It has long been considered that women’s occupations were under-recorded in the Victorian censuses. From the end of the eighteenth century there was a growing separation of work spheres for men and women. A middle class ideal had emerged, in which a woman’s place was in the home, where she had responsibility for the emotional, physical and moral needs of the family, while the man’s role was to work to provide for them all.
Of course this was not an ideal to which most working class women could aspire. Although many married women from the labouring classes of childbearing years had no choice but to stay home and look after their children, they did this alongside cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. They may also have taken in work to fit in alongside the above. Those three little words: ‘Unpaid Domestic Duties’ – or even a blank space where the name of an occupation should be written – may suggest a life of leisure, but the reality for many women involved long hours of hard physical work.
There was also the matter of the legal position of women and property. Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1770 everything a woman earned was legally the income of her husband; while prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married. It isn’t difficult to imagine that these assumptions and attitudes would filter through into society, and indeed into the decennial enumerations of people and their lives:
“Census enumerators, who were mainly men, gave to household heads, again mostly male, census household schedules which they filled up using instructions provided by the exclusively male civil servants of the General Register Office (GRO) in London. The Victorian enumerators collected the household schedules and copied them into census enumeration books (CEBs), and then dispatched these to the officials at the GRO. When the latter received the CEBs they proceeded to ‘abstract’ the information in them using classification and coding systems they had devised to create tables and commentaries to be published in Parliamentary Papers.”
(See Edward Higgs and Amanda Wilkinson: Women, Occupations and Work in the Victorian Censuses Revisited.)
Based on in-depth research and analysis, the report just cited included a provisional conclusion that the nineteenth-century census returns *are* a reliable source for the study of women’s work in the period. However, as genealogists we look at individual people rather than trends.
A research project I’m working on has prompted me to think about a very specific occupational group: firstly, family businesses, where the husband/ head of household and the wife are working together from the home or shop; and secondly, exactly the same circumstances, but where the woman owned and ran the company before marriage.
Census records from my previous research for two examples of this are as follows:
In 1911, Oldham (below), a husband was listed as ‘Musical Instrument Dealer’, working on own account, and the premises were a shop with the family living above it. The business was established and seemingly successful. His wife is listed as ‘Assisting in the business’. In the ‘status code’ added in pen by the enumerator (second column from end) the husband’s status is 6 (own account); his wife’s is 0 (meaning ‘no employment’):
In 1891, Leeds (below), the husband was listed as ‘Wardrobe(?) Shop Keeper’, employer. His wife and their 19 year-old daughter are both ‘Shop Assistants’, employed. (Employment status is indicated by the location of the X in the last three columns.)
But then I came across Mary.
Mary was a Lodging House Keeper on the Isle of Wight. As an unmarried woman, living in a new house in an attractive expanding town, she built up her lodging house business from scratch. However, in 1853, fifteen or twenty years into her lodging house business, Mary married.
Legally, from the moment Mary signed the marriage register, everything she had worked for, and everything she owned, passed to her husband, Richard. If he had wanted to gamble it all away, throw her out on the streets, or whatever his whim, he could have done it. According to the Law, Mary had not a penny to her name. How would this play out on the records?
From that time, it is Richard who is listed in directories as the Lodging House Keeper. By virtue of the property he also has the right to vote in 1857 – something that was, of course, denied Mary prior to that. To Richard, too, it also falls to pay the parish Poor Rate Taxes. However, the census enumeration books tell a slightly different story:
In 1861, the first census after their marriage, Richard is listed as head of household and ‘Lodging House Keeper’. Mary, however, is not relegated to Unpaid Domestic Duties: she is ‘Lodging House Mistress’.
Ten years later – even more astonishing – both Richard and Mary are listed as ‘Lodging House Keeper’.
Looking through census pages, the only examples I’ve found of a woman named on the census as the person running a business is if she was unmarried or widowed. I’ve also heard of women listed in local directories as having businesses in the high street, and yet having no mention of their occupation in the census – although I haven’t yet actually found any examples of that myself. If you look up Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Gaskell in the censuses taken at the height of their success, you’ll find an unmarried Charlotte whose occupation is ‘none’, and a married Elizabeth who is a ‘Minister’s wife’. All of which makes Mary’s entries here even more remarkable – to the extent that I’m surprised the census enumerator didn’t water it down on transferring the information to the enumeration books.
Having spent some time finding out about Mary, I have a sense of a strong woman who liked to help the young women in her family to progress in their lives. These entries add to that, perhaps providing an insight into her marriage: Richard’s respect for Mary, and Mary’s strength of character.
What about you? I’d love to know of any other finds along these lines. Mary is unusual, but I hope she isn’t a one-off!