Saturday, 15 March 2008

Coal Mining, Prostitution, and Morality

Seventy two years after the very first mines act was legislated in the United Kingdom, Crowsnest Pass earned the horrific distinction of being home to the worst coal mining disaster in Canada when the Hillcrest mine exploded, violently stealing the lives of 189 men on June 19, 1914. Mining companies, society, and governments still had not learned.

Coal mining in the UK has been carried out for centuries. In the early 19th century the industry employed over 200,000 men, women and children. In the years 1820 - 1842 there are 78 coal mining disasters listed. Disasters that killed more than 5 persons each. Nathalie Bourdenet states in this article that 4,000 people a year were killed in the mines. Many of whom, of course, are women and children. The mining industry, society, and governments had determined coal miners were a class of people undeserving of protection. Following an explosion that killed 11 young girls and 15 young boys in 1838 society finally pushed government into acting and a member of parliament, Lord Ashley, had parliament set up a royal commission to look into children's employment in the mines.

Upon the reports completion Lord Ashley, in 1842, brings a draft piece of legislation that will become the first mines act in the United Kingdom. The act was no great leap into increased mine safety. The act's primary accomplishment was to stop the employment of boys under 10 years old and females in the mine. It was, however, significant in that it created the springboard that over the next few decades would serve to increase safe mining practices. Did Lord Ashley garner support for his legislation by regaling his peers with reports of the horrifying and violent manner in which these young coal miners were being killed in order to win their support for his mines act? No. Lord Ashley appealed to their prudish sense of Victorian morality.
In the West Riding, it appears, girls are almost universally employed as trappers and hurriers, in common with boys. The girls are of all ages from 7 to 21. They commonly worked quite naked down to the waist, and are dressed- as far as they are dressed at all- in a loose pair of trousers. These are seldom whole on either sex. In many of the collieries, whom these girls serve, work perfectly naked.
Near Huddersfield the sub-commissionner examined a female child. He says, ’I could not have believed that I should have found human nature so degraded ’. Mr Holroyd, and Mr Brook, a surgeon, confessed, that although within a few miles, they could not have believed such a system of unchristian cruelty could have existed. ’Speaking of one of the girls’ , he says, ’She stood shivering before me from cold. The rug that hung about her waist was as black as coal, and saturated with water, the drippings of the roof’ .’In a pit near New Mills’ , says the sub-commissionner, ’the chain passing high up between the lgs of two girls, had worn large holes in their trousers. Any sight more disgustingly indecent or revolting can scarcely be imagined than these girls at work. No brothel can beat it’.
Lord Ashley was smart enough to know the only way to get his act passed was to count on that strong sense of Victorian morality, talking of the young women he stated ’an immoral conduct which made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers’. His leadership began the reversal of society's belief that coal miners were a class of people undeserving of protection.

Our country needs that type of leadership now. We all know the horrifying details of the 20 or more girls and young women viciously murdered by Robert Pickton. I am sure most are aware of young women and girls disappearing from Edmonton, only to be found murdered in some field outside that city since 1989 and the fact that charges have finally been laid against Thomas Svelka for the murder of two of them. Where is our sense of outrage? Why isn't society demanding our government establish measures to insure more of these poor young women are not preyed upon by such dangerous predators as Pickton? Why isn't our federal government swiftly moving to protect these young women and girls? Why? Because these poor young women were prostitutes. A class of people society (and obviously our federal government) has determined are undeserving of our protection.

In Vancouver sex trade workers banded together in hopes of protecting themselves with the creation of a co-op brothel. The brothel will take young women off the streets and offer them a safe controlled environment in which for them to work. The city and the province sees the benefit and should be applauded for their support. Having passed that hurdle the group needs an exemption from the federal government as brothels are illegal (while prostitution isn't). The Conservative government has said they are unlikely to give their support as is it may perpetuate the idea that prostitution is acceptable. What perverse sense of morality supports the belief that it is better young girls are violently murdered rather than act to protect them? It is long past the time that we accept the fact that prostitution has always existed will likely exist for evermore. It is time our governments implement measures for the protection of these people. Failure to do so is simply immoral! These girls deserve the same protection as any other worker. Where is these girl's Lord Ashley?


  1. Excellent post and great history lesson!

    There are too many who believe any woman who enters into the sex trade does so by choice and essentially is not worth protecting, which is far from the truth.

    I'm still enjoying your blog and these little tastes of news from the Pass. ;-)

  2. Hi Michelle good to hear from you again. I check once in while to see where you are hiking and to enjoy the pictures you always provide with your articles. Good work.

    Thank you for your comments on the blog. Progressive attitudes like yours will ultimately be successful in advancing society.