The picturesque bal maidens of Cornwall

Victorians Unbound – A Blog

The picturesque bal maidens of Cornwall

The Bal Maidens by Emily Mary Osborn, c.1870

Bal maidensEmily Mary Osborn, ‘The Bal Maidens’, National Museum Wales, National Museum Cardiff, c.1870 [oil on canvas].

Women have always worked in diverse occupations and trades, often as part of the family economy or as assistants to their fathers or husbands. Their work was not restricted to unpaid, unquantifiable, domestic work on behalf of the family. Ivy Pinchbeck’s pioneering study Women workers and the industrial revolution 1750-1850 highlighted the variety of jobs in which women were employed and reinforced the view that women’s status as wage earners represented a ‘fundamental break with their dependent, “hearth tied” past’. Her study researched female employment in agriculture, industry, textiles, metal trades and mining. Pinchbeck identified over 283 separate female occupations (not including sub-divisions within the job); evidence of women’s huge participation as an active workforce and of their financial value. However, Leonore Davidoff claimed that ‘working-class women were always an ignored presence, providing catering, cleaning, and even sexual services’. She argued that ‘the conception of work is already so deeply gendered’. Furthermore, she debated that women are kept out of the cash nexus, reinforcing the ‘male-breadwinner/ woman-homemaker’ dichotomy. Women’s entry into all forms of paid employment such as farm work, potteries, and mining challenged this dichotomy.

One of the industries that women worked in was mining. In the nineteenth century Cornish mines many women and girls worked as bal maidens mining tin, copper, lead, manganese, uranium, antimony, arsenic, iron and zinc. Female workers were needed to dress the copper and tin ores and their job entailed washing, panning, sorting ore from waste, or grinding and breaking rock-bearing ore. One process that was solely performed by women was ‘spalling’; this was breaking the larger rocks using a long handled hammer. Next the stones were ‘stamped’ then the fine material would be sent on for separation at the ‘buddles’. It was then sent on for further further separation at the ‘trunks’ and ‘kieves’, until the finest ‘slimes’ were separated at the tin frames – a very long process!


The process at copper mines was slightly different. After ‘spalling’ the women and girls would wash and sort the different ores which was a very wet and dirty job! Then ‘cobbers’ used a short handled hammer to break the picked ore into smaller pieces, and the ‘buckers’ used a flat hammer to grind the ore into a fine powder. This was physically demanding work and only the strongest and fittest were able to do it! ‘Buddling’ and ‘jigging’ were then carried out in the same manner as for tin. Additionally small teams of women and girls work at ‘griddling or ‘barrowing’ where they would work in pairs using hand barrows.

wooden thingh

Working as a bal maiden was a hard, dirty manual job. But within Cornish mining communities it was not thought of as a strange or peculiar occupation for females – women had always worked in mining.  It was not until Victorian middle class notions of a woman’s ‘proper’ place in the home questioned the unsuitability of the bal maidens work that their number started to decline in the 1880s.

Women were seen to be behaving in ways that challenged traditional patriarchal authority and established standards of propriety. One particular area of women’s lives that reflected these changes was clothing. With a greater need for increased flexibility, freedom of movement, and the necessity for protection when engaged in manual labour, women’s clothing radically changed from Victorian and Edwardian ideals of feminine attire to robust, practical costumes.

Reformers called for emancipation from the ‘dictates of fashion’.  Early attempts at dress reform to outer garments, in the 1870s, were met with resistance from society despite widespread knowledge as to the health dangers of tight lacing and heavy skirts supported from a constricted waist. The bal maidens appear to have conformed, to some extent, to traditional nineteenth century female polite dress. They wore a long dress over which they wore a hessian work apron called a ‘towser’ and on their head they wore a curious headdress called a ‘gook’. The gook was a summer bonnet made of card and fabric and shaped in such a fashion as to totally protect the face and shoulders from the harsh effects of the sun and to provide additional protection from any flying debris. The bal maidens became particularly well known for their elaborate bonnets and gooks, with different districts developing individual styles.


When I tell people that I research Victorian mining women they are always very surprised. The usual response is ‘I never knew that women worked in mining’. I tell them: ‘Yes – women have always worked in mining!’


  • I. Pinchbeck, Women workers and the industrial revolution 1750-1850 (1930, London: Virago press, 1985), p.2
  • K. Hamilton, in I. Pinchbeck, Women workers, introduction.
  • Pinchbeck, Women workers and the industrial revolution, pp.317-321.
  • L. Davidoff, ‘Gender and the “Great Divide”: Public and private in British Gender History’, Journal of Women’s History, 15, no.1 (2003), p.13.
  • L. Davidoff, Worlds between: Historical perspectives in gender and class (1995, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), pp.73-102
  • Dyhouse, Girl trouble, p.6.
  • D.J. Warner, ‘Fashion, emancipation, reform, and the rational undergarment’ Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of America, 4, no.1 (1978), p.24


Tracey Jones is a Heritage Consortium AHRC PhD Candidate at Teesside University. Her research investigates female identity by looking specifically at the relationship between dress, occupation and displays of femininity. Tracey’s PhD thesis ‘Gender and Identity: The relationship between femininity and dress in Victorian mining districts in England and Wales’ is a comparative study of the costumes worn by the pit brow lasses of Wigan, bal maidens of Cornwall and patch girls of South Wales.

Tracey graduated from Bishop Grosseteste University with a First in English and History, the Dulcie Duke Local History Prize and the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Academic Excellence. She then studied at the University of Leicester at The Centre for English Local History, for a Masters in English Local and Family History with a full Master’s Excellence Scholarship. She graduated with a Distinction and the Harold Fox Local History Prize.


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