‘Pit Brow lass’ was the local nickname in Lancashire for women who worked in the mines. From ‘riddling’ to ‘thrutching’ coal tubs, these women in the late 19th and early 20th century became reputable subversives through their radical conduct and dress. They would’ve been family members, friends and lovers of rapper team members, and most likely created and mended their costumes.
Their livelihoods were constantly in jeopardy, after the government outlawed women and children working underground in the 1840’s, many moved upstairs to the ‘pit brow’. Forced to suffer the severe cut backs to their family incomes, women found ways to defy or bend the law, some individuals ‘passing’ as men in order to continue their work underground. One such account (written by an unknown source, entitled ‘The Pit Brow Lass’) was made in reference to the diaries of Arthur Munby*.
‘One story he tells is of a woman who dressed as a man so she could work underground. […] Her underground work was short lived once it was realised she was female. To the question why did she want to work underground she simply answered “I liked it”.’
The Pit brow lasses adopted practical attire, which allowed them freedom in movement and greater warmth, they wore ‘mens coats’, and rolled up their skirts to reveal trousers (or hoggers), the latter thought particularly contentious even by mining women in adjoining districts. This disturbance of 'decency betwixt men and women’ (Victorian Working Women, M. Hiley and A. Munby, 1980) subjected the Pit Brow Lasses to the pervasive dogma instituted by Victorian capitalist patriarchy that regarded gender non-conformity as a strand of deviant behavior.
The High Spen Blue Diamonds
Finding records of similar narratives to the above is a difficult task due to potential dangers those individuals transgressing strict gender ideologies faced, but the accounts that do exist help inform the wider history of individuals aligning themselves with Queer, Trans* and non-normative gender-expressions. The motivations of these brave individuals are undoubtedly diverse, reflecting economic instability, individual desires, familial and communal concerns. Some of these individuals, in “liking it”, may also have wanted to carve out different identities and liminal ways of being for themselves.
*Notes on Munby:
A Victorian British diarist, who recorded and published observations about Victorian working class women. His fetish was particulary focused on those working in harsh conditions and extended to collecting hundreds of photos of them. (Wikipedia)
P. Holden, True Story of a Lancashire Pit Brow Lass, 1947, Chorley Library
M. Hiley, A. Munby, Victorian Working Women: Portraits from Life,1980
L. Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making history from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, Beacon Press, 1997
M. Cutpurse, The Tragic and Transgendered world of Margaret ‘Bill’ Allen, 2012