Women's contributions to industry and mining have been, and continue to be, overlooked and underrepresented in the histories of the industrial revolution. Women were, however, employed in a range of industrial roles and here we will look at the work of one particular group, the Shropshire Pit Girls of the East Shropshire Coalfield. 

During the 19th century the women of the Ironbridge Gorge were employed in a variety of jobs including domestic service, making clay pipes, and painting tiles and china. Women and girls also worked in the local coalfields but, unlike women in other mining areas of the country who worked underground (even after the practice was made illegal by the Mines Act of 1842), the majority of female Shropshire pit workers worked above ground, on the pit banks of mine shafts. These women were known as ‘pit girls’ or ‘Shroppies’. 

Shroppies were generally in their late teens and early twenties and if a family could afford it, work at the pit bank would cease at the time of marriage. The most common job for a Shroppie was to pick 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 heaps of ironstone called ranks. The nodules were then loaded onto railway wagons and sent on to furnaces. Life was tough on the bank, physically demanding and done in all weathers, and fatalities were a part of life. For this the Shroppies were paid as little as 1 shilling a day - roughly £4 in today’s money. 

Travelling to London

Each year some Shroppies travelled to London to work the fruit and vegetable season between May and September. The extra money they made often went towards a dowry for marriage. The pay was a small amount, between 8s and 9s per day, 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 all the way to London, though after the opening of the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway in 1849, they could have gone by train. They worked the springtime weeding the crops in vegetable gardens and 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, a local annual fair.

By the late 19th century, the gardens in London where Shropshire girls had traditionally worked were disappearing under new terraced housing 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.

Shroppies at Harlington, 1906.

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

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. Sarah continued to work as a pit girl until she left to go into domestic service, which was seen as a far more desirable occupation, in her twenties. Susana likely left the pit banks upon her marriage to Edward Cookson in 1868, when she was 21 years old.

You can also find out about Emma Evans, another pit girl who lived at Blists Hill from the 1850s until the 1870s, in our People of Blists Hill online exhibition here.

The Last Shropshire Pit Girl

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 start work at 6am, and had to walk three miles each way.

Anny 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 on her first day at work, saying it gave her a stiff neck. Anny retired from being a pit girl at the age of 23 when she married 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.

When, from the mid-1870s onwards, the Shropshire iron trade began to diminish, fewer girls were employed on the pit banks, and by 1912 only a handful remained. Women did, however. stay in the coal mining industry and after the Second World War women found roles in the offices, canteens and medical centres of the larger mines.