Women In Wigan A Century Past; Water And Gendered Sustainability Now

Wigan Pier canal historic statue of woman miller The 8th of March is International Women’s Day, an occasion to look both back and forward. We have here some photos and text reminding us gently how grim life was for working class women and children in the mills (and often for their mining menfolk too) a mere century ago. Happily, Wigan Pier and the canals are now a tourist destination alongside a modern Investment Centre; but around 1910 a different story – not least about the uses of water – was being told. The challenge remains to secure the same progress as we’ve seen here, in ensuring healthy and constructive lives for women and their families everywhere across the globe.
Wigan Pier canal Trencherfield Mill historic notice
Here’s the text of this notice, displayed by the towpath at Wigan Pier:
When cotton was king
as told by a cotton worker circa 1910

It’s hot int’ mill wi’ lots o’ noise. On a nice day, we’ll take our lunch ont’ towpath an’ eat snaps* from’t snaps tins.
It’s a 5-and-a-half day week for us cotton workers, that’s 12 hours a day and half a day on Saturday.
We’ve all got nimble fingers , especially the Piecers’. They’re mainly children, who nip under the spinning machines to tie the broken cotton back together again.
Some of us work on the spinning machines and some on the carding machines. The mill takes a raw bale of cotton, cleans it, twists it and spins it into fine yarn.
The humidity in the mill keeps the cotton damp so it’s easier to spin without snapping.
There are five floors of machinery – all powered by the Trencherfield Mill Engine.
The noise is deafening – we stuff cotton from the floor in our ears to protect them. We communicate using ‘Me-Mawing’ – a mixture of sign language and lip reading.
We work in our bare feet because our clogs could spark on the concrete floor and set the cotton bales alight.
We wake early doors to the sound of the Trencherfield steam whistle summonin’ us t’mill for another day. But as they say – England’s bread hangs on Lancashire’s thread.

[* a snack favoured also by the men of Wigan, many of them miners, usually bread-and-dripping, with cold tea, carried in a flat tin called a snap-can – see George Orwell‘s The Road to Wigan Pier]
And here is the towpath which a century ago provided fresh air and respite for those mill workers as they ate their lunch-time snaps:
09.03.06 Wigan Pier canal & towpath
Wigan Pier Quarter & canals notice
[Public display boards by Wigan Heritage Services]
The power of water
And so, strangely, we come full-circle.
Water – the canals, the steam – was the power behind the early production of textiles, employing many women and children in horrendous conditions, as the full logic of the Industrial Revolution took its vice-like grip on the emerging economies of what we have come to know as the ‘developed world‘; but even now in other parts of the globe water remains both a critical force potentially for good, and often an almost unattainable resource.
Women as water workers
Vast numbers of women and children in the developing world continue to toil many hours a day just to obtain water to sustain their very existence.
Life in places like Wigan was harsh and short for women and men, alike, a century ago. It remains, as Oxfam tells us in the topical context of International Women’s Day, particularly harsh even now for women in places such as Iraq, where water continues to be inaccessible for many.
The gendered meanings of sustainability
This is where we begin to understand what ‘sustainability‘ is really about…. the just and equitable distribution of basic physical resources and accessible socio-economic opportunities, for everyone, women as much as men, the world over.
In terms of future global sustainability and equity, as the Gender and Water Alliance also reminds us, water remains a critically gendered issue.

Read more about Gender & Women and about Sustainability As If People Mattered and Water; and see more photographs of around Liverpool & Merseyside.

Posted on March 8, 2009, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Events And Notable Dates, People And Places, Photographs And Images, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. i worked in the mines in the fifties and sixties, and a snap tin was called at to tommy tin

  2. Thanks for a very interesting piece. I’d love to hear people’s views about the well known painting by Eyre Crowe http://www.revealinghistories.org.uk/why-was-cotton-so-important-in-north-west-england/objects/the-dinner-hour-wigan.html (I should add that water doesn’t feature in it but no doubt the canal was very nearby.)

    There seems to be some disagreement about the lone dark-clad male in the background:policeman or millowner? (Either way presumably intended as a figure of authority?)

    All comments and insights welcome; likewise details of other paintings on related topics from that era.

  3. Angela Allison

    I’m trying to find out about a painting of women miners in Wigan in 1880s. I think it was done by ‘Arthur Wassa’, but I can find no details.

    Can anyone help?

  4. Talking of full circles, and a modern success story that picks up on the interactions of Wigan, women, water, and enterprise; Wigan now has a highly successful microbrewery (the Prospect Brewery) set up and run by an enterprising lady called Patsy Slevin from her own garage. I don’t know Patsy at all, but first heard of her on TV. In 2008 she was nominated for several small business awards. This clearly shows that enterprising people can create sustainable businesses at the “local economic” level. Here is one lady who is clearly “having her day” and looking forward.

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