History in the details: Mine Worker's Dress

History in the details: Mine Worker's Dress

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

The mining of iron, lead, tin and coal have all been important to British industry. Reliable images of miners begin with late-Georgian northern surface colliers wearing regular workwear: jacket or waistcoat, breeches, shoes, stockings and hat or cap. Welsh miners developed a special suit for working underground during the 1810s, comprising a thigh-length ‘smock frock’, trousers and pillbox-style hat, the garments thickly padded, offering protection from knocks and for easier kneeling. Similar styles had spread to other areas, including Wigan, by the 1850s, when padded clothing appears in early photographs.

Many women and children also worked in mines, the Children’s Employment Commission’s report of 1842 revealing how women wore only shifts or breeches underground, and ‘teenage’ girls pulled coal trucks through low tunnels, wearing ragged men’s clothes, flimsy shifts, or only half shifts. They also laboured alongside men who sometimes worked naked in the stifling mines. Such ‘immoral’ practises caused public concern and afterwards women, girls and small boys were prohibited from working down the mines. Victorian males aged ten and upwards continued underground, sometimes wearing coarse flannel shirts and padded trousers, although many worked bare chested. Females now operated solely above ground, sorting coal, shifting tubs around the yard and emptying skips. Far from abandoning ‘unsuitable’ clothes, for these laborious tasks many pit-brow lasses in the north and Midlands adopted narrow padded trousers for warmth, easy movement and safety, since full skirts easily caught on moving machinery or coal wagons. On top they wore a shift and waistcoat or hip-length smock frock, a thigh-length padded apron-like skirt layered over the trousers, their headwear a padded hood or linen cap topped with a scarf, feet encased in sturdy clogs. After work they changed into ordinary clothes, returning home as ‘respectable’ women.

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Fustian clothing was traditional in lead mines, due to its dense, partially waterproof quality; footless thigh-length hand-knitted stockings were also used in wet conditions, the oily wool helping to repel rainwater and offering protection when kneeling underground. Some miners wore serious protective clothing by the mid-late 1800s: for example, Cornish tin and lead miners used steel toe-capped boots and a compressed felt hat stiffened with pine resin, called a ‘tull’, although many resisted safety gear, considering it unmanly. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell observed a new hat being worn in coal mines, a light but strong ‘wooden crash helmet’ to guard against heavy blows. Yet protective helmets were not compulsory, and, although hard hats grew more common with increased use of cap lamps, some miners still wore regular cloth caps after WW2. Orwell also noticed how in hotter mines men wore thin drawers, knee pads and clogs; otherwise a shirt or singlet with trousers. Among pit-brow women, some still used trousers or breeches in the early 1900s, but most wore blouses, calf-length sacking skirts and aprons, head shawls, thick stockings and clogs.

Read Jayne’s latest guides to dating photos in the new print edition, Issue 9, available now via discoveryourancestors.co.uk

thick padded clothes worn by Welsh miners
An engraving by A R Blunt, 1819, shows the thick padded clothes worn by Welsh miners
female ‘putter’ pulling coal trucks wearing only a flimsy hald-shift
This illustration from the 1842 Children’s Employment Commission’s Report shows a female ‘putter’ pulling coal trucks wearing only a flimsy hald-shift or makeshift breeches
Wigan pit ‘broo wench’
This 1870s ‘souvenir’ photograph shows a Wigan pit ‘broo wench’ posing in the studio wearing clean but typical Victorian work wear: padded trousers, short over-skirt and hood, with apron, shawl and stout clogs

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