"Ah'd Gaa Back Tomorra!" Find!
When I read "The Cumberland Coast" by Neil Curry (see earlier find) he mentioned in the chapter about Whitehaven how the screen lasses worked sorting and grading the coal at the local pits. This caught my attention and after some good detective work I have now found and read this wonderful book "Ah'd Gaa Back Tomorra!" which is a compilation of the memories of the West Cumbrian Screen Lasses. This gem of a book was published in 2004 by the Whitehaven Miners' Memorial and Living History Project. The book was the end result of a series of oral history workshops run by the Workers' Educational Association.
As Sue Donnelly, the W.E.A. Development Worker says in the foreword: 'The women we encountered in these workshops are women of spirit, resilient in the way they often faced early hardship and the hard physical work of the screens. But the tales they tell are also full of camaraderie and laughter. What they all cherish most are their memories of the mining community and the collective willingness amongst neighbours and workers to give support and to share what little they had with one another when times got hard'.
Many of the women came from large families with up to eleven children for the parents to feed and care for. Many of them recall the deaths of brothers and sisters in infancy and most of them started work between the ages of 14 and 16. Their working clothes consisted of a pinny, clogs with stockings pulled over them, called 'scoggers', to keep their feet warm, white scarves round their heads with a beret on top and a coat, tightly buttoned.
Annie explains what a screen lass did: 'We stood at a 'table', which was a conveyer belt carrying coal on it. Our job was to pick out all the slate and stone, which was termed 'metal' or 'brass' and pile it up around us until there was hardly room left to stand. There were two or three tables with different sizes of coal on each. Big coal was called the six-quarter table and we had to take turns on each table. Then the gaffer, George (Geordie) Smith, who was watching us from the gantry, would take two of us off the conveyer belt to shovel the waste down a chute into the crusher and the wagons underneath. This was called 'driving a clear'.
Despite the incredibly tough working conditions the women relate how they would sit round and sing and tell jokes when there was a break of any kind during the day. They worked hard but still had time to socialise in the evenings and at weekends and nearly all of them talk about the dances at The Empress or going to see variety shows at the Opera in Workington. Isabella recalls how 'You had to run a la'al bit from the screens to the bathhouse and we used to rush to get washed and changed on a Friday night after back shift so that we could get to the dances. I always had lovely tight curly hair so I could just get a shower and I just had to let my hair dry naturally. The other lasses would be putting their curlers in. Wednesdays and Fridays were the Empress nights, Thursdays was the Bethel and then there was the Welfare. No drink or owt like that, just dancing, jiving - we could dance all night - even after back shift! We used to use Vaseline to get the coal dust from round our eyes. Nobody needed to use mascara'.
The stories of the West Cumbrian Screen Lasses are a glimpse into the industrial heritage of our county and show us how they helped to shape the local communities which exist today.
"A vital part of mining then
Was women working hard as men
Without equality of pay
Which mere existence did portray
So work or want a true adage
And why screen lasses sought a wage"
In 2005 BBC Radio Four broadcast some of these reminiscences on Woman's Hour where you can still listen to the voices of these remarkable women.
24 September 2009 from Mary Rossall
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