until the 19th century industrial work for women usually involved heavy labour. In the Gorge, women had carried bricks, hauled coals, and loaded carts for centuries. However, during the 19th century many employers began to see this work as unsuitable for women and only employed women for repetitive and sedate factory work.