These are the rare and eye-opening photographs of London milk women in the 19th century – which would never have existed if it were not for one obsessed Victorian diarist.
The remarkable images of weather-beaten milk maidens all date from 1872 and were collected by Arthur Munby.
Little is known or recorded about the working life of milk women in Victorian London, which makes Munby’s photographs all the more extraordinary.
Munby, was fanatical about working women in Victorian Britain and documented women miners and fisher girls amongst other professions.
But it was in London where Munby spent most of his time and would wander the streets looking for working class females – particularly milk maidens – who he would approach to ask the details of their lives.
Two women, both of whom worked for Stoat’s Dairy in Marylebone, are pictured in 1872 standing next to their milk cans which they would carry through the streets on their shoulder yokes
Such was his passion he had nicknames for the different milk women he saw on the streets of Mayfair, Marylebone and Kensington.
One woman, whose real name was Kate O’Cagney, he nicknamed the Queen Kitty.
He wrote of her in 1861: ‘Going across Grosvenor Square, I saw a tall graveful woman cross the road in front of me, walking between two milk cans.
Her simple bonnet was shabbier than of old, and the little shawl, that did not half cover her broad shoulders, was new to me; but the strong boots and short cotton frock were the same, and the firm elastic tread under her load, and the tall muscular figure too, though it was losing its maidenly fullness, and growing somewhat gaunt.
‘It was Kate O’Cagney, the Queen of the London milk women.
‘And she is so still; though the soft complexion of her handsome face is changed, as I saw her today, into a weather-beaten brown, and though the full curves of her sumptuous form are sharpening into lines of strength.
The yoke and pails that diarist Arthur Munby speaks of are pictured in all the milk women photos. The cumbersome devices would have been extremely heavy to lug around when full of the white liquid
‘It would not be so if she had been a lady – a well-preserved beauty of that Mayfair through which she passed daily, a rustic contract; but we must work, nous autres – and Kitty is seven and twenty now, and for nine long years she has walked her rounds every day, carrying through London streets her yoke and pails, and her 48 quarts of milk, in all weathers, rain or fair.’
The yoke and pails Munby speaks of is pictured in all the milk women photos. The cumbersome devices would have been extremely heavy to lug around when full of the white liquid.
Munby was tantalised over the milk maidens, as demonstrated with a passage later in that same diary entry and he attempted to speak to ‘Queen Kitty.’
He wrote: ‘Looking down at her large hands, redder now than ever, I saw with surprise no wedding ring there.
Arthur Munby was fanatical about working women in Victorian Britain, and documented women miners and fisher girls amongst other professions
‘”Well, Kate!” I said in passing; and the stately wench turned half-round but did not stop or start. ‘Oh, Sir!’ she exclaimed, opening wide her mouth and her large grey eyes.
“‘So you are not married, after all?” “No Sir” she answered, with a sly shamefaced smile and a downcast look.
‘To stop and talk to a milkmaid in Grosvenor Square is a test of moral courage which I was prepared to undergo; but it might have compromised poor Kitty’s unsullied reputation: so after one and two enquiries about her, made by me without looking at her (vile subterfuge!) and answered by her from behind, I walked away.’
Munby had an idealist view of milk woman, he revelled in the thought of them facing down all weather without any shelter. Going as far as describing an umbrella as ‘that degrading instrument’ and described one milk woman who carried one as ‘effeminate.’
Given his love for the profession, Munby was totally unconcerned by the fact that milk being sold in dirty cans caused an outbreak of typhoid fever in Marylebone
Fanciful Munby wasn’t worried with the practical problems of selling milk. For him, the maidens stood for tradition, unspoilt rural life and he was totally unconcerned by the fact that milk sold in dirty cans caused an outbreak of typhoid fever in Marylebone.
In a hilarious extract he tells the story of a stoic milk girl walking through Westminster.
He wrote: ‘In the Adelphi yesterday, I saw a stout milklass walking along between her cans. Two boys, seeing her this loaded, threw something at her from behind, and hit her.
‘She said nothing, did not even turn round: but quietly set down her pails, hooked her harness together across her breast, and strode after them as they fled.
‘In five yards she overtook the hindmost; boxed his ears without speaking a word; returned to her cans, and went on her way.’
Who was Arthur Munby? The poet, barrister and philanthropist who took a special interest in the work of women
Born in York in 1828, Arthur Munby was a member of high society in the 19th century and worked in a number of prestigious jobs.
After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1851, he became a barrister four years later and was called to the bar.
Then in 1858 he began a 30-year job with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as a civil servant, retiring in 1888.
But it was his extracurricular exploits that he has been remembered for, including his fascination with working women.
He was particularly interested in their bodies, writing in diaries about how fisher girls and miners had ‘very large arms and hands’ and were ‘sturdy’.
A passionate photographer, he took hundreds of pictures of working class women over the decades including kitchen maids, milkmaids and even acrobats.
He was also an amateur artist and would include sketches of working women in his diaries.
Mr Munby’s interest in working women also extended to helping them improve their standing, and he helped set up an adult education school in north London in 1864.
It came after he spent the previous decade teaching Latin at a similar school for working men.
Mr Munby was also well known for his relationship with Hannah Cullwick, a maid from Shropshire.
They married secretly in 1873, but their relationship is said to have been more ‘master and servant’ than husband and wife.
The marriage ended four years later and was only revealed by Mr Munby to his brother months before his death.
Heroic ‘broo-wenches’ who scandalised Victorian Britain by working NAKED to help them cope in the intense heat of the collieries and wearing trousers are pictured in newly-unearthed black and white portraits
Fascinating images have revealed the heroic actions of Britain’s ‘broo-wenches’ who scandalised Victorian society by working in trousers and even naked while mining underground.
When a Victorian newspaper ran a front page picture of a Wigan colliery girl in her uniform, it sent shockwaves through Britain.
This had followed a report containing sketches of half-naked women working underground alongside men, a report that resulted in calls for women to be kicked out of the searing hot coal pits.
The ‘unladylike’ image disgusted many, but the Northern working-class women had their supporters too.
One such man was Arthur Munby, whose fascinating collection of images of the Pit Brow Women have recently been unearthed.
Jane Brown, a pit brow girl from Wigan, poses with a large shovel (shown left), while a trio of women are shown in their traditional uniform with a sieve, which they used to pick stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface from deep inside the coal mines dug out from underground
A drawing of a half-naked girl dragging a loaded corf along a low mine passage near Halifax in Yorkshire, sometime in 1842. The engraving was used to illustrate a report on the employment of women in mines, that saw them banned from working underground that same year. Many expressed disgust at the idea of women working while partially clothes
Sketches of half-naked women (including a man, second image) working underground alongside men resulted in calls for women to be kicked out of the searing hot coal pit, with Victorian Britain taking a dim view on women working in such close proximity with men while in a state of undress
Young looking pit brow girls just before starting work, Wigan, 1893. Several decades before, women and boys under under 10 years old were banned from working underground, meaning all the little girls became broo lasses, working on the surface above the mines
Pictured left is Ellen Grounds as a 17-year-old as a broo lass at the Rode Bridge Pits in 1866. Shown right, Ellen is pictured once again as a 22-year-old at the same pits with photographer Arthur Munby, who chose to pose alongside Ellen to show how tall she was, which was common among broo lasses
A particularly tall female collier from Rose Bridge Pits in Wigan, who measured 5ft 9in, is pictured left on August 10, 1869. Meanwhile, a similarly dressed lass is shown resting on her shovel. Notice the outfit, which featured both trousers and a skirt over the top
Shevington Colliery near Wigan, photographed in 1863. Pictured are a group of women working at the surface. They worked on the pit bank (pictured) at the shaft top, where they were tasked with picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface
Mr Wright, landlord of the Three Crowns and two Pit Brow Women in Wigan on some date in 1865 is pictured left. Meanwhile, shown right is an unknown pit brow woman in Wigan, circa 1867 to 1888
The striking pictures show the heroic women in their working gear. A uniform that consisted of a headscarf to shield their hair from dirt, a long ankle-length skirt and most shockingly of all, trousers underneath.
Munby, an enthusiastic supporter of working women in the 19th century Britain, would make frequent trips to Wigan and other industrial towns to document his heroines.
However, as photography was a new invention in the mid 19th-century, it wasn’t straight forward.
He would have to convince the labouring women into a nearby photographer’s studio where they would have to pose very still for up to several seconds whilst the exposure was made.
This makes for interesting pictures that show rugged, weather-worn women posing in front of a back drop that was intended to be used for the middle-classes posing in their Sunday best.
In the mid-1860s, the House of Commons set up a Select Committee to look into the matters raised and questions were asked about the morality of women employed on the pit banks. The Committee had difficulty to stand up the charges of ‘degradation’ and ‘immorality,’ and great interest was shown in the ‘peculiarity’ of females wearing trousers
Shown are yet more unidentified broo wenches. The striking pictures show the heroic women in their working gear. A uniform that consisted of a headscarf to shield their hair from dirt, a long ankle-length skirt and most shockingly of all, trousers underneath
Women worked underground alongside men until 1842, as did children as young as eight years old. However this was stopped by Queen Victoria, who decided to put an end to such working following a disaster at Huskar Colliery in Silkstone Common, in which 26 children were killed after a mine flooded
Interesting pictures show rugged, weather-worn women posing in front of a back drop that was intended to be used for the middle-classes posing in their Sunday best. The women, also known as broo-wenches, pose with giant spades and other working equipment such as lanterns, baskets and flasks
After women were banned from going underground, they took to carrying out work on the surface. Here they would load carts, sort coal from stone and haul materials from the pit face. This pit brow women are pictured alongside a man at Rode Bridge Pits, Wigan in 1865
The women, also known as broo-wenches, pose with giant spades and other working equipment such as lanterns, baskets and flasks.
In 1842, there had been outrage when it had been discovered that women around the country had been working underground in coal pits half-naked. This of course, being due to the extreme temperature in the pit.
They were eventually banned from underground work, but continued to work on the surface.
This led to a further inquisition in 1865, when the miners of Northumberland and Durham petitioned Parliament on a variety of matters including surface labour by women.
Why were they called ‘broo-wenches’?
Pit brow women or pit brow lasses were women who worked on the surface at British collieries.
They worked on the pit bank (or brow) at the shaft top, where they were tasked with picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface.
Women and boys under the age of 10 were banned from working underground following the passing of the Mines and Collieries Act 1842.
They asserted ‘that the practice of employing females on or about the pit banks of mines and collieries is degrading to the sex, leads to gross immorality, and stands as a foul blot on the civilisation and humanity of the kingdom.’
The House of Commons set up a Select Committee to look into the matters raised and questions were asked about the morality of women employed on the pit banks.
The Committee had difficulty to stand up the charges of ‘degradation’ and ‘immorality,’ and great interest was shown in the ‘peculiarity’ of females wearing trousers.
Peter Dickinson, a male miner from Wigan, was questioned specifically on his colleagues’ dress. He said: ‘The entire person of the woman is covered and there nothing indecent in the dress.’
He then boldly undermined the Committee by adding: ‘Though you spoke of the dress as being one of the leading features of the degrading character of the employment?’
In 1867 the Select Committee on Mines presented its final report. Concerning the employment of women at the pit’s mouth, they concluded ‘that the allegations of either indecency or immorality were not established by the evidence.’
Therefore, they concluded that no government legislation or interference was required, a great victory was struck for the working girls of collieries across the nation.
Shown are some anonymous pit brow lasses, shown with some of the instruments they used to carry out work on the surface at mines across the north of England. The last pit brow lasses were finally made redundant from the Harrington No 10 mine in Lowca, Cumberland, in 1972
Munby would make frequent trips industrial towns to document his heroines. However, as photography was a new invention in the mid 19th-century, it wasn’t straight forward. He would have to convince the labouring women into a nearby photographer’s studio where they would have to pose very still for up to several seconds whilst the exposure was made
Jane Horton, 19, of the Kirkless Hall Pits in Wigan, is pictured in August 1863 along with some traditional tolls used at British collieries during the Victorian era. A similar photograph is shown right, and features an unknown lass at Shevington Colliery in Wigan, 1864
‘Spitting on her hands she firmly grasped the rope and stepped over the edge.’ Brave fisher girls of the 1860s who abseiled over 200ft cliffs to scoop up shellfish from jagged rocks are revealed in stunning portraits by Victorian diarist
Fascinating pictures have revealed a glimpse into the life of 19th Century fisher girls who abseiled down huge cliff faces to fetch mussels and limpets.
Rare photos have emerged from the collection of Victorian diarist Arthur Munby, who chronicled the lives of women and girls doing punishing jobs in the 1860s.
Mr Munby befriended fisher girls in Scarborough, Flamborough and Filey in Yorkshire and others in Tyneside, visiting them several times and eventually photographing their efforts.
The mussels and limpets were collected and then passed on to local fishermen to be used as bait on their boats at sea, which kept the trade thriving.
The women and girls, some aged as young as 11, would come from towns and villages in Yorkshire and displayed great bravery, with Mr Munby writing they were fearless while descending down cliffs, while he said they also claimed they could walk dozens of miles from town to village over near 24-hour days.
In a diary dated 1867, he wrote: ‘The men clung to the rope with both hands in climbing, while the girls used only one hand, steadying their baskets with the other.’
The diarist, who died in 1910 aged 82, was from a very different social class to the women and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, which led to him making some judgmental comments in his notes on their exploits.
In one passage on Sally, he wrote: ‘Spitting on her hands (vulgar creature!) and rubbing them together, she firmly grasped the rope and stepped over the edge.’
Fishergirls Molly Nettleton, left, and Sally Mainprize, right, are pictured on Flamborough beach in Yorkshire after collecting mussels and limpets, with Sally shown balancing a full basket on her head in an impressive display of strength. Fisher girls would take the shellfish they collected back to their towns and villages to be used as bait by their fathers’ and husbands’
Molly, left, and Sally, right, are pictured at Flamborough in 1867 with an unidentified woman after collecting baskets of shellfish. The women are wearing sturdy shoes which helped them avoid slipping on the rocks, although the diaries of Arthur Munby, who commissioned the photos, revealed they frequently did fall. He also revealed Molly would scale down cliff faces hanging on to a single rope, sometimes by just one hand
They included Molly Nettleton, who had been working on the cliffs since she was 11 years old and would often descend 200ft down slippery rocks secured by just a single rope.
Mr Munby also wrote about how resilient the fisher girls were, including one in Flamborough called Sally Mainprize.
He said: ‘Even Sally’s practised foot was not always safe on the slippery weed: looking up, and raising her arm to wave me a salute, she slipped and fell sideways into a pool; but was up again in not time, uninjured.’
Describing watching Sally and her friends in action, he wrote: ‘Sally, who was most picturesquly dressed, adjusted her short red petticoat. Gathering the hinder part in between her knee, she converted the loose, cumbersome skirt into a pair of easy serviceable breeches.
‘Then she stood up, and shook herself, ready for the plunge, and nothing could be more striking in its way.’
Fisher girls Annie Born, far left, and Hannah Hunter, are pictured left in Filey, Yorkshire, in 1867 posing for Mr Munby while right are two unidentified fisher girls next to a boat on a beach at Cullercoats, Tyneside, where another close knit fishing community existed. Girls would often start working on the cliffs aged 11 to help their families, with duties including attaching hooks and gutting and cleaning fish brought back from sea
Molly is pictured here with some of her colleagues in Flamborough in 1867. The women are all wearing a similar outfit, with their baggy leggings worn above their boots to avoid getting caught underfoot. They also wore shawls over their shoulders to keep warm on cold and windy days. It is unknown exactly how much fisher girls like these were paid but many would not have been if they were doing the work to help their families fishing trade
He added: ‘Without stopping she seized the rope and gaily danced, as it were, letting it slip through her hands, as far as the foot of the incline, where it meets the summit of the main wall of cliff.
‘Here, at the corner of the jutting craig, is a ledge, on which before now I have seen this very girl sit at ease, and whistle to the waves.’
On Molly, he added: ‘Hand over hand, sticking her toes into the crevices of the chalk wall, she went up as easily as one might walk upstairs.’
He added: ‘I, the man of the party, was left in a ridiculous position; a useless spectator of these vigorous athletics.’
On meeting the girls at a railway station, he wrote about how out of place they looked compared to other women.
He said: ‘The well-dressed mobs on the platform looked astounded at the strange dress and stalwart forms of the barbarian fisher girls.’
Mr Munby had a fascination with the bodies of working women and showed this in his diaries, writing about how the fisher girls had ‘very large arms and hands’ and were ‘sturdy’ and how they were just as important as men in their villages.
He wrote: ‘They work harder than the men ashore. Poor things. But then the men are almost always afloat, you see.
‘They are big, strong lasses, with hands and arms “very large”.’
Fisher girls would tailor their outfits to suit their trade, wearing cushioned hats to help balance their baskets and soften the weight.
They also wore strong shoes to avoid slipping on rocks and woolen stocking for warmth, with a frock ‘kilted up’ to avoid getting trapped under foot.
Pictured left are two unidentified women fixing a fishing net in Scarborough in 1876, proving their duties extended beyond the dangerous cliffs. Another unidentified women pictured right in Scarborough in 1875 is seen balancing what appears to be rope on her head, which may have been used in abseiling down the cliffs. Although some fisher girls were able to take advantage of special rate train tickets to get to coastal towns, which cost 3p in the 1860s, around £3.30 today, many more would have walked instead and had to be strong and fit to take their loaded baskets back
Mr Munby, pictured right in 1873, travelled the country to observe working women and is pictured here with female miner Ellen Grounds in Wigan. He wrote extensively about their different professions and also helped set up an adult education college for women in north London in 1864. Mr Munby was also a published poet and a civil servant for 30 years
Pictured left is 15-year-old Janie Crawford, a fisher girl in Filey, Yorkshire, in 1871 posing on a style while two unidentified women are pictured right knitting in Scarborough in 1876. After visiting Scarborough, Flamborough and Filey in Yorkshire several times during the 1860s and 1870s, Mr Munby was able to strike up several friendships with the local fisher girls and eventually persuaded them to pose for a local photographer, although he said they would only agree if they got a copy
An unidentified woman is pictured posing for a picture by standing on a rock on the beach at Filey in 1873. Mr Munby’s diary describes fisher girls as ‘big and strong lasses’ who had ‘very large’ hands and arms to be able to carry the heavy baskets, which could weigh more than a stone when full, with some women carrying up to eight baskets by fastening them to their shoulders and hips
The women were able to use special fisher girl train tickets to get to the coastal areas, costing 3p, or around £3.30 today.
But Mr Munby said those tickets were only introduced in the late 1860s and previously the fisher girls would have worked long and arduous days, walking from town to village.
He wrote: ‘Before that [the tickets] the women used to walk to Cloughton and also to Robin Hood’s Bay for bait, and back the same day – 44 miles! (or so they protested), starting at 12.30am or 1am.’
Even after the train tickets were introduced, one of his diary passages reveals groups of 20 women walked at least eight miles back from Scarborough to Filey on the Yorkshire coast with their full loads.
He added: ‘In the late autumn and early spring they go in troops to Scarborough to gather flithers [limpets] for bait, travelling thither by rail.
‘Then they walk on, fill their creels or sacks and walk back loaded all the way to Filey.’
Describing the women as they set off on a journey, Mr Munby wrote they walked with seven or eight baskets which would weigh more than a stone when full.
He added: ‘They [the baskets] were fastened with ends on her back and shoulders and all resting on a pad on the hips. The baskets [were] all empty except one or two which held food and knitting. Folks stopped to look at ’em, boys shouted “flitherlasses”.’
Despite their hard work, fisher girls were living in poverty and Molly told Mr Munby she could not afford to replace one of her ropes after it was taken by ‘lads’ to be used in a net.
He wrote: ‘[She] cannot afford another; whereby they cannot at present go…and get flithers which they should share. And so I offered to buy a new rope, on condition that Molly should keep it as her own.’
Mr Munby added: ‘Molly chose a stout well-tarred rope, and it was weighed, and came to eight and threepence, being 14 pounds’ weight.
‘Molly joyously took up the tarry coil and carried it home on her arm, I going with her. She thanked me as if 24 fathoms of ship’s rope were the prettiest present a woman could have.’
Pictured left are Lizzie Holmes, 16, left, an unidentified woman, centre, and Alice Simpson, 18, right, in Filey in 1869 posing for one of Mr Munby’s photos. Pictured right are two two fisher girls from Cullercoats, North Tyneside. Mr Munby’s diary described the women he met as ‘sturdy’ and he wrote that some claimed to have walked 44 miles to get bait in a single day, starting at 1am
Pictured left are fisher girls Elizabeth Jenks, left, and Fanny Scales, right, in Filey in 1871 while right is an unidentified woman preparing bait in Scarborough in 1876. Mr Munby also said the girls caused a storm when they arrived at railway stations in the late 1800s because higher class passengers looked at them like ‘barbarians’ due to their ‘strange dress’. But their efforts were well appreciated by those in their towns for keeping the local fishing trade thriving
Mr Munby teamed up with a local photographer to capture their portraits, which they would pose for readily so long as they received a copy.
Others posed up in a studio still wearing work-gear. In some of the pictures the women grin and appear relaxed, which was unusual for the time.
Mr Munby worked as a civil servant but was a dedicated philanthropist, teaching Latin at one of the world’s earliest adult education schools, the Working Men’s College in north west London after it was set up in 1854.
A decade later he helped set up a sister college for women, while he was also a published poet.
Fisher girls were common throughout the UK in coastal towns and often worked long hours while also caring for large families.
Fishing communities were tight knit and fisher girls would often supply bait for their fathers’ and husbands’ boats.
But catching bait was not their only task as they would also chip in with maintenance tasks like cleaning nets and lines and then attaching the bait.
Each fisherman would typically use one or two lines on their boat, to which as many as 1,300 hooks might be added by hand by the women.
Once fish were brought back in, women would then help gut and clean them for hours at a time, and large groups could sometimes get through as much as 20,000 fish in a single day.