Labour History Review

Female-headed households in early industrial Britain: the vanguard of the proletariat?

Labour History Review (1998), 63, (1), 31–65.

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The army severely discouraged marriage, providing in a meagre fashion only for six wives for every hundred private soldiers. Other ‘unauthorised’ wives suffered terrible privation, particularly if their husbands were posted overseas, see M. Trustram, Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army, Cambridge, 1984. The desperate circumstances of women in this position is important when considering times as bellicose as the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Deborah Valenze provides a sad example of the way in which marriage to a man forced by his work to travel, and the laws of settlement, which reduced wives to appendages of husbands, could interact to leave lone mothers in distress. Bridget Gibson found herself employment as a wet nurse with a family called Benn when her first husband, a sailor, departed on a voyage. Her own baby died while she remained in service but the Benns renewed her contact though no formal acknowledgement of the second term was made. In her second year of service Bridget learned that her husband had died near Guinea. Eventually and partly because of the help provided by Mr Benn she received part of his unpaid wages. Perhaps this made her a desirable marriage partner. Anyway in 1777 she married a William Gibson and began married life in Whitehaven. When Gibson died in 1782 Bridget and another newborn child represented a potential financial burden on the parish. Because her deceased husband had only told her that his settlement was in Yorkshire, she had no idea where her legal claim to relief was. The court finally ordered Bridget and the baby back to the parish of the Benns at Hensingham, even though she had not lived there for five years. See D. Valenze, The First Industrial Woman, Oxford, 1995, pp. 21-2 Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army Google Scholar

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To the extent that female household heads were concentrated in particular jobs and industries which fared badly during the industrial revolution, they and their families would be dragged down by their economic location. This is part of the story. For an excellent summary of the fragmentary evidence on trends in traditionally female work during industrialisation which comes to negative conclusions about aggregate opportunities see Valenze, The First Industrial Woman. Google Scholar

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For comparison, earnings plus poor relief provided weavers with an average income per annum of £22.53, about seventy-two per cent of my figure for the broader category of outworkers for the period 1841-5; see Henry Ashworth, ‘Statistics of the present depression of Trade at Bolton: Showing the mode in which it affects the different classes of a manufacturing population’, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. 5 (April 1842), pp. 74-81 Google Scholar

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Statistical analysis of the combined sample of households confirms that both the earnings and the presence of husbands reduced the probability of female labour force participation. Widows appear to have higher participation rates than wives in other nineteenth century evidence including the censuses, usually at least thirty per cent higher; see, Earle, ‘The female labour market’; For evidence for Leicester from the 1851 census see W Neff, Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-1850, 1966 Google Scholar

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For explanations of the low participation rates of unemployed husbands see R. Davies, P. Elias and R. Penn, ‘The relationship between a husband's unemployment and his wife's participation in the labour force’, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, vol. 54, no. 2 (May 1992), pp. 145-71. Another possible, but implausible explanation is that the leisure is complementary. The hypothesis that the welfare system might discourage the participation of wives of sick or unemployed men is considered below ‘The relationship between a husband's unemployment and his wife's participation in the labour force’ Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 54 145 71 Google Scholar

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See A. Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, 1968 Google Scholar

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On the perception of women's claims as legitimate see Valenze, The First Industrial Woman. Receiving poor relief was not an attractive option but as Barbara Todd emphasises it must be understood in the context of cultural understandings of widowhood. English communities underwrote the desirable and honourable course of persisting as widows via poor relief. The relief was not intended to be enough to live on but to supplement earnings, B. Todd, ‘Demographic determinism and female agency: the remarrying widow reconsidered … again’, Continuity and Change, vol. 9, no. 3 (1994), pp. 421-50 Google Scholar

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See Dupree, Family Structure, p. 310 ff; Rose, ‘Widowhood and poverty’, pp. 283-5 Google Scholar

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Dupree, Family Structure, p. 340. Dupree notes that the number of desertions seemed to increase during the ban! Google Scholar

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See the literature surveyed in J. Humphries, ‘"Lurking in the wings …" Women in the historiography of the industrial revolution’, Business and Economic History, vol. 20 (November 1991), pp. 32-44 ‘"Lurking in the wings …" Women in the historiography of the industrial revolution’ Business and Economic History 20 32 44 Google Scholar

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Humphries, Jane