Source - including more pictures: The Western Morning News
By Simon Parker
That was the West that was - Bal Maidens
The story of the men who toiled deep underground in Cornwall’s mines has been much told. But what of the women, the bal maidens, who laboured “at grass” on the surface? During Victorian times particularly, mining women were employed in great numbers. They prepared tin and copper ore for smelting, worked at domestic jobs in the count-houses, and attended to mine animals.
“Bal” is the Cornish word for a mine and the maidens usually began their working lives at around ten years of age. During the mid-1800s one of their biggest employers was Camborne’s vast Dolcoath mine, but the Consols and United Mines in the Gwennap area, and Fowey Consolidated also took hundreds of women.
The women’s jobs were repetitive, often dirty and wet, their hours long. Breaking up the ore for smelting was exhausting work, using heavy hammers to smash the stone into small pieces, often with little shelter from the weather. Compared with the men, wages were poor, around 4d (2p) per day for younger girls, rising to perhaps 1 shilling (5p), and if the women couldn’t work they weren’t paid.
Despite the unenlightened times though, some women escaped their numbing manual toil. Recently, a Victorian photograph has emerged of a mysterious well-dressed woman who came to prominence at Wheal Peevor, a mine near Redruth. Grim and austere, her image glares out at us – but who was she?
Lynne Mayers, a published authority on bal maidens who has examined the old photo, said: “If the ascription’s correct, this rather fearsome-looking lady was named Grace Polkinghorne. My guess is that she was either the widow of one of the mine agents or the count-house woman who stayed on at Peevor after its closure in 1889. We may never know for sure who she was – but she certainly looks a force to be reckoned with.”
More mysteries are preserved at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. Two anonymous paintings, probably 19th century, show Cornish mining scenes. Each includes bal maidens, some wearing the distinctive white “gook”, a stiff protective bonnet. But how true-to-life are the pictures in portraying the women’s real jobs and appearance?
The paintings aren’t on general view, but Lynne Mayers has visited the museum’s store to study them. She said: “In the first painting, women are helping to weigh the ore, as well as shovelling and hand-barrowing the material. It seems the mine is preparing for sampling day. Ore was laid out in exact-sized heaps, or doles, and subjected to careful analysis of mineral content, ready for sale. The second painting shows maidens sorting the ore at tables, and one is sieving the material. Other women seem to be cobbing, breaking the ore into small pieces, with slightly de-curved cobbing hammers. This suggests a copper or, possibly, a lead mine.”
Similarity of subject, broadly comparable colour pallets and style of brush strokes suggest the two paintings may well be by the same artist. But what sources did he or she consult for the women’s portrayal?
“Possibly the maidens have been modelled on those shown in Thomas Allom’s 1831 print of Dolcoath mine, or an engraving in the 1842 book Itinerary of Cornwall by Cyrus Redding,” suggested Lynne.
The paintings’ depictions are certainly close to the old images, and consistent with descriptions of the women’s work which have come down to us. That said, soft colours and a sense of cheerful bustle serve to play down the reality of gruelling daily grind.
Lynne has also uncovered stories of a few women who became mine managers, which was most unusual in Victorian times.
“Several senior mining women had been left widows, and took over their late husbands’ businesses,” she said. “Lydia Taylor ran Wheal Lovell in Wendron and it seems she was also involved in South Wheal Towan copper mine – also, unsurprisingly, known as Wheal Lydia. But another woman, a Mrs Gully, made a less than positive name for herself. In 1841 a complaint was brought against her for selling shares in Wheal Trevenson – a non-existent mine.”
For more on Cornish mining women, visit Lynne Mayers’ website, balmaiden.co.uk
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