An extract from George Orwell’s
“The Road to Wigan Pier”
At some of the larger and better-appointed collieries there are pithead baths. This is an enormous advantage, for not only can the miner wash himself all over every day, in comfort and even luxury, but at the baths he has two lockers where he can keep his pit clothes separate from his day clothes, so that within twenty minutes of emerging as black as a Negro he can be riding off to a football match dressed up to the nines.But it is only comparatively seldom because a seam of coal does not last forever, so that it is not necessarily worth building a bath every time a shaft is sunk. I can-not get hold of exact figures, but it seems likely that rather less than one miner in three has access to a pithead bath. Probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week.
It is almost impossible for them to wash all over in their own homes. Every drop of water has got to be heated up, and in a tiny living-room which contains, apart from the kitchen range and a quantity of furniture, a wife, some children, and probably a dog, there is simply not room to have a proper bath. Even with a basin one is bound to splash the furniture.
Middle-class people are fond of saying that the miners would not wash themselves properly even if they could, but this innocence, as is shown by the fact that where pithead baths exist practically all the men use them. Only among the very old men does the belief still linger that washing one's legs 'causes lumbago'. Moreover the pithead baths, where they exist, are paid for wholly or partly by the
miners themselves, out of the Miners' Welfare Fund. Sometimes the colliery
company subscribes, some-times the Fund bears the whole cost. But doubtless even at this late date the old ladies in Brighton boarding houses are saying that 'if you give those miners baths they only use them to keep coal in'.
Last verse of poem, (a day in the life of a miner)
Two o'clock in the pithead baths, I'm washing away the grime, Now clean and refreshed I head for home, the bus it arrives on time, On the table my dinner is waiting and it's devoured without delay, With heavy eyes I slump in my chair, at the end of my working day. J. H. Smith. (A Welch miner)
Instead of disposing of their old clothes when new ones were bought, miners would wear these as pit clothes. They would travel to the pit, work their shift and return home in the same clothes. Attached to their belt would be a pair of kneepads, snapping tin, for their food, a helmet and a water bottle slung over their shoulder.
That was until pithead baths were built and work wear was provided.
Some pits had baths in the 1920s but most had none until 1947 when the coalmines were nationalised. (Brought into public ownership)
Then a programme of providing baths was started. Prior to this the Coal Mines Act, 1911, laid down that if a majority of two thirds of the men required pit pithead baths the proprietors were required to provide these facilities. However the men had to make a payment of two pence per week for this privilege.
Some miners resisted the introduction of pithead baths with all sorts of excuses such as immodesty of communal bathing, catching colds and weakening their backs.
However the payment of two pence per week was probably the main reason, particularly when they had a good supply of hot water at home.
Where baths were provided miners would come to the pit in their travelling clothes, enter what was known as the clean side lockers, take off their clothes then take their soap and towel through into the dirty side lockers. Here they would put on their pit clothes or (work wear.) and go underground.
When the shift was over they would do the same in reverse, having a bath in the meantime of course. As temperatures varied from pit to pit and even in different parts of the same pit, clothing would also vary. At the shaft bottom of a downcast shaft, this was where the fresh air was drawn down. In winter times men would wear thermal underwear and extra layers of clothing. While in hotter parts of the mine the clothing worn would be football shorts, boots and stockings.
Footwear was also an element of clothing. Prior to the hobnailed boots, were the clogs, and then the more modern boots had extra hardwearing rubber soles plus steel toe capped Wellingtons for working in wet conditions. Elizabeth Andrews 1882 – 1960 was the first woman organiser for the Labour Party in Wales and a tireless campaigner for better social conditions. Her evidence to the Sankey Commission led to the inception of pithead baths at collieries – until then the dirt and dust of the mines had been carried home each night. The drying of pit clothes in overcrowded kitchens contributed to a high infantmortality rate and the strain of shifting heavy tubs and boilers took its toll on mothers.