The centre-piece of the exhibition consists of the 12 head and shoulder “Pit Girls” portraits by Hilary Barry, based on the photographs taken by William Clayton. Around these, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum has drawn on its own collection of artefacts to add to and expand on the story of the women and the conditions in which they lived and worked.
Hilary’s interest in the Pit Girls originated with a piece on BBC Radio 4, in which the commentator suggested that women being recruited into the workforce during WW1 were the first recorded instances of female industrial labour. Hilary was sure she recalled stories from her Welsh background of women working down the mines long before that date.
Looking into it further she remembered Jeremy Deller and Roger Malbert’s book “All that Is Solid Melts into Air”, which included photographs taken by William Clayton in the 19th Century of women mine workers from Tredegar. One striking element common to all the images was that every woman, regardless of the condition of their other working clothing, wore a hat, decorated with whatever accessories she was able to obtain.
Further research revealed that Manchester Art Gallery owned the photographs, so she contacted them for further details. Acting on their advice, she learned about Arthur Mumby – a London solicitor who had commissioned the photographs – and in early 2019 visited Tredegar Museum to try to find more information on the women in the pictures. She was saddened but not surprised to learn that none exists, other than in the court records of the day as the women, paid less than the children who worked alongside them, were often forced to steal coal from the surrounding slagheaps and subsequently arrested.
Working in appalling conditions the “Pit Girls”, as they were called, continued in the mines until 1842, when a Parliamentary Act put an end to women and children working underground. Canny mine owners, not wishing to lose a valuable source of cheap labour, promptly moved them to equally arduous work above ground, where they were subsequently known as the “Tip Girls”.
In Hilary’s own words: “Next to no information exists about these women. In particular – and unlike their male counterparts, for whom at least one mine-owner commissioned a series of paintings, each identified by the name and trade of the sitter – none of their names are recorded. I wanted to give a voice to the portraits of these silent and forgotten women.” This formed the basis for a series of 12 portraits.
Hilary has exhibited widely and taken part in many Selected Group Shows throughout the UK, and had several Solo Exhibitions in London.
(Image: Nesta Lewis by Hilary Barry)