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Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England: Gender, Work and Wages

Author(s):Verdon, Nicola
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Nicola Verdon, Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England: Gender,

Work and Wages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2002. 240 pp. $75

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-85115-906-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

Most research on rural labor has focused on male workers, and women workers

have, until recently, been ignored. This book helps to redress the balance.

Nicola Verdon, a Research Fellow at the Rural History Center of Reading

University, gives us a thorough review of the literature plus new research

extending our knowledge of the subject. The introduction describes the book as

“an empirical investigation into the types of labour rural women were employed

to perform on a day-to-day basis” (p. 3), which is accurate if rural women are

taken to be working-class women (middle- and upper-class women are not

discussed). After a review of the historical sources, Verdon describes female

employment in agriculture, domestic industry, and the informal economy. The

main conclusion of the book seems to be that women made important economic

contributions throughout the nineteenth century, though their participation in

the formal labor market decreased at the end of the century. New researchers

will be grateful for Verdon’s careful description of the historical sources

available and their defects, as well as her balanced treatment of the

literature. Those already familiar with the field will be most interested in

the results of her work with farm accounts, found in Chapters 4 and 5.

Chapter 1 reviews the literature and discusses the main types of sources

available: the census, account books, autobiographies, parliamentary papers,

newspapers, and other contemporary publications. Unfortunately, the most

accessible of these sources, the census and parliamentary papers, are

fundamentally flawed. A few important printed sources are discussed in more

detail in Chapter 2. While many researchers have used these sources, Verdon is

still able to present new information from them. From the reports published by

the Board of Agriculture she extracts a table comparing male and female

agricultural wages in thirty-two different counties. Women’s wages range from

one-third to one-half of male wages, which is consistent with other studies.

The surprising result is the wage ratio for Buckinghamshire, where female

servants earned 91 percent as much as men in 1813. Verdon attributes the high

female wages to the prospering domestic industries, such as lace and straw,

which raised the demand for female labor. From the 1834 Poor Law report Verdon

extracts the regional patterns of domestic industry, women’s participation in

agricultural work, and women’s contribution to the family budget. For the

country as a whole women’s contribution to the family income, 12 percent, is

only slightly higher than their contribution in the 1790s, when it was about 9

percent. The parliamentary reports of 1843 and the 1860s provide descriptions

of the types of agricultural work done by women, as well as more comparisons of

female and male wages. Comparing the reports, Verdon finds a “fundamental shift

in the way women’s work was viewed and documented” between 1843 and the 1860s

(p. 67); in 1843 agricultural labor was seen as a healthy employment, but by

the 1860s female employment was seen as a problem.

Chapter 3 discusses agricultural workers hired as live-in servants and focuses

on the East Riding of Yorkshire, one of the few places where the practice

survived through the nineteenth century. This chapter includes a vivid

description of hiring fairs, and new data on servants’ wages gathered from

newspapers. Between 1870 and 1890 female servants earned about 60 percent as

much as male servants. During this same time Verdon finds evidence of young men

replacing women in the traditionally female task of milking. Rather than seeing

this as evidence of the flexibility of employment, Verdon suggests that

“farmers acted to push troublesome female servants out of the dairy (and other

outdoor work), thereby promoting a more segregated workforce on the farm, with

women servants increasingly confined to indoor, domestic labour and men

monopolizing outdoor, agricultural work” (p. 95).

The most important contributions of the book are in Chapters 4 and 5, which

contain the results of careful study of farm account books, a relatively

underutilized type of source. In Chapter 4 Verdon measures the relative

employment of men, women, and children at four farms in Norfolk and three in

East Yorkshire. For the first half of the nineteenth century, Verdon finds that

female employment declined in Norfolk, but not in Yorkshire. She also graphs

the seasonal patterns of employment for each type of labor, but these graphs

are of limited use because piece-work is not included, making employment during

harvest appear relatively low; as Verdon notes, “the days spent on such

[piece-work] tasks are not recorded separately in the accounts and therefore

the total days worked by men are seriously underestimated in the graph” (p.

103). After 1850 the farm records do seem to indicate a decline in female

employment, but female laborers do not completely disappear, and census returns

should not be trusted in this regard. Backing up Miller’s findings for

Gloucestershire, Verdon shows that many of the women employed by farmers were

not listed as employed in the censuses.

Verdon sees women’s low wages as at least partially set by custom. While she

admits that some of the wage gap between men and women may be attributed to

hours of work or productivity, she concludes that wages still contained a

customary element because of the “constancy of the female day wage over the

nineteenth century” (p. 127). However, her wage data does not consistently

support this claim. Female wages were constant only in Norfolk; in Yorkshire

women’s wage increased from 6d. per day in 1796 to 10d. in 1818 and 12d. in

1851.

Another valuable contribution in Chapter 4 is the short section on the family

status of women farm workers. Verdon finds that most of the female laborers in

her farm accounts were married, and that many had young children. This type of

information is valuable and is not available elsewhere; I would encourage the

author to continue her work on this topic.

Farm accounts are also used effectively in Chapter 5 where Verdon shows that,

in Bedfordshire, where there was ample employment for women in domestic

industries such as lace-making and straw-plaiting, women were virtually absent

from agriculture. She examines eleven Bedford farms; seven of these hired no

women day-laborers at all, and when women were hired they did not exceed three

percent of farm employment. The contrast with the Norfolk and Yorkshire farms

presented in Chapter 4 is striking; there women often provided a third of the

labor force, and their employment did not fall below five percent until the end

of the century. The evidence presented seems to indicate that the extent of

female as day-laborers was largely determined by the local availability of

alternative female employment.

Even when not formally employed, women made important economic contributions.

In the final chapter Verdon describes the many strategies women used to make

ends meet. This chapter relies heavily on autobiographies of working-class men

and women, which provide valuable information on activities not recorded in

wage records. These sources don’t provide information on crime because, as

Verdon notes, “acknowledgement of involvement in illegal pursuits is rare in

rural autobiographical literature” (p. 192). They do, however, provide accounts

of a wide variety of productive activities, and they are important because they

illuminate aspects of women’s lives ignored by other sources. Women earned

money by washing, sewing, and taking in lodgers. They gleaned and gathered

fuel, nuts, berries, mushrooms, and acorns. They kept gardens and pigs. They

maintained reciprocal ties with neighbors. They managed their family budgets

carefully to make sure that everyone was fed on their limited income. This

chapter shows that, even when they were not “employed,” women were crucial to

the economic survival of the family.

While I do not agree with all her conclusions, Verdon has an excellent grasp of

the literature and has done some fine archival work. This book is a valuable

contribution to the field.

Reference:

C. Miller, 1984, “The Hidden Workforce: Female Fieldworkers in Gloucestershire,

1870-1901,” Southern History, 6:139-61.

Joyce Burnette is the author of “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand

for Female Day-Labourers near Sheffield during the Agricultural Revolution,”

Journal of Economic History 1999.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century