Mussel Women

I am fascinated by historic employment which seems to have been for women only, of special note were the Herring Girls of the north of England and Scotland.

I’ve just found an account of another group, apparently far less romantic, or at least by the time of this account a century ago, they seem to have descended to the lowest levels of society, in the port of Conway, North Wales. They went out in boats and scraped the riverbed with their rakes in the middle of the stream. Their profession was claimed to be an ancient one, but they were described as over a dozen, “this queer group of fearsome-looking females … with large baskets on their backs, “cackling in Welsh in raucous voices, .. waiting for a capacious sailing boat …. With their faded shawls, tattered straw hats, short petticoats, and thick legs rolled in layers of old stockings; their worn-out overcoats, clump boots and swathes of patched cloth.”  They appeared as “a collection of animated rag bags.” or “a moving dust-heap”. They were described as ”waddling on board” to wait for the ship to sail to the rivermouth where the receding tide exposed the mussels for them to pick.

Historically, this must have been a lucrative profession, as they made more money from the pearls than from the fish. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these pearls were popular among rich local women, and featured in Welsh regalia and even in some items in the Crown jewels.

But apparently the demand for mussels as food, especially in Liverpool, put an end to the pearl trade which requires long, slow growth. They grow in clean, fast flowing streams and are increasingly attracting attention from biologists as they can be extremely long-lived, as 130 years is common, with some surviving almost double this. 


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