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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: Rural Women Workers in 19th Century England

Book review


Rural Women Workers in 19th Century England

Nicola Verdon
Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002
ISBN 0851159060; pp. i-viii + 232, 8 figures, 16 tables.

Karen Sayer

Head of History, Trinity & All Saints College, University of Leeds

Nicola Verdon’s premise is that ‘it is impossible to gain a complete understanding of the lives of poor labouring families without a full consideration of the economic contribution made by women to the rural household’ (p. 3). Her aim is therefore to undertake a narrative, empirical and historiographical investigation of women’s participation within the formal and informal economies of nineteenth-century rural society. Given the essentially twofold nature of this project much of what Verdon writes isn’t new. Nevertheless, what she has created is an ambitious and much-needed overview of the field, one that seeks to make its own contribution and raise new questions.

Detailed and evaluative throughout, the thread that holds the book together, other than the corrective attempt to put rural women back into the picture, is Verdon’s awareness of regional variation. This is crucial to any understanding of rural history and Verdon does it more justice than many. Her own research using materials from the Norfolk, Bedfordshire and East Yorkshire archives is supplemented by the findings of other historians who have undertaken regional studies elsewhere. By using this method Verdon intends, while remaining conscious of her omissions, ‘to broaden the geographic scope of the book’ (p. 5) beyond the bounds of her own work to create a national overview – national in this instance meaning ‘English’.

Using this material Verdon provides a range of tabulated data throughout her study, comparing the incidence of women’s work against men’s and children’s work, measured by pay, days employed and so on, over time, in different counties. This has allowed her to critically evaluate, compare and contrast the findings of earlier studies, most notably those by Ivy Pinchbeck – Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 (G. Routledge & Sons; London, 1930) – and K. D. M. Snell – Annals of the Labouring Poor (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1985). Pinchbeck’s model – that women’s employment as day labourers on farms increased from the late eighteenth century during the French wars, declined during the post-war depression, rose again after 1834 and then declined steadily from the mid-nineteenth century until its close – is thus summarised and tested, as is Snell’s – that women’s work in agriculture declined and became confined to specific seasons as new technologies were introduced from the late eighteenth century onwards. What Verdon concludes is that although Snell’s findings are applicable to the region that he studied (the corn-growing areas of south-east England) they are not necessarily appropriate or true for other areas or forms of production. Similarly, Pinchbeck’s paradigm holds up well in some instances – in this case, the west of England – but not in others – animal production near Sheffield, for example. It is this kind of close reading of the established literature alongside her own analysis of farm account books that leads Verdon to observe, quite rightly, that ‘[g]eneralisations have to be tempered by recognition of the overriding importance of region’(p. 106).

On the other hand, as well as establishing the importance of regional variation with respect to women’s presence in agriculture, she also stresses that day labour was far from being the only or even the most financially significant form of rural women’s work. While undertaking a substantive analysis of female day labourers, including a history of agricultural gangs (1), Verdon therefore looks at women’s involvement in farm service, domestic industry and the informal economy. In each instance she seeks to stress that their participation was never fixed and unchanging.

Though farm service was in wide decline throughout much of the country, especially in southern England, she argues that it continued to play a significant role in East Yorkshire, adapting to wider economic change, and offering young women the opportunity of taking relatively well-paid formal employment until the latter part of the century. Meanwhile, domestic industries such a straw-plaiting and lace-making offered women in Bedfordshire a steady income through much of the period – so much so that they rarely took work as agricultural day labourers and were accused of overturning the domestic sphere by earning more than their menfolk at times. This, Verdon observes, runs counter to assumptions that women’s work in these industries was either marginal or supplementary. It did not conform to the increasingly dominant model of ‘employment’ and was therefore often officially discounted yet, as Verdon demonstrates, it contributed significantly to the income of working-class households. Indeed, she stresses that the evidence ‘places these industries at the centre of rural women’s lives’ (p. 161).

Ultimately, however, the comfort, even the survival, of working class families often rested on women’s ability to manage the home, and their participation in the shifting worlds of ‘making do’ and ‘muddling through’. This last point is linked to Verdon’s discussion of the pattern of women’s work that, alongside her regional analysis, forms the other major thread of the book. As well as looking for changes in the sexual division of labour and variations in the extent to which women participated in paid work over time, she also takes lifecycle into consideration. Influenced by the work of historians such as Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work and Family (Methuen; London, 1987), Verdon argues that there was an unvarying link between a woman’s earning potential and the nature of her family. Hence she posits the ‘earnings women obtained were conditional not only on the availability of employment, but also on the number and age of children living in the household.’(p. 43) Households with surplus income were those with older children who lived at home, yet earned a wage. The experience of widows and young families or families without children could be quite different. The nature of the paid work taken by women also varied over the course of their lives. Farm service for instance fitted into a specific phase of a woman’s life – while she was young and single. Meanwhile Verdon’s evidence shows that, although girls and single women could and did take jobs as day labourers, farmers seemed to prefer hiring married women on a family basis (at least with their children). Many of these women were married to labourers who worked on the same farm and those single women who were day labourers were often widows.

Methodologically the book, as noted, is largely empirical and frequently builds on existing regional studies as well as original research. Often narrative in form, the nature of debate primarily centres on historiography and a critique of the available sources. The sources themselves range from official printed texts – parliamentary reports and censuses – through contemporary investigations and general surveys, to newspapers and autobiography. Much of the book draws on farm accounts and Verdon makes a valuable contribution to rural history by both pulling together the research on these and making her own contribution to the debate. The conclusions that she draws as a result of undertaking comparisons of data taken from the census enumerator’s reports with that found in the farm books are particularly insightful and build well on work done by E. Higgs, C. Miller and P. Sharpe, amongst others. Whenever Verdon handles the various data sets she does so with extreme care and the book benefits from a high level of enquiry. The only real problem with her use of the sources emerges when she attempts to incorporate the women’s point of view into her analysis, and this is a difficulty which will beset any historian attempting the same re rural working class women’s history.

To go into this in a little more detail, Verdon establishes an interest at the outset of the book in trying to draw economic, social and women’s histories together in order to write ‘a history of women’s work to parallel those already completed for male rural workers …[and] to conceptualise the nature of rural women’s labour within the broader theoretical debates on women and work.’(p. 4) This encompasses a consideration of the impact of government legislation, technological change and ideology: extant and important themes in women’s history. In her conclusion, Verdon also implies that she values the recognition of women’s agency; that is, she would want to study the ‘women’s ability to make conscious, individualistic decisions about the nature of their labour’.(p. 199)

On the whole Verdon achieves this. However, there are elements, not so much of error, but of omission, of implication rather than explicit debate when handling issues of ideology and questions of the social construction of femininity. These areas are those connected with lifecycle and ideology and the difficulty is as much to do with the available sources as it is with any failing in Verdon’s hypothesis. It is also particularly unfortunate, as the points made with respect to these subjects are some of the most interesting in the book. To take an example, her highlighting of the importance of lifecycle is invaluable; yet the issue often takes something of a back seat compared to the extensive historiographical treatment of the field of women’s work as a whole. Similarly, the last chapter on the informal economy is striking; but while providing a useful account of women’s everyday lives, it lacks the degree of source criticism found elsewhere in the book. The chapter relies heavily on autobiography, but this source is not discussed as extensively as either the farm books or census material, meriting just under two pages of discussion (and this largely descriptive) at the end of the first chapter.

Verdon recognises – quite rightly – that even with these autobiographies in play women's voices remain largely obscured, because men have written most of them. Yet, there is no other substantive discussion of the production of autobiographies, barring the observation that 'many writers were concerned with representing the ideal of working-class respectability in their memoirs.' (p. 193) Thus, though she draws on Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise (Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1939), for instance, Verdon fails to mention B. English’s critique of the book, which stresses that the most painful memories are erased, so that Lark Rise belongs to the category literary autobiography, written to adhere to the dominant forms of the day. (2) The time at which Lark Rise was published is especially important given Alison Light’s argument that Englishness was redefined between 1920 and 1940 into a more ‘feminine’ form. (3) Books like Lark Rise contributed directly to this and as such should have been treated with as much caution as Verdon’s other sources.

In addition to this, though links are made between working class women’s makeshift economies as studied in the city and those experienced by rural women, little attempt is made to link the country and the city, so that women’s cross-cutting experiences – of class and gender – largely remain hidden. This is in contrast to the work done by Jane Long in Conversations in Cold Rooms: Women, Work and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Northumberland (Royal Historical Society/ Boydell; Woodbridge, 1999) in which Long, in order to retrieve working class women’s agency and to avoid replicating the categories and assumptions of the past, employs a discursive approach, even though each chapter is empirically grounded. For Long, the ideal and the material are equally significant. Moreover, covering working class women’s experience in urban and rural Northumberland, Long demonstrates a groundbreaking awareness of the cross-cutting issues of identity, so that her book works far beyond the bounds of its county setting. Whereas issues of space and place are central to Long’s work, they are mentioned only in passing by Verdon.

As such, Verdon’s work largely remains what Gerda Lerner might describe as a 'women's contribution' history, but it is no less valuable for that. This is a text which has been long in the coming, Pinchbeck’s seventy-year old history having remained in effect the best overview to date, despite its own problems. Contextualised by recent work in the field, coupled with her own use of fresh archival material, Rural Women Workers surveys and criticises the current state of women’s and rural social history with respect to women’s participation in agriculture, rural domestic industries and unpaid work. It factors in shifting patterns within the sexual division of labour and change within women’s lives. In this respect, though Verdon does not really deal with the ideal, she does fulfil her aim with respect to the real. What Verdon has therefore managed to produce, even though, as she says in conclusion, it ‘is difficult to pinpoint the experience of the ‘typical’ or ‘average’ woman worker’ (p. 196), is a timely regionally-sensitive 360-degree picture of rural women’s lives.

April 2003


1. A longer form of this section exists as her article ‘The employment of women and children in agriculture: A reassessment of agricultural gangs in nineteenth century Norfolk’, Agricultural History Review, 49 (2001), 41-55.

2. Barbara English, ‘ Lark Rise and Juniper Hill: a Victorian community in literature and history’, Victorian Studies, 29 (1985), 7-34.

3. A. Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Consensus between the Wars (Routledge; London, 1991).

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