The Toughest Half
330 pages

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330 pages

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Lasting barely two centuries throughout the 1700s and 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in Britain propelled the country into the role of the world's premier industrial nation. Known as the 'midwife of the Industrial Revolution' coal was, literally, the driving force behind this power.

Although referred to as 'the black diamond', coal is not a thing of beauty, yet like the true diamond, it is representative of power and wealth.

Coal mining usually evokes images of tough men, glistening with the sweat of underground toil. We talk about man-power and manual labour; the industry has become synonymous with men. Rarely, if ever, do women come to mind, yet, until an Act of 1942 banned them from working down the mines, women worked alongside men, their toil equally as gruelling in conditions jut as appalling. Forbidden by Victorian prudery from working underground, they were replaced, at much greater expense to the mine owners, by ponies.

The efforts of these women, every bit as responsible as men for creating Britain's once greatest industry, have rarely been acknowledged.

During the 1926 general strike and lockout, Herbert Smith, President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, reported that half the attendees at union meetings were women, "And these", he insisted, "are always the toughest half."

This book tells of the history of coal and coal mining from mediaeval times to the demise of the industry in Britain in the 1990s, and describes women's role in this history and how it affected their lives.

Through a combination of historical narrative, fiction and biography, the book gives a voice to these diminished 'others' - wives, mothers and daughters - whose persistence, courage, pride and sacrifice also contributed to the profits of wealthy mine owners.

Their stories are told through the prism of historical events - the frightened little girl forced to work alone in subterranean darkness, the poverty-stricken young woman confronting an unwanted pregnancy, those enduring the loss of sons and partners to a deadly occupation and women who, through adversity, took the opportunity to publicly reveal their collective strength.

Gentle and gruff, warm-hearted and implacable, these battlers against grime, beaters of carpets, painters, decorators and cooks, activists and staunch supporters of strikes and lockouts, underpinned the foundations of Britain's coal industry.

Woven through this book is the true story of the author's mother, a miner's daughter. Her life too was hard and closely entwined with coal mining to which she made, over many years, a considerable contribution not only to the industry but to the mining communities in which she worked.



Publié par
Date de parution 01 juillet 2021
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781876498733
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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First published 2020 by Ryan Publishing
PO Box 7680,
Melbourne, 3004 Victoria,
Ph: 61 3 9505 6820

Title: The Toughest Half : Women Who Underpinned Britain’s Greatest Industry
ISBN: 9781876498610 : Paperback
ISBN: 9781876498672 : Hardback
ISBN: 9781876498733 : eBook
Copyright © Elizabeth Stewart
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be addressed to the publisher.
Internal design by Luke Harris, Working Type Studio, Victoria, Australia.
Other Creators/Contributors: Graeme Ryan, editor.
Cover: Designed by Luke Harris & Graeme Ryan.
Introduction: Memories of a Grandmother
Chapter 1: A Poor Collier Lass: Rebecca’s memories
Rebecca’s young life is one of poverty and deprivation. As a small child she is employed to work down a coal mine, alone and in the dark. The only semblance of affection she receives is from her older sister with whom she shares her penurious existence in a tiny hovel. Rebecca sees the appalling conditions in which women and girls, sometimes little older than herself, are forced to work until an act of Parliament brings an end to these conditions. Only then can Rebecca finally begin to hope for a better future.
Chapter 2: Let’s Talk about Women
In the Victorian era, the home is regarded as the rightful place for women. Women who work outside the home are seen to be contravening the prevailing patriarchal, middle class ideal of femininity. Women who endure the harshest working conditions are held in particularly low esteem; even their working apparel is considered an affront to the complacent emerging bourgeoisie. Although the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act eventually prohibits women and girls from working underground, it is prudery rather than altruism which brings about its passage.
Chapter 3: Coming of Age
Nan, whose life story is woven into this history of women and coal mining, is introduced. World War I and its effect on mining and the role of women are discussed. Social conditions, including childbirth, are chronicled against the background of Nan’s early life and career choice , a choice which is relevant to this book.
Chapter 4: Jenny and Tommy
The story of Jenny and Tommy epitomises the story of a young miner and his wife. It tells of their backgrounds and how Tommy comes to be a miner and Jenny a miner’s wife. Jenny describes the life and routine of a young miner’s wife in a growing mining community from the beginning of the 20th century.
Chapter 5: Where there’s muck: Birth of a Coal Community
1900–1914: Describes the environment in which Jenny and Tommy grew up. The chapter documents the origins of Creswell, the village central to the book. It narrates the history of the sinking of the mine, building the village and the beginning of its social life, emphasising the role of, and effect on, the women who became miners’ wives.
Chapter 6: Cleanliness: Women’s Work
The beginning of Nan’s career coincides with the post WWI era of freedom for women. However, the optimism of this new found emancipation is not shared by all women. Through the medium of a small Welsh mining village in 1920, the chapter describes the harsh conditions endured by working miner’s wives
Chapter 7: Every heart deserves a mate: Carys’s Dilemma
The chapter introduces Meg and Gwyn Thomas. It tells of their meeting and marriage but, more importantly, the story of Gwyn’s sister-in-law. Carys is a typical miner’s wife at that time – young, numerous children, influenced by nonconformist preaching and the victim of paternalism. She is also largely ignorant in matters of contraception.
Chapter 8: Godliness and Childbirth: Matters of Fertility
A discussion on birth control, the work of Marie Stopes and its relevance to women in such mining communities.
Chapter 9: Not a penny off the pay…
1918–1927: The background and events leading to the 1926 General Strike and subsequent lockout of miners are narrated. The strike has significant unfortunate consequences for miners and their wives.
Chapter 10: Isn’t it marvellous?
1926–1927: Conditions experienced in mining communities are contrasted with the attitude of the upper classes towards the strike and the harsh effect of the miners’ lockout on the wives and families of miners. Many notable women emerge from this turbulent time but the adverse effects of the lockout are long-lasting. An epilogue to the chapter summarises the lives of three remarkable women and their work during the time of industrial unrest.
Chapter 11: Solo Once More
During the years 1930–1947 Nan’s career advances. She meets Jack and marries but unexpected circumstances eventually bring her to Creswell and to her future life. Two important government initiatives affect her life and her career.
Chapter 12: Taking off the ‘L’ plates
1948–1950: Nan moves to Creswell and eventually to the colliery. The village has prospered after experiencing the effects of WWII.
Chapter 13: Dirt and Dust: Miner’s Safety, at last
Mid-19th century–1948: The chapter describes the dangers to health faced by coal miners and outlines early safety interventions which led to the development of occupational health nursing and its application to coal mining.
Chapter 14: Pit boots, Sutures and Foreign Bodies
1950–1967: Nan begins work at Creswell colliery. This chapter describes the contemporary social life of a village community, Nan’s work as a pit nurse and anecdotes associated with her work culminating in her retirement.
Chapter 15: Fire!
Tragedy strikes and Nan is in the midst of the disaster. The chapter describes events and the technical factors leading up to the colliery disaster, the rescue attempts and the aftermath.
Chapter 16: Sweetheart and Wife: Freda’s Story
Freda was born into and lived in the Creswell mining community all her life. Her husband is killed in the 1950 disaster. We are re-introduced to Meg, now an elderly widow.
Chapter 17: 1984, Beginning of The End: Losing the Battle The strike to end all strikes
Events leading to the 1984–85 miners’ strike: The strike – including the main protagonists, police behaviour and its conclusion.
Chapter 18: The Aftermath
Nan views from afar the chaos tearing ‘her community’ apart
Chapter 19: Annette’s Memoirs, 1984
Annette, the wife of a striking miner, narrates events which occur during the year of the strike and how, in particular, the strike affects her and her family.
Chapter 20: We are women, we are strong
The work of miners’ wives and the role they play in supporting the strike.
Chapter 21: Extinguishing the Spark: The end of coal?
1987 onwards: The end of the coal mining industry in Britain and its effect on coal communities.
Chapter 22: Last Look
Present day: Dr Davey Thomas, Meg’s grandson, visits Creswell after 30 years working overseas. He describes his impressions and memories of the village, acknowledging the lives of his mother and grandmother, typical miners’ wives.
Post Scriptum
Appendix: Igniting the Spark: How this mineral changed so many lives
Writing this book was a relatively isolated process. I confided my intent to write to very few people. Who, I thought writes their first a book in their seventies, and then expects that it will be published? However, those in whom I did confide rewarded my confidence with an abundance of support, moral and practical, which encouraged me to see the project to its conclusion.
Foremost among my confidants and supporters is my husband, Con O’Brien. With the utmost patience he guided me through the (to me) intricacies of the computer, was a constructive and sympathetic sounding board for my ideas, a painstaking editor of early drafts and never complained when he returned home to find the dining room table occupied by a computer and littered with numerous files and papers instead of any evidence of dinner. Thank you Con!
My daughter, Jacquie O’Brien, an ardent feminist and professional communicator cheered me on when at times I thought my efforts were futile. Her succinctness and eye for detail were invaluable.
When I considered the book was complete, further encouragement came from Graeme Ryan at Ryan Publishing who pronounced the book “publishable”. This was when the real work began! Thank you Graeme for your professional help, advice and patience, and for introducing Luke Harris from Working Type who compiled the book, designed its cover and organised the illustrations which transformed the manuscript into an actual book.
Although I cannot acknowledge any practical assistance from my mother, Nan Stewart, the story of her life was predominantly the inspiration for this book. She spent much of her life living and working among mining women in a coal mining community. Because of this close relationship many of the children of mining women became my childhood friends. Indeed, many of them may well have eventually become miners’ wives. Being invited into their homes gave me an insight into their lives and into the uniqueness of their community. This book also acknowledges their hard work, sacrifice and contribution to coalmining, once Britain’s greatest industry.
T he evening of Monday 25 September 1950 was the 268th evening of the year. After a sunny but cool summer, autumn had brought cloudy weather and sh

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