Bal Maidens

Many of the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which are set in the 1980s, include a plotline set further in the past as well. The 8th adventure, Mining For Justice, features Cornish immigrants who arrived in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in the 1830s. Most were mining families, attracted by news of lead deposits in the southwestern part of what is now the state of Wisconsin.

I knew I wanted to create a strong Cornish woman for the historical plotline. And I decided to begin her tale in Cornwall so I could quickly establish both her strength (physical, and of character) and her vulnerability.

Readers meet Mary Pascoe when she is eleven years old and working as a bal maiden—bal, meaning “mine” in Cornish, and maiden referring to young or unmarried women. Bal maidens did manual labor on the surface of mine sites, processing ore.

Note the female workers in the foreground.  (“Dolcoate Copper Mine” engraved by J.Thomas after a picture by Thomas Allom, published in Devon & Cornwall Illustrated, 1832. Steel engraved print, hand-colored later.)

Women in the far southwestern regions of Great Britain have likely done tin and copper mine work for centuries, and written records date to the 13th century. In the 1800s it was common for girls to begin at about ten years of age, but documented cases show that a few started doing mine work as young as six years old.

Three Bal Maidens.  (Woodcut, Peeps into the Haunts and Homes of the Rural Poulation of Cornwall, 1879.)

The work was difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often done in the open air, exposing workers to harsh weather. Some of the duties included spalling (breaking ore into smaller pieces with long-handled hammers),

(Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1858)

and cobbing (breaking washed and sorted ore into even smaller pieces with a different hammer).

(Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1858)

Some observers worried not only about physical strain, but about the impact of working in rough conditions, near men, on the female workers. In Mining For Justice, Mrs. Bunney, from the fictional Christian Welfare Society, expresses her concern to Mary:

It’s not only the danger inherent in mining work that troubles me. I’m worried about your soul. You are surrounded daily by rough men who use foul language. Young ladies like yourself should be cultivating modesty and grace. How can you do that here?

Mary was a capable worker, and like many of actual bal maidens who were interviewed, she didn’t especially mind the work.

(Illustrated Itinerary of the County of Cornwall, by Cyrus Redding, 1842)

However, Mrs. Bunney’s questions and indifferent treatment during the fictional interview do leave Mary wondering, for the first time, about her self-worth.  The question stays with her after she immigrates to the territory that would become Wisconsin.

I love having the chance to shine a little candlelight on everyday women who, a century or more ago, did amazing things but left few concrete records behind. I hope my fictional foray into the life of a woman who knew hard work and heartache before leaving Cornwall honors the legacy of Cornwall’s bal maidens.

Miners and bal maidens with typical equipment and protective clothing at Dolcoath, 1890.  (Wikipedia)

# # #

To learn more about bal maidens, visit the Bal Maidens and Mining Women website, which includes a list of books on the subject by Lynne Mayers.

Tags: , ,

2 Responses to “Bal Maidens”

  1. Tess Mulrooney Says:

    Bal maidens were a position I had never heard of before in mining. The Pascoes led a hard life; Mary’s was hardest since she served multiple roles for the family. As always, it was a wonderful read, except for a reveal about Roelke’s character.

  2. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I finished the book, stayed up til 1 am to do so! I enjoyed it very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: