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Sunderland historian unearths forgotten piece of region’s past 

Leanne Smith

The First World War is considered to be the birthplace of modern feminism – but an award-winning student says that for women living in the North East coalfields a century ago, equality was made almost impossible.  

History graduate Leanne Smith has been awarded the annual Sid Chaplin Memorial Prize for the best undergraduate dissertation on North East history. Leanne, who graduated from the University of Sunderland this summer with a First Class degree, chose as her subject a little known, almost forgotten aspect of social history. 

“The First World War is often seen as a watershed moment for women, as they began to enter traditionally male industries,” says Leanne, 37, from Sunderland.  “But that move towards equality was not always the case.” 

Leanne’s dissertation, ‘The Struggle over Female Labour in the Durham Coalfield, 1914-1918’, has unearthed original research into how the Durham Mining Association (DMA) resisted pressure from colliery owners and the government to accept the introduction of female labour during the First World War. 

“At the time it was claimed that the DMA’s refusal to employ women miners was based on concerns over the undercutting of wages,” say Leanne. “But in contrast two of the country’s largest labour concerns, The Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Clyde Workers Committee, reacted very differently.  They negotiated to protect men’s position and wages within their industry. They accepted women into their very traditional industry. 

“My research shows that the Durham Mining Association resisted reforms, because they believed it was necessary to continue the status quo. The DMA were a very conservative body, who believed that a sexual division of labour was essential to coal mining communities such as the Durham coalfield. 

“Women contributed not just domestically. It was women who built the Durham mining community, who held together the family unit and brought stability that made it possible for the coal mining industry to exist – and made equality impossible in the minds of the Durham Mining Association.” 

The pitman author Sid Chaplin was a founding member of the North East Labour History Society. His Memorial Trophy is awarded each year to the winner of a labour history essay competition showing good use of original sources. The competition is open to anyone not employed full-time as a professional teacher or writer of history and the winning essay is published in the Society's Journal.  

Leanne added: “I really can’t put into words how much this award means to me. Going to University was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Leanne will be continuing her studies at the University of Sunderland, beginning her Masters in Historical Research in October.  

Dr Andre Keil, Lecturer in Modern European History at the University, says: “It is a great achievement for Leanne to be awarded this year's Sid Chaplin Memorial Prize. I know she worked very hard on her dissertation throughout the year and it's great to see this commitment recognised. 

“Her study made excellent use of our archives at the University Library and really adds to our understanding of the history of the Durham Coalfield during the First World War. I think Leanne really shows what's possible for our students."

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