Milk Maidens of London: Quenching the capital’s thirst on daily rounds

Milk Maidens of Victorian London: The weather-beaten women hauling yoke and pails who kept the capital’s thirst quenched on their daily dairy rounds

  • Rare and eye-opening photographs showcase the lives of London’s milk women during the 19th century
  • All the photos, which date from 1872, were collected by ‘obsessed diarist’ Arthur Munby
  • Spent much time wandering the streets looking for working class females to ask details of their lives

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.’

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

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