Bal Maiden - Decline


In around 1865, faced with increased competition from overseas mines and with the most productive copper mines becoming exhausted, the Cornish mining industry went into terminal decline. By 1880 the level of Cornish copper production was at around a quarter of its 1860 level. As production fell, the numbers of employees in the mines fell with it. Much of the copper industry collapsed, causing a movement within Cornwall from the copper to the tin mining. While some bal maidens continued to work at the mines, many worked in tin streaming in the rivers and streams flowing from the tin mining areas. In those copper mines which survived, investment in new machinery virtually ceased, so employment of some bal maidens continued. The tin industry, which was still economically successful, began to invest in new machinery to replace manual ore dressing, drastically reducing the number of female workers. By 1870 the number of bal maidens in work had fallen by around 50%.

At the same time as the Cornish mining industry went into decline, public opposition to the use of female and child labour in mines was rising. The Metalliferous Mines Regulation Act 1872 brought the mines of Cornwall under the provisions of the Mines Act 1842, which had previously applied only to coal mines, limiting the use of child labour in the mines and thus increasing costs. The passing of the Factory and Workshop Act 1878 drastically limited the use of female and child labour. The employment of children under 10 was banned outright, the maximum working hours for children aged 10ā€“14 were drastically restricted, and women were banned from working over 56 hours per week. The sudden loss of cheap child labourers made the already weakened mining industries of Cornwall and West Devon even less profitable, and more than half the mines in the area went out of business in the following decade. Some bal maidens continued to work in surviving mines and in tin-streaming, but instability in the metal markets made what remained of the mining industries increasingly unviable. In the 1880s William Ewart Gladstone's Liberal government tried to ban female labour from mines altogether; although the Bill was defeated, the number of bal maidens continued to fall. At the 1891 census the number of working bal maidens had fallen to around half its 1850sā€“60s peak. By 1895 only 23 mines remained operational compared to 307 in 1873, and in 1901 Devon Great Consols, the last significant copper mine in Devon and Cornwall, closed. Electrification and the introduction of Frue Vanners at the surviving mines replaced most of the jobs still done by women, and by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 very few bal maidens remained in employment. With wartime shortages of raw materials and many younger men in the armed forces, some bal maidens were temporarily rehired to dress potash ore at a re-opened mine at St Austell, and to re-dress the existing spoil heaps of defunct mines for wolfram and arsenic.

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