Trousered Women

by Ieuan ap Hywel
The Writer's Block
Third Place, June 2016
Judged by Joan Colby

Reports of trousered women and girls working underground in mines. Harnessed like
animals, they dragged heavy carts of coal . . . The greatest scandal was not the brutal work,
which damaged women’s health, but revelations that they worked topless alongside naked men . . .

Morning Chronicle, London – May 1842

He cut his way through the three foot six seam following its undulations down through
the years. Seven ton per shift, the owners call. He rarely met his bonus. He works
with candle set in cap. Scoring the undercut six foot long, wedge the top and collapse

the wall. His mate breaks up the coal, loads into the truck. The weigher measures by
mensuration, the haulier draws away the cart passing the women at level two, their
breasts shining with sweat as they pull carts by straddling the chains displaying their

cunnies through the slit in their breeches. His shift over he cadges a lift on the carts
along the five mile haul to the lift cage and ascends up to the light, to heaven, to
bird’s song and clean pure air that cools his lungs. He walks to the pub to consume

two pints of bitter then makes his way back to wife and home. He soaks in a zinc bath
in front of a coal fire attended by his wife and daughter. He allows them to wash the
dirt off his back, never mind the superstition of leaving one part unwashed. One day,

Sunday, devoted to worship, reading the Bible and Chapel. He had a day off once, he
had injured his thumb and took time off at the risk of losing his job. But Dai, his
fireman, said it was allowable bearing in mind his record. They caught a train to

Newport and visited the great covered market there. He remembered sitting at a café
and eating faggots with mash and peas. They drank small cups of coffee and he
wondered that people could dine so well every day in that great city. He often thought

about that day as he worked the seam, endless it seemed, but it brought him life and
riches and kept him out of the cold rain that swept the valley in winter, out of the
howling wind that killed so many on the land. His own Da dying at forty six years, his

Mam two years later. On the odd occasion he allowed his thoughts to wonder at the
beauty of the women on level two and the perfection of their bodies, glistening in the
faint flickering light. It was, he supposed, a sin, but then God had made them that
soft lovely way had He not?

He had fifteen years to go, if the dust didn’t take him. They saved for that day to avoid
the workhouse. Their wealth in the children and the children’s children, that was
their inheritance, to die in the arms of ones family. Sometimes when Dafydd was at the

end of the seam he would have a little weep, he had nightmares of the dark, alone,
entombed. Megan comforted him, understanding his despair. Ashamed to be so weak he
hid his fear and the tremors, embarrassed of thinking too much of the women, but glad too

that they gave him joy. He wished in a way he could confess to a priest, was it a
weakness that they confessed not to their pastors. Then he would pray and Ieuan who
thought all religion a sin would say, Come on mun, don’t dwell on this misery, we’ll
drink three pints tonight.

And Dafydd, who believed all good things came from God, thanked Him for his mate Ieuan.

The brutality of a miner’s vanished way of life is carefully detailed. “Candle set in cap” “soaks in a zinc bath in front of a coal fire” “eating faggots with mash and peas” “Ieuan who thought all religion a sin” The scene is rivetingly real. --Joan Colby