Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Women and employment

How depicted?

The standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house', the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses).  Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. (The exception here is the series of photographs the barrister Arthur Munby took of the domestic servant Hannah Cullwick – whom he subsequently married – and other working-class women.) You can read about his extraordinary relationship with Hannah here.  His revealing photographs are held by Trinity College, Cambridge, and some of them can be viewed here.

Hannah Cullwick (1833-1909)
Servant and  barrister's wife
Public Domain
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton portrays the life of a Victorian working girl. Significantly, she is confronted with severe family problems – an aunt driven to prostitution, a father on strike, and she is threatened with seduction by the employer’s son.

Moralists fretted about female employment. Ashley (Lord Shaftesbury) believed married women should not work outside the home. The social researcher Henry Mayhew highlighted the dangers of underpaid needlewomen turning to prostitution. The world outside the home was often seen as a dangerous place for women.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Women and education

Frances Mary Buss,
pioneer of girls' education
Public Domain
From the 1870 Act working-class girls received the same education as boys. It was among the wealthier social groups that educational provision differed.

Boarding schools

Eighteenth-century boarding schools usually aimed to take girls for no more than a couple of years during their mid-teens. They were housed in the proprietress’s own home. Their prospectuses advertised that they taught modern languages, music, dancing and painting. They varied in quality and by the mid-nineteenth century they were widely thought to be inadequate. However, there were some excellent schools. One of these was the Miss Franklin's school at Coventry, where George Eliot (Marian Evans) was a pupil. 


The census of 1861 lists 24,770 governesses living in England and Wales. While boarding schools could charge £70 - £80 p.a., a governess might cost as little as £25 p.a. (though her upkeep included board and lodging).  This put governesses within the reach of families of relatively modest means.

The reform of the education of middle-class girls began in the 1840s, stimulated by a variety of factors, including the rising wealth and expectations of the middle class, the belief that the mother as the first educator of her children needed a sound education and an increase in the number of middle-class unmarried women.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

How to be a domestic goddess (even if you can't cook)

Isabella Mary Beeton (1836-65)
Public Domain
Here you can access the complete text of Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management. You now have no excuses. Get cooking!

On the other hand, Mrs Beeton herself couldn't cook. Her first recipe for a Victoria sponge left out the eggs. This fascinating nugget of information (together with more of the same) comes out in Kathryn Hughes' biography.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries


The legal status of English women was defined by the centuries’-old common law, a system built up by custom, precedent and legal judgement as well as statute. Under the common law English women took their husbands’ names – a practice that was not found in Scotland or the rest of Europe. But the common law also gave some women rights not available on the Continent.

Contrary to popular belief, English common law never stated that wives were the property of their husbands - even if many men might have acted as if this were the case! Wife-sales happened from time to time but they were never legal and were often simply an unofficial, mutually-agreed divorce. See here for more details.

Before 1882 the law made a clear distinction between married and unmarried women. An unmarried woman or a widow was a 'feme sole' with the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. She had the same legal freedoms as a man. However a married woman was defined as a 'feme covert'. She took her husband's name in marriage and by the end of the eighteenth century the term 'Mrs' was coming to describe a married woman only, and the usage 'Mrs John Smith' to describe a married woman was becoming customary. See here for more information. See here for my blog post on the subject. A married woman  could not own separate property or enter into contracts and if she had any debts her husband was answerable for them (this was a mixed blessing for men!). The status of coverture was defined by the jurist William Blackstone:

'By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.'

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Maths class at the Cable Street
Board School
Eric J. Evans (The Forging of the Modern State, 3rd edition, p. 290) has written:
‘The spectre of an irreligious, overcrowded, and brutalized working class herded together in monstrously multiplying towns … haunted more than the humanitarian reformers’ and educational reform became an urgent question.'
By the early 1830s about one and a half million pupils were enrolled in schools – and these schools were extremely varied.

Educational provision comprised:
  • a handful of public schools for aristocrats and the upper middle classes,
  • a number of endowed grammar schools in the older towns,
  • private instruction, often run by clergy from their own homes,
  • Sunday schools
  • charity schools.
There were various kinds of charity schools, ranging from the large foundations of the 1690s to small village establishments. 

Some charity schools catered for middle-class children whose parents could not afford anything better. The most notorious is the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, attended by Charlotte Brontë and her two elder sisters. It was renamed Lowood  and described in vivid and unforgiving detail in Jane Eyre.

Dame schools continued to be popular with working-class parents. They were cheap and the hours were flexible. Judging from working-class autobiographies, the quality varied greatly. Some did little more than child-minding, others gave a thorough grounding in reading and spelling, with sewing and knitting for the girls. 

An idealised depiction of a
dame school
From the BBC

The voluntary schools

The charity schools had largely been subsumed by two bodies:  the (Nonconformist) British and Foreign Schools Society (founded in 1808) and the (Anglican) National Society for Educating the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (founded in 1811). For more about the Anglican National Schools, see here.  The schools taught according to the monitorial system.

Northchurch St Mary's School, Hertfordshire
A National School constructed in 1864
Creative Commons Attribution
Share-alike license 2.0

However, at least two million children were untouched by the system. As late as 1840 probably a third of all children never attended a day school, and by the middle of the nineteenth century about 30 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women could not sign marriage registers.

Cholera epidemic

This is a very interesting blog post on the 1831-2 cholera epidemic, with some amusing contemporary caricatures.