The Penwith Papers

Bal Maidens at Work 1857

Bal Maidens at Work 1857


We were on a mine a few days since at which the sampler was weighing off the ores sold at previous ticketing; there being a scarcity of hands (men) on the floors, Mary and Nanny were called on to assist, at which two amazons rushed forward to the work. Now, to those unaccustomed to such scenes, it will be necessary to observe that the ton of copper ore consists of 21 cwts., which are weighed seven times in hand barrowsi, containing 3cwts. These girls were employed to fill these barrows with copper ore with the long-handled Cornish shovel, and carry them a distance of several yards; after weighing, they have to carry them several yards further to another heap, where they upset the ore, and then go to the pile to refill. This may appear very easy, and all very well, but let any strong man try the experiment, and he will find the task a most laborious one, and such as but very few can stand for two or three hours. These poor girls wrought most vigorously, being spurred on to the task by the challenges of the men; such as “Bravo, Mary!”, “Well done, Nanny!” and amid coarse jokes and jeers that were not fit for ears polite, and certainly such as young girls had better not have heard. The sampler urged that they should get men to the work - that it was not fit employ for girls, but to no purpose; the poor girls were obliged to execute the toilsome work, the perspiration streaming from their faces in copious floods. The lifting such weights from the ground is hard work; then the depositing it on the scale, again lifting, and the twisting to upset such a burthen, is quite improper to the female frame, and ought never to have been allowed. But so it is, and that too frequently.”

In this astonishing account written by George Henwood,ii Mary and Nanny together had repeatedly to lift, carry and twist 3 hundredweight [cwt] of ore seven times. So each woman carried 1 ½ cwt which is 168 pounds [lbs] or 76.2 kg plus the weight of their half of the barrow.

It is instructive to compare this with current UK’s Health and Safety Executive Guidelines: they recommend that women should lift no more than 16kg and this does not take account of frequency, twisting, pushing or pulling!

Of course the above occasion was exceptional in that 1 ½ cwt, not 3cwt, appears to have been the normal load at this date. However it is not surprising that in interviews in 1842,iii bal maidens reported the following ‘complaints’; many of these were clearly due to strain while others were often diagnosed as a consequence of poor diet.


  • Pain in arm from heavy lifting

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakness in legs

  • Pain in side

  • Palpitations

  • Headaches

  • Dyspepsia

  • Stunting [short growth]

  • Eruption of the skin

  • Fits

  • Gastrodynia [stomach pains]

  • Ammorrhoea [not menstruating]; ‘disorder of system’ and ‘constitutionally disordered’ were possible allusions to this condition

  • Chlorosis [anemia]

i The Oxford English dictionary defines handbarrow as “A flat, rectangular frame used to transport loads, consisting of transverse bars, with shafts at the front and rear, by which it is carried by two people. Now chiefly historical.”

ii Henwood, George Memoirs of Mines and Miners, Mining Journal, 1857, p 709.

iii The Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children and Young Persons in the Mines of Cornwall and Devonshire, 1842 (Barham Report) Appendix A WJ Henwood


The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

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