“My name is Sophia. I am 15 years old. I am one of 4 children, with two brothers age 10 and 7 and a sister who is 4. Our father is a miner at the local mine, and I am very proud to work with him at the mine too. I am a Bal Maiden which means that I work on the dressing floors of a mine where we break up and sort the rock ore that the miners bring up from the mine. Bal means mine and maiden means girl and that’s how we got the name.
I am going to tell you about a typical day in my life. I wake up at 4 in the morning and help prepare breakfast and something to take for lunch. If we have a little bit of money to spare it will be a barley pasty, but most days I make a hoggan from barley flour with a bit of potato in it. I put this in my little white bag as well as some dried mugwort leaves for tea and tie it around my waist.
Bal Maidens have a special way of dressing and are very interested in fashion. Unlike other ladies who wear ankle length skirts or dresses, Bal Maiden’s skirts are calf length so it is easier for them to work. I like to wear many petticoats to give myself a full skirt as that is the fashion. I also wear a blouse and shawl. The most important thing for me is to make sure my bonnet which is called a gook and my walking out apron are as white and clean as possible. I only have one pair of shoes, they are wooden soled boots.
We leave home at 5.30 in the morning and walk 4 miles along the cliff paths to work. I carry another apron made of rough hessian called a towser over my arm. When I reach the dressing floors, which are on the cliff side next to the mine entrance where my father works, I take off my white walking out apron and change it for my towser.
My work is very dirty. The tin ore that I work with has a red stain that gets on my clothes and skin and is very difficult to get clean. For this reason, although I like to look as neat and tidy as possible, my work clothes are not my best and most fancy which I save for chapel on Sunday.
My normal job is griddling (sieving) the crushed ore. Any ore that is too large to pass through the holes in the griddle gets taken back to be recrushed. The powdered ore that passes through is removed in hand barrows. Very often I work at barrowing as well.
There are many different jobs on the dressing floors depending on whether tin or copper ore is brought up. The men and large boys break up the large pieces of rock that come up from the mine. This is called spalling and long handled hammers called spalling hammers are used to do the smashing. Then the rock is broken up even smaller with a small cobbing hammer. The waste rock is separated from the ore on picking tables.
Other people work machines called stamps which smash the wet tin ore into a fine mud. Most of us Bal Maidens wear protective bands on our hand and legs and often get hurt by rocks and hammers. Most of the jobs use water and we all get wet and muddy.
At lunchtime the younger girls meet up and have lunch together. We heat a kettle of water and make mugwort tea, we take out our bags and eat our hoggans, which are very hard and dry and do not nearly fill us up enough. After lunch I take out my crochet from my pocket and talk with the other girls.
My normal working hours are 7 in the morning till 5.30 at night, with an hour for lunch. I cannot tell you how tired I am at the end of a working day. If the weather is bad I get cold and wet and when it is hot I get sunburned and overheated. There is very little shelter for us on the cliff side.
When I get home, I help prepare a hot supper and try to dry my clothes by the fire if they are wet. I help get my younger brothers and sister to bed and then like to listen to the stories of my father’s adventures down the mine. I go to bed at 8.30.”
Who was Sophia Waters?
Sophia Waters was my 1st cousin 4x removed, born in St Agnes in 1814 to parents Elizabeth and Richard. As you can see from the registration document above she was a “real Bal Maiden” although her story is one I adapted from one similar written by/for the Geevor Tin mine which I gratefully acknowledge.
Sophia never married, she was a Bal Maiden for most of her life; the 1851 Census shows her living solely with her father after the death of her mother, the 1861 Census shows her living alone after her father’s death. By the time of the 1871 Census we see something so typical of the times for an ageing spinster with Sophia now living in the St Clements Workhouse in Truro! I cannot find her in the 1881 Census so I assume she died before it was taken though I cannot find any documented evidence …… yet, but I intend to keep looking. I have at least 6 other relatives who were Bal Maidens, including a 4x removed great aunt, Jane, who has a very different story I will relate in a subsequent post.
Culture and Community
Before we go further, listen to this, a simple example of a Bal Maiden’s song by Cornish folk with a sense of their culture and heritage. Try to imagine young women like Sophia as you listen and understand their pride in their work and sense of comradeship and community.
History of Bal Maidens
Before about 1720, mining operations in Cornwall were very simple. Where mining was a family concern, the men and older boys would be involved in the heavier work. The women, girls and younger boys may have been involved in washing, panning, sorting ore from waste, or grinding or breaking down rock-bearing ore.
From about 1720 onwards, with more reliable water pumps, ore could be raised from deeper levels. Mines began to employ in much larger numbers, including the workers needed to dress the copper and tin ores being raised. It was mainly women and children who were taken on for these tasks and they became known as Bal Maidens, Bal being the Cornish language word for “mining place. Girls generally started work between the ages of 10 and 15 years, but some were only 6 or 7. They would usually continue at the mine until they were married. Older single women and widows were also employed. In the 1840s and 1850s, depending on age, they would be earning between 4d and 8d per day. By about 1880 this had increased to 8d to 12d.
As ore was brought to the surface at the tin mines, it was initially broken by male labourers, and then ‘spalled’ (broken) by older women or girls, using a long handled hammer. This was then stamped and the resulting finest material sent for separation (usually attended by boys). It then went for further separation until the finest slimes of all were separated at the tin frames. Girls or boys attended the first of these two operations. Framing was a highly delicate task, and was allocated to younger women and girls. The jigging (sieving) of the heavier particles was a task done by stronger boys or women (when done by hand), or by boys or girls when using the semi-mechanised jigging boxes.
A Royal Commission
Due to growing concern at the plight of children working in the mines of the UK, a Royal Commission submitted a report to the Government in 1842. Dr. Charles Barham (a mine surgeon) collected evidence for the inquiry from some of the Cornish mines. In the course of this work he interviewed 22 young Bal Maidens in 1841, and a record of these interviews appears in the Balmaiden website.
Here’s one of those interview records:
Sally Fall, 19 years old (Truro, March 17th 1841)
She suffers from pain in the left side, palpitation and shortness of breath. She has worked among the Gwennap Mines. She has of late years been chiefly employed bucking (grinding). She considers she overstrained herself last Whitsuntide on lifting a heavy weight. She went to work at 11 and did not feel it hard till she was laid up with inflammation in her side when about 13 years of age. She did not go to school and can hardly read. Her mother has six children; one boy is about 17 and he works at Tresavean underground. He went underground about nine years old. His father died of cancer. His death obliged them to go to work early. He reads tolerably in the Bible and enjoys good health. His mother is afraid his slight living may injure him as he grows fast. A younger boy which is about 10 has worked at the stamping mills for about twelve months and has not suffered. The other children are younger. (Stout and florid, but constitutionally disordered).
Sadly this Royal Commission from 1842 didn’t seem to have much effect on the working conditions of these girls as typified by this accident report in the Plymouth Journal, March 1st 1862. The subsequent inquest recorded “accidental death” stating that the girl was partly to blame herself and so no blame was attached to the mining company and no compensation was paid to the family!
I have used a number of websites in my research as well as family items from Ancestry.com, if you are interested in the history, work and culture of England’s Bal Maidens I recommend and acknowledge:
Categories: 1800s, Cornwall, Imaginative Ancestry, Lucky Dip, Waters
This has been so informative, I didn’t know about Bal maidens until today. What difficult work it must have been, what interesting lives.
(Oof re: the mining companies operating with impunity since a very long time ago…)
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Thank you for sharing Sophia’s story. Your genealogy research is a labor of love: giving voice to the voiceless.
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Thanks Patrick it occupied me alongside writing It’s Not About The Wine during the first lockdown. I’m reblogging one each week for a little while. 🙏🕉
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