The Unthanks: The Testimony of Patience Kershaw
The fabulaous Unthanks singing The Testimony of Patience Kershaw from their lastest album, Here’s the Tender Coming.
The song is based upon the testimony given by a young women, Patience Kershaw, to an investigation by Lord Ashley’s Mines Commission of 1842, which looked into the conditions of labor in the mines. The Mines Act of 1842 that resulted prohibited the employment in the mines of all women and of boys under thirteen .
No. 26. — Patience Kershaw, aged 17, May 15.
My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home.
All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.
It seems the commission concluded: ‘This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon.’ The Unthanks’ song presents Patience as being acutely aware of how her work impinges on her dignity, respectability and femininity, in sharp contrast to judgement of the commission that saw only a ‘deplorable-looking object’.