Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Four Bal Maidens – a sequence by Morag Smith


    – Bal Maiden I –

    Morning Rain


‘I ain’t complaining’
she hugs herself in the thin light
before the sun is properly up
A chilly wind
wraps wet skirts
round short legs
pain in her flat chest
She’s cold as the bucking iron
she holds in small strong hands
Staring out
from under her bonnet
at the rain
off the bucking plate
waiting for the Captain’s shout
to start the day


    – Bal Maiden II –

    The Bal Maiden Breathes Out


After they blast the rock from her face
and fill up the kibble
I smash it to dust with me short hammer
its egg-shaped head whistles through air
thick with smoke from furnaced coal and wood
wood from forests dense as woven cloth
but now stripped bare
a lady with her dress took off
and here’s me
cobbing her bits like I don’t know
breaking her up
smashing her face
like I ain’t felt the fist
like I don’t know she hurts


    – Bal Maiden III –

    Eliza Allen, Truro, March 10th 1841


Eliza Allen twenty years old
finds it hard to stand
feet wet
she can’t work the hours she’s given by the mine
disorder of the system leaves her short of breath
makes a second pair of boots
impossible to buy

Two years she’s worked
cobbing her delicate constitution
can’t read or write
spends the day sitting down
breaking rocks
Finds it difficult to keep her feet dry
and always catches cold when she does not
breathing problems mean
that she don’t sing
with the other women
as they open up the stone


    – Bal Maiden IV –

    Copper Mine


The men rag the rocks
pass them on
broken up
Women spall with long hammers
smash it more
search for the bits
that hold the ore they want
pass it on
They’re strong enough to break the stone
stand in a long line
voices harmonize
hymns rise over the never-ending
sound of rocks breaking

They complain of the cold
wet boots
their bodies aching as they work

Little girls picked
washing and sorting
drenched from head to foot
finding the different ores
in what was smashed to bits by their elders
A filthy job
without the need for strength
pass it on for the cobbing
Stronger girls
short hammers swinging
breaking it to the size of a fingertip
singing to god
and passing it on for bucking

Only the most robust
wield the flat faced bucking iron
crushing the cob to powder
on the bucking plate
making it ready for smelting
Barrowed away by a pair of girls
pushing one and a half
hundred weight between them
in a wooden barrow