Sal Madge-The Woman Ahead of Her Time

Rebecca Wilson

In the small coastal town of Whitehaven in West Cumbria, lived a wonderful and unique woman who challenged social and gender norms.

In the small coastal town of Whitehaven in West Cumbria, lived a wonderful and unique woman who challenged social and gender norms. Sal (Sarah) Madge was born in Penrith Workhouse in 1841, and when she died a pauper 1899, the streets were lined with mourners wanting to show their respects. Sal in her cloth cap, man’s coat, waistcoat and cravat Sal worked alongside men in the many pits around Whitehaven. In 1842 an Act was passed which meant women were not allowed to work in the mines, but this did not stop her doing manual labour on the surface of the pit. She drove the horses with full carts of coal along the rail-tracks to load onto the ships along the harbour. This was a very physical job, her physical strength is evidenced in her photograph. (see above) She wore a shirt made for men, a waistcoat, a kerchief cloth cap and she smoked a pipe. This was very unusual for women at the time. Unlike today, women simply did notwear men’s attire. From the waist up, she looked very masculine. Her long skirt would have made her job more difficult; getting caught under the hooves, dragging in the dirt and uncomfortable in many weathers, however, working outdoors and the practicality of using the toilet, perhaps led her to continue wearing her skirts. She did her job well and for most of her life. She also had her hair cut very short, which was an uncommon style for women.
Sal Madge-The Woman Ahead of Her Time
Sal Madge

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Sal Madge-The Woman Ahead of Her Time
Sal loved animals and this is her horse, and her dog, Flirt

Women didn’t usually smoke in public

Women didn’t usually smoke in public, especially not a pipe. This was seen as a men’s pastime and deeply “unladylike”. It wouldn’t be until the 1920s, well after Sal Madge’s death, that women smoking in public was accepted. Obviously, today we know the health risks of smoking, however, Sal was most definitely ahead of her time taking up this masculine. Although there is no evidence of her sexuality, Sal never married or had children and this was very unusual at the time. Being transgender and/or homosexual was sadly stigmatised and deeply misunderstood. It was not something openly discussed or written about, and gay people would often find themselves obligated to sacrifice their happiness to marry someone of the opposite sex. This is where Sal was different. She did not conform or accept the role of wife or mother. Looking closely at the census returns, it appears that Sal lived with various women over the years, and seems to settle down with a widow and her children. They could never have officially called each others “partner” or “wife” but it is wonderful that she never had to marry someone she didn’t love because of convention. She could often be found in the local public houses, drinking beer and playing cards for money. She would also often compete in wrestling in The Cumberland Games. She was allegedly strong enough to throw her male competitors and often won. She would stand up for herself and those weaker than her and would defend herself physically if she had to. She had a good heart too. She would often collect money for charitable causes, and even drove the Rocket Brigade waggon. The Rocket Brigade was a life-saving organisation which fired rockets carrying lines out to ships that were wrecked along the coast. Sal would shout to raise the alarm and together, they saved countless lives. WIth character of strength, Sal was a formidable woman. She pushed every social boundary, whether by design or accident. She was a tobacco chewing, hard drinking, live-saving, wrestling trailblazer.
Ancestry UK
Sal Madge-The Woman Ahead of Her Time

Rebecca Wilson

I am Rebecca Wilson, a Cumbrian historian. I read History and English Literature at Liverpool and became a Secondary School history and English teacher for many years. I now live just outside the Lake District with my husband, son and two puppies, Betty and Marlowe, where I enjoy running my history page @tudorghostmammy and writing for The Historians Magazine. I also write freelance and I am a committee member of a charity to raise money for and awareness of the beautiful medieval ruin of Egremont Castle (@egremont_castle). I also run the Instagram page for @playgoersworkington, an early Victorian theatre, that today is run by volunteers, of which I am one.
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