Back to top

True Story of a Lancashire Pit Brow Lass

Mrs. P. Holden
issue number: : 

(Written in 1947. Mrs. Holden writes of the period around 1900)

Lancashire Pit Brow Lasses

At the age of thirteen I started to work at a Coal Pit, called Duxbury Park Colliery, near Adlington.

Now during that time, I lived at Tinklers Barracks. I had three miles every morning to go to my work, so it tied me to get up every morning at 4 o’clock, as I did odd jobs about the house, before setting out for my work, at 5 o’clock.

I had to travel down Hoggs Lane, and it was very unpleasant to travel alone, before the trees was cut down, in Tree Steps Wood, but I did it for ten years, in all sorts of weather. I was tied, to start off for my work at 5 o’clock, if I wanted to meet other Pit Brow Lassies for company, at bottom of Hoggs Lane to Pit as there was about ten Lassies from Chorley, and we used to all meet together on River Yarrow Bridge.

So off I set out, with my basket on my arm, and a full can of tea in my hand. 1 wore a red head-wrap, tied around my head, to keep the coal dust out of my hair, then a nice shoulder shawl thrown over my head wrap. I wore a black velvet blouse, and a blue striped Pit Skirt. I made my own Pit Brats, out of Irish Linen. 1 wore a man’s jacket to come home in, also pit breeches as well. 1 took a pride in my clogs, they shone like a raven.

Of I set out to my work, singing to myself, happy as a lark. Some mornings would be pitch dark, sometimes bitter cold frosty mornings; raining, snowing, or blowing, made no difference I had to keep going. 1 remember, one very cold morning, it was knee deep in snow, there was a blizzard on, it had been snowing all night. I don’t know how 1 got down Hoggs Lane, I was covered with snow and I kept falling down. As the snow fell down, it seemed to freeze on my face, but 1 kept plotting through. I didn’t half rub my hands, and suck my fingers, even rub them in my hair. Above once 1 have cried, 1 have been that cold, and so far to travel, but I kept going until I got to Yarrow Bridge Hotel. The lassies was waiting, we could not get any further. First one miner, then another shouting, come on Lassies get hold of our jackets, at back of us, and we’ll pull you to top of Bolton Road. So we was glad of the offer; they kept saying, walk in our foot marks, and we did, and they made us puff. It kept up snowing, we got at top of Bolton Road. We kept meeting miners, as had been working on night shift. As we cross the road to go up Wigan Road, the miners coming back kept shouting, “Turn back lassies, everything is blocked wi’ snow, ther’ll be nowt doing to day, the cont even shunt waggons under Screens, ther’s nowt coming up Pit, only Neetmen”. So we turned back for Whoam, plotting back in snow, icicles on our noses, miners was the same. We got as far back as River Yarrow Bridge. There was a Trap passed us with a miner in it., plotting through the snow, going towards Chorley. We stopped to watch it. There happened to be an old miner in his black face, stood on River Yarrow Bridge, watching the same. If I an not mistaken, it was Old Derry off Duke. We asked him if somebody had got hurt, he says, as he turned round very quick, “I ink there is, I ink there is, two or three, B legs broke”. Whe had to laugh, but we soon found out, it was a miner, that had been on night shift had got hurt, and they was taking him Rawcliffe Hospital.

Morning after, we went to our work as usual, the snow shifters had been, and made a road for us to travel. We manage to get to Pit, but we had no empty waggons, so they sent us running full tubs of coal on Pit Top; as we call it, Pit Brow. We used to wait on Brow for full tubs of coal coming up in cage. The Brow man would be waiting for cage coming up, he would lift up the lever, and push the full tubs out of the cage with his foot. No time lost, the Lassies grabs the tub, and runs it to a shoot which has a tippler, attached to the shoot. We kick the tub of coal, down the shoot, and it runs into a waggon, in rail road below. Now that shoot is called through and through, because more dirt than coal goes down it, copperas as well. Now that coal as to be stacked in rooks, until we get enough empty waggons, to carry on our own work in the Screens. Now, if you’ll take notice, stacked coal, if stacked too long, it starts smouldering. That is with copperas, being left in the coal, when it is being stacked.

Now there was three shoots, and two steel moving belts; each shoot had a shaker attached to it, a iron riddle, as made slack. There was a cobble belt, nut belt, there was seven Lassies on a belt, three on each side, then one lass close to shoot, with a iron rake, ready to spread the coal out, as it was tippled down the shoot. On the belt, at the other end of the Belt, there was a very small shoot, as the coal left the belt it dropped down the Small Shoot, into a eight ton waggon below Screens, in rail road. If it was blowing or raining, the coal dust would fly back up small shoot, into your face and eyes. We did not need rocking when we got home. We was sending as many as, twenty, or over, waggons of coal out per day. Now we had to pick copperas, and dirt out of the coal. Now the copperas was thrown into a copperas box until we had picked ten ton, then after, it had to be thrown on the Belt, and run into a Ten Ton Waggon. That was sent away to big works to be melted down for different purposes. They paid the Lassies a shilling per ton, seven Lassies; that use to happen every three months.

Now the dirt, as we picked out of the coal during the day, had to be thrown at back of us until we knocked out at 4 o’clock. Then the Brakes Man would shunt a dirt waggon, under the belt so we had to start again, shoveling it on belt, and we was dead tired. It took us an hour to fill a dirt wagon. We was leaving Fit at 5 o’clock, and I had three miles to walk back Whoam.

Next day, we would be on a Sample Waggon, a big order had come in for House Coal Nuts, and not until that Waggon was full, dare we look up. While picking out Dirt Copperas and even Shale, while our fingers bled at the end. We had it to do, forsake of us loosing fresh orders. We all had a iron chipper, that’s to chip copperas off coal, and throw remainder on belt, and pick out the dirt at same time off belt, as was going past us.

We had half hour’s break for dinner, and, at that time, I was getting one and twopence per day for a long time. I worked six days per week, and never once late. To prove it, I had a Tally, my number was 952, always on the nail at six. Yes, one and twopence a day, seven shillings per week, threepence stopped out for Sick Pay. I got threepence to spend, and when my mother handed to me, she said, “Here Wench be careful, don’t spent it all at once”. I said, “O Reet Mother” but I did not know how to start spending it because 1 had my own clothes to buy, but I understood Mother. You see, I had no Father, and I was going through a lot of clogs, with Waggon trimmings, but I copied from the miners. As I had to iron my own clogs, I put two sets of irons on my clogs, the small set in middle. They were pretty heavy, but I never bothered if I was saving Mother something. As I said, I love my work, and always look for morning coming, but, that Hoggs Lane, used to get me down in Winter.

1 remember one very dark morning, it rained heaven’s hard, it was that dark, I had to touch the wall now again to know as I was on the right path. As I got to end of the wall, I saw a Black Shadow making its way towards me, then I felt something touch my face. I stop dead, I heard a voice of a man say, “Hello, where are you going a morning like this”. 1 could hardly speak, then I said, to my work to pit. He ask me if I had seen any Police hanging around, I said in a trembling voice, “No, you are the first man I have seen, and you have frightened me to death”. He says, “I won’t harm you, get gone, and if you meet any Policemen, keep your mouth shut, if not I will shut it for you with the end of this gun, I know your time”. “You won’t get away from little Cubin as easy as you think”. I kept on walking, and said, “No I won’t tell”. You see, he had frightened me, and I was only a girl, and I kept my promise, and never told, because I had to travel down Hoggs Lane, years after that. But it was about Christmas time, but as cute as he was, I could hear, there was above one Christmas dinner in the sack. But I never saw him again, but all that day through I was worried. The Lassies thought I was ill, with being quiet, but 1 was thinking of the Black Shadow. But same day, one of the rods belonging to the Pit cage, went wrong so we knocked out, and I got home before dark came on. 1 was glad for sake of Hoggs Lane, I always seem to live in fear, but I was put to the test, and I had it to do.

Now, next morning when I reached the Pit, I had to go trimming waggons. There was ten full waggons which had been filled night before, lying in waggon road; so I took my pick, and threw it on the first waggon, I got on the waggon bumper, then into the waggon; as the waggons kept moving down the lines, as 1 was trimming them, making room for other empty waggons, to be shunted, under the screens, or shunts. By the time I had trimmed my waggons, it had got dinner time. We had half hour for dinner. Then, another lass would go and trim waggons, and I would be sent into Bone-Coal, to do my share of work there, where Bone-Coal was being tipped down the shoot, a tub every ten minutes. There was a iron door across the shoot with iron lever attached to the iron door. Now that was to stop the force of the coal for going too swiftly into the Bone-Coal waggon, below in the rail road below the shoot. Every now and again, the brakes man would lower the Bone-Coal waggon as it was getting full. Now the coal in the shoot would be held up until the Brakes man would shout, “Kech-um-oer”. Then I would be quick, lift up the lever, while about two tons of coal slided in the waggon below. Now, us that waggon was being filled, the Pit Engine would draw along side of my waggon. I had to leave the iron-lever, jump into the bone coal waggon while in motion. I would have to hand large cobs of coal to the Engine Driver, until his coal box was full. His name was Jim Seddon, from Adlington, as 1 handed the coal too. By that time, my waggon had got full of bone coal, the pit engine would draw the waggon from under the shoot down the rail road as I had trimmed, the same waggon as it was being filled. It was a ten ton bone coal waggon, we was sending as many as twenty, or over, of bone coal out each day. It was steam coal, and, we was in need of it for our ships, as there was a war on, South African War. We could not afford to loose a second, and the miners, brow- men, lassies, worked very hard. While it lasted, we had not time to spit out. I seen the miners come up pit, wet through with sweat, wiping their faces on their caps, and staggering home, too double. No buses, no baths. First thing as they did when they got on Wigan Road going home; stop down, and get his old clay pipe from under the hedge, and beg a match off a passer by. The lassies used to say, its funny as they don’t forget where they have hidden these pipes at morning. I said, “A miner never forgets, he marks everything out with white chalk, or string”. A miner is a good sport, but mind you, he works for it. I shall never forget how hard the miners worked, while we was waiting for Wire coming through. As Lady Smith and Mafekine was taken by the British, it came through just after dinner time. The miners knocked out, and came up Pit, the Pit Brow Lassies was waiting to cheer them, and has they came up Pit, they handed us a piece of coal, for a souvenir, and this piece of coal, was given to me, by a young miner. Then all the lassies went back in their cabin, and we had a rough five minutes, singing, and dancing. Then we all went home in our black faces, and one or two miners had their caps at slope. I noticed one old miner, he must have had an accident with his jacket, it was torn right up back, as far as the collar. One miner, as was at back of him, kept shouting, “By Gum Owd Mon, Thou’s Been Having a Ripping Time”. Just his arms, keeping his jacket on, unbuttoned both front and back. But owd miner kept going and shouting back, “A good Soldier never looks behind him”.

A few miners called at Yarrow Bridge Hotel for a drink.

Morning after, we went back to our work, but we had no empty waggons, so we was sent into pit yard down the lines, and we had to stack Pit Props. After that, we would have to chip mortar off old bricks, and stack them, ready for going down the Pit, for building purposes. While my barrow was being filled with bricks, I had my photo taken. Now after that we would be sent under the screens. As there was heaps of coal, and slack lying in waggon road, we had to get a spade and throw it into a eight ton waggon. It was hard, but, I always said, “Hard work never killed nobody”, but it often got me down, on sofa. I have been in my black face at morning, odd times. As I said, we had to fill a eight ton waggon with overflow slack. Now if we wanted to have a drink of water, we had to go the Throstle Nest Wood, fill our cans under the spring, as the water at the Pit tasted of oil.

Now, day after, we would go across to owd Pit, as there was two shafts. Now there is a little jig, leads from one Pit to the other, on a little gangway over a tall wooden bridge. Now, as tubs of coal comes up in cage, the brow man gets the fulluns out. The lassies is waiting to run them to the jig, hooks them on the jig, runs back for another fullun, as the cage is up again. Now, that coal was run across to our Pit, and keck down through, and through shoot. Now the lassies, got a bit fed up, working on owd brow, as there was a furnace down owd pit, and, the sulphur as came up, give us all sore lips, and bad cold, and we all kept sneezing. So we all bobbed, so they sent us back on our own brow, running tubs. But, nothing got wind up me more than Hoggs Lane.

I remember one morning, it was just breaking daylight, I was walking under the Eight Arches. I got aways down the lane. There was a train going over the the Eight Arches, the engine driver blew his whistle. I happened to look around, I waved my hand, it was Chorley Bob, he was a friend of ours. At the same time, I noticed in the thickest part of the hedge, a dirty old sack, full of something. I thought to myself, “What, hens again”, so I coughed aloud, and a man bobbed his head out of top of the sack. His face was black as coal, he was very old, and feeble. He said in a weak voice, “Sure I am not doing any harm here, am 1”. Then, he asked me what time it was, I said, “5-o clock, get back in bed”. But I kept looking around to see if he was following me, but did’ent I teck-um over River Yarrow Bridge. I had to keep smiling to myself, but on the other hand, I felt sorry, poor old man, he was somebodys father.

Next morning, I thought, I’ll have a change I’ll go on canal bank, I shall keep meeting the boats, but, 1 got a surprise instead. I walked under the Perriwinkle Bridge, right to the bend, that, is half way to the Three Steps Bridge and I noticed a girl, sat down on cob side. She was crying. She had her clogs in her hands, and a photograph, of a young man, inside one of her clogs. I saw a navy blue mack, as if she had been sat on it, and a shant close by. I walked close to her, I could see she was in trouble. I asked her, “What is the matter with you love”. She said “I have been in love, with a young man from Chorley, and he as let me down, after two years courtship, and married another girl”. She told me, as she had left her Mother heartbroken at home. My tea, in my can, was hot just coming from home, so I gave her a slice of bread, and a can lid, full of tea, and I coaxed her to come with me. She walked with me, down canal bank, and through Three Step’s Wood. I made her promise she would forget him. I told her to cast him out off her mind, as her face was very beautiful, and it would carry her through the world. I told her as there is somebody better in view for her. Then I asked her if she would go home, and try to piece her mothers broken heart. I walked with her as far as Chorley New Road Bridge. Before 1 left her, she put her head on my shoulder, and cried again, and she said, “1 will go straight back home, and promise to forget”. She bid me good morning, and asked for my address. She was a factory lass, from Bolton. Her parents came to see me and became our family friends.

Morning after, I went to Pit as usual. The Lassies told me, there was a big order had come in, from Green Wood Flour Mill, from Blackburn; then, another order for nuts and cobbles for house coal. We started working in full swing until about 1905, there was a strike amongst miners. They got to know as our Pit was in full swing, and the strikers got to know as our Pit was working. Morning after they landed, with all sorts of weapons, some had pick arms. One or two of the mob, went into Winding Engine House and stopped him for winding coal. Three or four, went on brow and, as the cage came up Pit with full tubs of coal, the strikers said, “Think on, next tubs as comes up shaft, will go down, and not in the cage either; un thee on top of it”. So the browman had to walk off brow, and the mob took command, while all the miners came up Pit. Most of them, had brought their Jack Bit with them from Wigan, so we all knocked out, and went whoam, in our black faces. There was only odd men, working on water jobs, keeping water out of mine places, at forend. I got five shillings per week, while it lasted, out of the sick club, while I was out of work.

Different things used to happen at the Pit. I shall never forget, when Mr. Halliwell, the manager, went on cage top down Pit, with a fitter. Strange to say, he was brought up, dead. It was on a Friday afternoon, so we all knocked out, and went home, for the rest of the day.

So, after that happened, we had a rest for a while, and it started to come light mornings. It was a pleasure to go to my work, especially down Hoggs Lane, and Summer approaching. It was a pleasure to walk down the lane, and a nice summers breeze. 1 would smell the hawthorn blossom on the trees, all way down the lane, and Mr. Joseph Hoggs House, had a lovely orchard, all round the house, and his front garden, full of lovely flowers. It was a pleasure to pass the house. There was Rhododenrons hanging over the wall, and, if I am not mistaken, the same tree, is there yet. Sometime, I would see a rabbit run across road into Three Steps Wood, then disappear. I have seen the Stoke run in the same direction. I have heard and seen the owl, sat on a tree branch, crying like a child. I have heard the Cuckoo, at it best in the trees, and different kinds of birds, singing and whistling, their top notes. But, I could hear one certain bird, above them all, I have often stopped to listen under the same tree to its sweet melody, the Thrush. I began to fetch crumbs, and place them on the old tree stump. It got very tame, it used to fly down, and eat the crumbs, then, fly into the trees, and whistle the top notes, as good to say, thank you — thank you. It echoed through the trees. I could still hear it, as I was passing Yarrow Bridge Hotel. I put the birds down as my companions in Summer.

I turned eighteen years old, so 1 got a rise in my wage, I got two shillings a day. I got a rise, in my spendens as well sixpence, that was top limit, both wage and spendens. I began to think I was a Millionaire. I kept turning it over, and studying, how to spend it for best. I had my own clothes to buy, and very seldom, never too many tasty bits, in my basket, we were too poor. So, I thought first smack off, I’ll go to Hunts Clothing Shop. I’ll treat myself, to one yard of Irish Linen, and make myself a nice Pit Brat. From there, I go to Makins Bread Shop, for two tram Scotches, penny each. I’ll put one in my basket for my Jackbit, and the lassies will think I’m well off. That lot came to five-pence halfpenny, with the halfpenny I had left, I bought a Tommy Dud to break up amongst children. I was studying that at Friday night.

Saturday dinnertime comes, my little comes to me crying, “all the other little boys was going to old Santa’s Theatre, to watch a little dog play a Pinhans and I cannot go”. I fell soft, when he was crying, and gave him threepence.

Yes, I got two shillings per day, but look at the work 1 had to do for it; even at twenty three, so hard I worked, I never got any more.

I think the Pit Brow Lassies are well off, towards what we was, and less work. I believe they are getting over three pounds a week. Look at the Baths, and canteens, and buses, all to make them comfortable. What a big contrast! Now and then, I only wish I was a bit younger, I would tackle it again with a good heart. I used to think at times, I had nobody to look after me, only my Mother, but, I found a friend in God for what I suffered, going to work. Lassies today, will not do it, but all the same, I had a soft heart. I have often cried, when I’ve seen the miners be brought up Pit, dead, or wounded, wondering, who he is, or were he came from. Sometime, he has been under a fall, I mean, stone, and it takes longer to get him out. The head gears is going around very slowly, and everything goes silent. I think a miner should be treated in a proper way, the way he as to risk his life, besides having lumps knocked off him, while he is digging for coal, for you to burn.

This is my point of view:- Treat the miners in the right way, then in return he will treat you, by getting out the coal, and if you will sit back and think, the miner is the Back Bone of England.

Search the NorthWest Labour History Society website