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Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution

Joyce Burnette, Wabash College

Historians disagree about whether the British Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) was beneficial for women. Frederick Engels, writing in the late nineteenth century, thought that the Industrial Revolution increased women’s participation in labor outside the home, and claimed that this change was emancipating. 1 More recent historians dispute the claim that women’s labor force participation rose, and focus more on the disadvantages women experienced during this time period.2 One thing is certain: the Industrial Revolution was a time of important changes in the way that women worked.

The Census

Unfortunately, the historical sources on women’s work are neither as complete nor as reliable as we would like. Aggregate information on the occupations of women is available only from the census, and while census data has the advantage of being comprehensive, it is not a very good measure of work done by women during the Industrial Revolution. For one thing, the census does not provide any information on individual occupations until 1841, which is after the period we wish to study.3 Even then the data on women’s occupations is questionable. For the 1841 census, the directions for enumerators stated that “The professions &c. of wives, or of sons or daughters living with and assisting their parents but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be inserted.” Clearly this census would not give us an accurate measure of female labor force participation. Table One illustrates the problem further; it shows the occupations of men and women recorded in the 1851 census, for 20 occupational categories. These numbers suggest that female labor force participation was low, and that 40 percent of occupied women worked in domestic service. However, economic historians have demonstrated that these numbers are misleading. First, many women who were actually employed were not listed as employed in the census. Women who appear in farm wage books have no recorded occupation in the census.4 At the same time, the census over-estimates participation by listing in the “domestic service” category women who were actually family members. In addition, the census exaggerates the extent to which women were concentrated in domestic service occupations because many women listed as “maids”, and included in the domestic servant category in the aggregate tables, were really agricultural workers.5

Table One

Occupational Distribution in the 1851 Census of Great Britain

Occupational Category Males (thousands) Females (thousands) Percent Female
Public Administration 64 3 4.5
Armed Forces 63 0 0.0
Professions 162 103 38.9
Domestic Services 193 1135 85.5
Commercial 91 0 0.0
Transportation & Communications 433 13 2.9
Agriculture 1788 229 11.4
Fishing 36 1 2.7
Mining 383 11 2.8
Metal Manufactures 536 36 6.3
Building & Construction 496 1 0.2
Wood & Furniture 152 8 5.0
Bricks, Cement, Pottery, Glass 75 15 16.7
Chemicals 42 4 8.7
Leather & Skins 55 5 8.3
Paper & Printing 62 16 20.5
Textiles 661 635 49.0
Clothing 418 491 54.0
Food, Drink, Lodging 348 53 13.2
Other 445 75 14.4
Total Occupied 6545 2832 30.2
Total Unoccupied 1060 5294 83.3

Source: B.R. Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962, p. 60.

Domestic Service

Domestic work – cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the sick, fetching water, making and mending clothing – took up the bulk of women’s time during the Industrial Revolution period. Most of this work was unpaid. Some families were well-off enough that they could employ other women to do this work, as live-in servants, as charring women, or as service providers. Live-in servants were fairly common; even middle-class families had maids to help with the domestic chores. Charring women did housework on a daily basis. In London women were paid 2s.6d. per day for washing, which was more than three times the 8d. typically paid for agricultural labor in the country. However, a “day’s work” in washing could last 20 hours, more than twice as long as a day’s work in agriculture.6 Other women worked as laundresses, doing the washing in their own homes.

Cottage Industry

Before factories appeared, most textile manufacture (including the main processes of spinning and weaving) was carried out under the “putting-out” system. Since raw materials were expensive, textile workers rarely had enough capital to be self-employed, but would take raw materials from a merchant, spin or weave the materials in their homes, and then return the finished product and receive a piece-rate wage. This system disappeared during the Industrial Revolution as new machinery requiring water or steam power appeared, and work moved from the home to the factory.

Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so most of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew and took the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.

Another important cottage industry was the pillow-lace industry, so called because women wove the lace on pins stuck in a pillow. In the late-eighteenth century women in Bedford could earn 6s. a week making lace, which was about 50 percent more than women earned in argiculture. However, this industry too disappeared due to mechanization. Following Heathcote’s invention of the bobbinet machine (1809), cheaper lace could be made by embroidering patterns on machine-made lace net. This new type of lace created a new cottage industry, that of “lace-runners” who emboidered patterns on the lace.

The straw-plaiting industry employed women braiding straw into bands used for making hats and bonnets. The industry prospered around the turn of the century due to the invention of a simple tool for splitting the straw and war, which cut off competition from Italy. At this time women could earn 4s. to 6s. per week plaiting straw. This industry also declined, though, following the increase in free trade with the Continent in the 1820s.

Factories

A defining feature of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of factories, particularly textile factories. Work moved out of the home and into a factory, which used a central power source to run its machines. Water power was used in most of the early factories, but improvements in the steam engine made steam power possible as well. The most dramatic productivity growth occurred in the cotton industry. The invention of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (1764), Richard Arkwright’s “throstle” or “water frame” (1769), and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule (1779, so named because it combined features of the two earlier machines) revolutionized spinning. Britain began to manufacture cotton cloth, and declining prices for the cloth encouraged both domestic consumption and export. Machines also appeared for other parts of the cloth-making process, the most important of which was Edmund Cartwright’s powerloom, which was adopted slowly because of imperfections in the early designs, but was widely used by the 1830s. While cotton was the most important textile of the Industrial Revolution, there were advances in machinery for silk, flax, and wool production as well.7

The advent of new machinery changed the gender division of labor in textile production. Before the Industrial Revolution, women spun yarn using a spinning wheel (or occasionally a distaff and spindle). Men didn’t spin, and this division of labor made sense because women were trained to have more dexterity than men, and because men’s greater strength made them more valuable in other occupations. In contrast to spinning, handloom weaving was done by both sexes, but men outnumbered women. Men monopolized highly skilled preparation and finishing processes such as wool combing and cloth-dressing. With mechanization, the gender division of labor changed. Women used the spinning jenny and water frame, but mule spinning was almost exclusively a male occupation because it required more strength, and because the male mule-spinners actively opposed the employment of female mule-spinners. Women mule-spinners in Glasgow, and their employers, were the victims of violent attacks by male spinners trying to reduce the competition in their occupation.8 While they moved out of spinning, women seem to have increased their employment in weaving (both in handloom weaving and eventually in powerloom factories). Both sexes were employed as powerloom operators.

Table Two

Factory Workers in 1833: Females as a Percent of the Workforce

Industry Ages 12 and under Ages 13-20 Ages 21+ All Ages
Cotton 51.8 65.0 52.2 58.0
Wool 38.6 46.2 37.7 40.9
Flax 54.8 77.3 59.5 67.4
Silk 74.3 84.3 71.3 78.1
Lace 38.7 57.4 16.6 36.5
Potteries 38.1 46.9 27.1 29.4
Dyehouse 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Glass 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Paper - 100.0 39.2 53.6
Whole Sample 52.8 66.4 48.0 56.8

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX. Mitchell collected data from 82 cotton factories, 65 wool factories, 73 flax factories, 29 silk factories, 7 potteries, 11 lace factories, one dyehouse, one “glass works”, and 2 paper mills throughout Great Britain.

While the highly skilled and highly paid task of mule-spinning was a male occupation, many women and girls were engaged in other tasks in textile factories. For example, the wet-spinning of flax, introduced in Leeds in 1825, employed mainly teenage girls. Girls often worked as assistants to mule-spinners, piecing together broken threads. In fact, females were a majority of the factory labor force. Table Two shows that 57 percent of factory workers were female, most of them under age 20. Women were widely employed in all the textile industries, and constituted the majority of workers in cotton, flax, and silk. Outside of textiles, women were employed in potteries and paper factories, but not in dye or glass manufacture. Of the women who worked in factories, 16 percent were under age 13, 51 percent were between the ages of 13 and 20, and 33 percent were age 21 and over. On average, girls earned the same wages as boys. Children’s wages rose from about 1s.6d. per week at age 7 to about 5s. per week at age 15. Beginning at age 16, and a large gap between male and female wages appeared. At age 30, women factory workers earned only one-third as much as men.

Figure One
Distribution of Male and Female Factory Employment by Age, 1833

Figure 1

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.
The y-axis shows the percentage of total employment within each sex that is in that five-year age category.

Figure Two
Wages of Factory Workers in 1833

Figure 2

Source: “Report from Dr. James Mitchell to the Central Board of Commissioners, respecting the Returns made from the Factories, and the Results obtained from them.” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (167) XIX.

Agriculture

Wage Workers

Wage-earners in agriculture generally fit into one of two broad categories – servants who were hired annually and received part of their wage in room and board, and day-laborers who lived independently and were paid a daily or weekly wage. Before industrialization servants comprised between one-third and one-half of labor in agriculture.9 For servants the value of room and board was a substantial portion of their compensation, so the ratio of money wages is an under-estimate of the ratio of total wages (see Table Three). Most servants were young and unmarried. Because servants were paid part of their wage in kind, as board, the use of the servant contract tended to fall when food prices were high. During the Industrial Revolution the use of servants seems to have fallen in the South and East.10 The percentage of servants who were female also declined in the first half of the nineteenth century.11

Table Three

Wages of Agricultural Servants (£ per year)

Year Location Male Money Wage Male In-Kind Wage Female Money Wage Female In-Kind Wage Ratio of Money Wages Ratio of Total Wages
1770 Lancashire 7 9 3 6 0.43 0.56
1770 Oxfordshire 10 12 4 8 0.40 0.55
1770 Staffordshire 11 9 4 6 0.36 0.50
1821 Yorkshire 16.5 27 7 18 0.42 0.57

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

While servants lived with the farmer and received food and lodging as part of their wage, laborers lived independently, received fewer in-kind payments, and were paid a daily or a weekly wage. Though the majority of laborers were male, some were female. Table Four shows the percentage of laborers who were female at various farms in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. These numbers suggest that female employment was widespread, but varied considerably from one location to the next. Compared to men, female laborers generally worked fewer days during the year. The employment of female laborers was concentrated around the harvest, and women rarely worked during the winter. While men commonly worked six days per week, outside of harvest women generally averaged around four days per week.

Table Four

Employment of Women as Laborers in Agriculture:
Percentage of Annual Work-Days Worked by Females

Year Location Percent Female
1772-5 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire 17
1774-7 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 27
1785-92 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 40
1794-5 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 42
1801-3 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 35
1801-4 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 10
1814-6 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 7
1826-8 Nettlecombe Barton, Somerset 5
1828-39 Shipton Moyne, Gloucestershire 19
1831-45 Oakes in Norton, Derbyshire 6
1836-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 26
1839-40 Lustead, Norfolk 6
1846-9 Dunster Castle Farm, Somerset 29

Sources: Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 59 (March 1999): 41-67; Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999. Sotheron-Estcourt accounts, G.R.O. D1571; Ketton-Cremer accounts, N.R.O. WKC 5/250

The wages of female day-laborers were fairly uniform; generally a farmer paid the same wage to all the adult women he hired. Women’s daily wages were between one-third and one-half of male wages. Women generally worked shorter days, though, so the gap in hourly wages was not quite this large.12 In the less populous counties of Northumberland and Durham, male laborers were required to provide a “bondager,” a woman (usually a family member) who was available for day-labor whenever the employer wanted her.13

Table Five

Wages of Agricultural Laborers

Year Location Male Wage (d./day) Female Wage (d./day) Ratio
1770 Yorkshire 5 12 0.42
1789 Hertfordshire 6 16 0.38
1797 Warwickshire 6 14 0.43
1807 Oxfordshire 9 23 0.39
1833 Cumberland 12 24 0.50
1833 Essex 10 22 0.45
1838 Worcester 9 18 0.50

Source: Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review 50 (May 1997): 257-281.

Various sources suggest that women’s employment in agriculture declined during the early nineteenth century. Enclosure increased farm size and changed the patterns of animal husbandry, both of which seem to have led to reductions in female employment.14 More women were employed during harvest than during other seasons, but women’s employment during harvest declined as the scythe replaced the sickle as the most popular harvest tool. While women frequently harvested with the sickle, they did not use the heavier scythe.15 Female employment fell the most in the East, where farms increasingly specialized in grain production. Women had more work in the West, which specialized more in livestock and dairy farming.16

Non-Wage-Earners

During the eighteenth century there were many opportunities for women to be productively employed in farm work on their own account, whether they were wives of farmers on large holdings, or wives of landless laborers. In the early nineteenth century, however, many of these opportunities disappeared, and women’s participation in agricultural production fell.

In a village that had a commons, even if the family merely rented a cottage the wife could be self-employed in agriculture because she could keep a cow, or other animals, on the commons. By careful management of her stock, a woman might earn as much during the year as her husband earned as a laborer. Women also gathered fuel from the commons, saving the family considerable expense. The enclosure of the commons, though, eliminated these opportunities. In an enclosure, land was re-assigned so as to eliminate the commons and consolidate holdings. Even when the poor had clear legal rights to use the commons, these rights were not always compensated in the enclosure agreement. While enclosure occurred at different times for different locations, the largest waves of enclosures occurred in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, meaning that, for many, opportunities for self-employment in agriculture declined as the same time as employment in cottage industry declined. 17

Only a few opportunities for agricultural production remained for the landless laboring family. In some locations landlords permitted landless laborers to rent small allotments, on which they could still grow some of their own food. The right to glean on fields after harvest seems to have been maintained at least through the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time it had become one of the few agricultural activities available to women in some areas. Gleaning was a valuable right; the value of the grain gleaned was often between 5 and 10 percent of the family’s total annual income.18

In the eighteenth century it was common for farmers’ wives to be actively involved in farm work, particularly in managing the dairy, pigs, and poultry. The diary was an important source of income for many farms, and its success depended on the skill of the mistress, who usually ran the operation with no help from men. In the nineteenth century, however, farmer’s wives were more likely to withdraw from farm management, leaving the dairy to the management of dairymen who paid a fixed fee for the use of the cows.19 While poor women withdrew from self-employment in agriculture because of lost opportunities, farmer’s wives seem to have withdraw because greater prosperity allowed them to enjoy more leisure.

It was less common for women to manage their own farms, but not unknown. Commercial directories list numerous women farmers. For example, the 1829 Directory of the County of Derby lists 3354 farmers, of which 162, or 4.8%, were clearly female.20 While the commercial directories themselves do not indicate to what extent these women were actively involved in their farms, other evidence suggests that at least some women farmers were actively involved in the work of the farm.21

Self-Employed

During the Industrial Revolution period women were also active businesswomen in towns. Among business owners listed in commercial directories, about 10 percent were female. Table Seven shows the percentage female in all the trades with at least 25 people listed in the 1788 Manchester commercial directory. Single women, married women, and widows are included in these numbers. Sometimes these women were widows carrying on the businesses of their deceased husbands, but even in this case that does not mean they were simply figureheads. Widows often continued their husband’s businesses because they had been active in management of the business while their husband was alive, and wished to continue.22 Sometimes married women were engaged in trade separately from their husbands. Women most commonly ran shops and taverns, and worked as dressmakers and milliners, but they were not confined to these areas, and appear in most of the trades listed in commercial directories. Manchester, for example, had six female blacksmiths and five female machine makers in 1846. Between 1730 and 1800 there were 121 “rouping women” selling off estates in Edinburgh. 23

Table Six

Business Owners Listed in Commercial Directories

Date City Male Female Unknown Gender Percent Female
1788 Manchester 2033 199 321 8.9
1824-5 Manchester 4185 297 1671 6.6
1846 Manchester 11,942 1222 2316 9.3
1850 Birmingham 15,054 2020 1677 11.8
1850 Derby 2415 332 194 12.1

Sources: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984); Pigot and Dean’s Directory for Manchester, Salford, &c. for 1824-5 (Manchester 1825); Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland (Manchester, 1846); Slater’s Royal National and Commercial Directory (Manchester, 1850)

Table Seven

Women in Trades in Manchester, 1788

Trade Men Women Gender Unknown Percent Female
Apothecary/ Surgeon / Midwife 29 1 5 3.3
Attorney 39 0 3 0.0
Boot and Shoe makers 87 0 1 0.0
Butcher 33 1 1 2.9
Calenderer 31 4 5 11.4
Corn & Flour Dealer 45 4 5 8.2
Cotton Dealer 23 0 2 0.0
Draper, Mercer, Dealer of Cloth 46 15 19 24.6
Dyer 44 3 18 6.4
Fustian Cutter / Shearer 54 2 0 3.6
Grocers & Tea Dealers 91 16 12 15.0
Hairdresser & Peruke maker 34 1 0 2.9
Hatter 45 3 4 6.3
Joiner 34 0 1 0.0
Liquor dealer 30 4 14 11.8
Manufacturer, cloth 257 4 118 1.5
Merchant 58 1 18 1.7
Publichouse / Inn / Tavern 126 13 2 9.4
School master / mistress 18 10 0 35.7
Shopkeeper 107 16 4 13.0
Tailor 59 0 1 0.0
Warehouse 64 0 14 0.0

Source: Lewis’s Manchester Directory for 1788 (reprinted by Neil Richardson, Manchester, 1984)

Guilds often controlled access to trades, admitting only those who had served an apprenticeship and thus earned the “freedom” of the trade. Women could obtain “freedom” not only by apprenticeship, but also by widowhood. The widow of a tradesman was often considered knowledgeable enough in the trade that she was given the right to carry on the trade even without an apprenticeship. In the eighteenth century women were apprenticed to a wide variety of trades, including butchery, bookbinding, brush making, carpentry, ropemaking and silversmithing.24 Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the number of females apprenticed to trades declined, possibly suggesting reduced participation by women. However, the power of the guilds and the importance of apprenticeship were also declining during this time, so the decline in female apprenticeships may not have been an important barrier to employment.25

Many women worked in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, and a few women actually owned factories. In Keighley, West Yorkshire, Ann Illingworth, Miss Rachael Leach, and Mrs. Betty Hudson built and operated textile mills.26 In 1833 Mrs. Doig owned a powerloom factory in Scotland, which employed 60 workers.27

While many women did successfully enter trades, there were obstacles to women’s employment that kept their numbers low. Women generally received less education than men (though education of the time was of limited practical use). Women may have found it more difficult than men to raise the necessary capital because English law did not consider a married woman to have any legal existence; she could not sue or be sued. A married woman was a feme covert and technically could not make any legally binding contracts, a fact which may have discouraged others from loaning money to or making other contracts with married women. However, this law was not as limiting in practice as it would seem to be in theory because a married woman engaged in trade on her own account was treated by the courts as a feme sole and was responsible for her own debts.28

The professionalization of certain occupations resulted in the exclusion of women from work they had previously done. Women had provided medical care for centuries, but the professionalization of medicine in the early-nineteenth century made it a male occupation. The Royal College of Physicians admitted only graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, schools to which women were not admitted until the twentieth century. Women were even replaced by men in midwifery. The process began in the late-eighteenth century, when we observe the use of the term “man-midwife,” an oxymoronic title suggestive of changing gender roles. In the nineteenth century the “man-midwife” disappeared, and women were replaced by physicians or surgeons for assisting childbirth. Professionalization of the clergy was also effective in excluding women. While the Church of England did not allow women ministers, the Methodists movement had many women preachers during its early years. However, even among the Methodists female preachers disappeared when lay preachers were replaced with a professional clergy in the early nineteenth century.29

In other occupations where professionalization was not as strong, women remained an important part of the workforce. Teaching, particularly in the lower grades, was a common profession for women. Some were governesses, who lived as household servants, but many opened their own schools and took in pupils. The writing profession seems to have been fairly open to women; the leading novelists of the period include Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Fanny Burney, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Trollope. Female non-fiction writers of the period include Jane Marcet, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Other Occupations

The occupations listed above are by no means a complete listing of the occupations of women during the Industrial Revolution. Women made buttons, nails, screws, and pins. They worked in the tin plate, silver plate, pottery and Birmingham “toy” trades (which made small articles like snuff boxes). Women worked in the mines until The Mines Act of 1842 prohibited them from working underground, but afterwards women continued to pursue above-ground mining tasks.

Married Women in the Labor Market

While there are no comprehensive sources of information on the labor force participation of married women, household budgets reported by contemporary authors give us some information on women’s participation.30 For the period 1787 to 1815, 66 percent of married women in working-class households had either a recorded occupation or positive earnings. For the period 1816-20 the rate fell to 49 percent, but in 1821-40 it recovered to 62 percent. Table Eight gives participation rates of women by date and occupation of the husband.

Table Eight

Participation Rates of Married Women

High-Wage Agriculture Low-Wage Agriculture Mining Factory Outwork Trades All
1787-1815 55 85 40 37 46 63 66
1816-1820 34 NA 28 4 42 30 49
1821-1840 22 85 33 86 54 63 62

Source: Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review 48 (February 1995): 89-117

While many wives worked, the amount of their earnings was small relative to their husband’s earnings. Annual earnings of married women who did work averaged only about 28 percent of their husband’s earnings. Because not all women worked, and because children usually contributed more to the family budget than their mothers, for the average family the wife contributed only around seven percent of total family income.

Childcare

Women workers used a variety of methods to care for their children. Sometimes childcare and work were compatible, and women took their children with them to the fields or shops where they worked.31 Sometimes women working at home would give their infants opiates such as “Godfrey’s Cordial” in order to keep the children quiet while their mothers worked.32 The movement of work into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and childcare. In most factory work the hours were rigidly set, and women who took the jobs had to accept the twelve or thirteen hour days. Work in the factories was very disciplined, so the women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will. However, these difficulties did not prevent women with small children from working.

Nineteenth-century mothers used older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools to provide child care while they worked.33 Occasionally mothers would leave young children home alone, but this was dangerous enough that only a few did so.34 Children as young as two might be sent to dame schools, in which women would take children into their home and provide child care, as well as some basic literacy instruction.35 In areas where lace-making or straw-plaiting thrived, children were sent from about age seven to “schools” where they learned the trade.36

Mothers might use a combination of different types of childcare. Elizabeth Wells, who worked in a Leicester worsted factory, had five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 2, and four months. The eldest, a daughter, stayed home to tend the house and care for the infant. The second child worked, and the six-year-old and two-year-old were sent to “an infant school.”37 Mary Wright, an “over-looker” in the rag-cutting room of a Buckinghamshire paper factory, had five children. The eldest worked in the rag-cutting room with her, the youngest was cared for at home, and the middle three were sent to a school; “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for the three others. They go to a school, where they are taken care of and taught to read.”38

The cost of childcare was substantial. At the end of the eighteenth century the price of child-care was about 1s. a week, which was about a quarter of a woman’s weekly earnings in agriculture.39 In the 1840s mothers paid anywhere from 9d. to 2s.6d. per week for child care, out of a wage of around 7s. per week.40

For Further Reading

Burnette, Joyce. “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” Economic History Review 50 (1997): 257-281.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700-1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Horrell, Sara, and Jane Humphries. “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865.” Economic History Review 48 (1995): 89-117.

Humphries, Jane. “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 17-42.

King, Peter. “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850.” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 461-476

Kussmaul, Ann. Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1930.

Sanderson, Elizabeth. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Snell, K.D.M. Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

1 “Since large-scale industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and makes her, often enough, the bread-winner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation – except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy. . . .It will then become evidence that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry.” Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1986, p. 508, 510.

2 Ivy Pinchbeck (Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930) claimed that higher incomes allowed some women to withdraw from the labor force. While she saw some disadvantages resulting from this withdrawal, particularly the loss of independence, she thought that overall women benefited from having more time to devote to their homes and families. Davidoff and Hall (Family Fortunes: Man and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987) agree that women withdrew from work, but they see the change as a negative result of gender discrimination. Similarly, Horrell and Humphries (“Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117) do not find that rising incomes caused declining labor force participation, and they believe that declining demand for female workers caused the female exodus from the workplace.

3 While the British census began in 1801, individual enumeration did not begin until 1841. For a detailed description of the British censuses of the nineteenth century, see Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census, London: HMSO, 1989.

4 For example, Helen Speechley, in her dissertation, showed that seven women who worked for wages at a Somerset farm had no recorded occupation in the 1851 census See Helen Speechley, Female and Child Agricultural Day Labourers in Somerset, c. 1685-1870, dissertation, Univ. of Exeter, 1999.

5 Edward Higgs finds that removing family members from the “servants” category reduced the number of servants in Rochdale in 1851. Enumerators did not clearly distinguish between the terms “housekeeper” and “housewife.” See Edward Higgs, “Domestic Service and Household Production” in Angela John, ed., Unequal Opportunities, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and “Women, Occupations and Work in the Nineteenth Century Censuses,” History Workshop, 1987, 23:59-80. In contrast, the censuses of the early 20th century seem to be fairly accurate; see Tim Hatton and Roy Bailey, “Women’s Work in Census and Survey, 1911-1931,” Economic History Review, Feb. 2001, LIV:87-107.

6 A shilling was equal to 12 pence, so if women earned 2s.6d. for 20 hours, they earned 1.5d. per hour. Women agricultural laborers earned closer to 1d. per hour, so the London wage was higher. See Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth-Century, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925, p. 208, and Patricia Malcolmson, English Laundresses, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 25. .

7 On the technology of the Industrial Revolution, see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969, and Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.

8 A petition from Glasgow cotton manufactures makes the following claim, “In almost every department of the cotton spinning business, the labour of women would be equally efficient with that of men; yet in several of these departments, such measures of violence have been adopted by the combination, that the women who are willing to be employed, and who are anxious by being employed to earn the bread of their families, have been driven from their situations by violence. . . . Messrs. James Dunlop and Sons, some years ago, erected cotton mills in Calton of Glasgow, on which they expended upwards of [£]27,000 forming their spinning machines, (Chiefly with the view of ridding themselves of the combination [the male union],) of such reduced size as could easily be wrought by women. They employed women alone, as not being parties to the combination, and thus more easily managed, and less insubordinate than male spinners. These they paid at the same rate of wages, as were paid at other works to men. But they were waylaid and attacked, in going to, and returning from their work; the houses in which they resided, were broken open in the night. The women themselves were cruelly beaten and abused; and the mother of one of them killed; . . . And these nefarious attempts were persevered in so systematically, and so long, that Messrs. Dunlop and sons, found it necessary to dismiss all female spinners from their works, and to employ only male spinners, most probably the very men who had attempted their ruin.” First Report from the Select Committee on Artizans and Machinery, British Parliamentary Papers, 1824 vol. V, p. 525.

9 Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1

10 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, Ch. 1, and K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Ch. 2.

11 For the period 1574 to 1821 about 45 percent of servants were female, but this fell to 32 percent in 1851. See Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981, Ch. 1.

12 Men usually worked 12-hour days, and women averaged closer to 10 hours. See Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” Economic History Review, May 1997, 50:257-281.

13 See Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 65.

14 See Robert Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman, Clarendon Press, 1992, and Joyce Burnette, “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield During the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economics History, March 1999, 59:41-67.

15 While the scythe had been used for mowing grass for hay or cheaper grains for some time, the sickle was used for harvesting wheat until the nineteenth century. Thus adoption of the scythe for harvesting wheat seems to be a response to changing prices rather than invention of a new technology. The scythe required less labor to harvest a given acre, but left more grain on the ground, so as grain prices fell relative to wages, farmers substituted the scythe for the sickle. See E.J.T. Collins, “Harvest Technology and Labour Supply in Britain, 1790-1870,” Economic History Review, Dec. 1969, XXIII:453-473.

16 K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge, 1985.

17 See Jane Humphries, “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of Economic History, March 1990, 50:17-42, and J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Rights, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

18 See Peter King, “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural Labouring Poor, 1750-1850,” Economic History Review, 1991, XLIV:461-476.

19 Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 41-42 See also Deborah Valenze, The First Industrial Woman, Oxford Univ. Press, 1995

20 Stephen Glover, The Directory of the County of Derby, Derby: Henry Mozley and Son, 1829.

21 Eden gives an example of gentlewomen who, on the death of their father, began to work as farmers. He notes, “not seldom, in one and the same day, they have divided their hours in helping to fill the dung-cart, and receiving company of the highest rank and distinction.” (F.M. Eden, The State of the Poor, vol. i., p. 626.) One woman farmer who was clearly an active manager celebrated her success in a letter sent to the Annals of Agriculture, (quoted by Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 30): “I bought a small estate, and took possession of it in the month of July, 1803. . . . As a woman undertaking to farm is generally a subject of ridicule, I bought the small estate by way of experiment: the gentlemen of the county have now complimented me so much on having set so good and example to the farmers, that I have determined on taking a very large farm into my hands.” The Annals of Agriculture give a number of examples of women farmers cited for their experiments or their prize-winning crops.

22 Tradesmen considered themselves lucky to find a wife who was good at business. In his autobiography James Hopkinson, a cabinetmaker, said of his wife, “I found I had got a good and suitable companion one with whom I could take sweet council and whose love and affections was only equall’d by her ability as a business woman.” Victorian Cabinet Maker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, 1968, p. 96.

23 See Elizabeth Sanderson, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

24 See K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, Table 6.1.

25 The law requiring a seven-year apprenticeship before someone could work in a trade was repealed in 1814.

26 See Francois Crouzet, The First Industrialists, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, and M.L. Baumber, From Revival to Regency: A History of Keighley and Haworth, 1740-1820, Crabtree Ltd., Keighley, 1983.

27 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiry into the Employment of Children in Factories, with Minutes of Evidence, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, A1, p. 120.

28 For example, in the case of “LaVie and another Assignees against Philips and another Assignees,” the court upheld the right of a woman to operate as feme sole. In 1764 James Cox and his wife Jane were operating separate businesses, and both went bankrupt within the space of two months. Jane’s creditors sued James’s creditors for the recovery of five fans, goods from her shop that had been taken for James’s debts. The court ruled that, since Jane was trading as a feme sole, her husband did not own the goods in her shop, and thus James’s creditors had no right to seize them. See William Blackstone, Reports of Cases determined in the several Courts of Westminster-Hall, from 1746 to 1779, London, 1781, p. 570-575.

29 See Deborah Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, Princeton Univ. Press, 1985.

30 See Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the Transition to the male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” Economic History Review, Feb. 1995, XLVIII:89-117.

31 In his autobiography James Hopkinson says of his wife, “How she laboured at the press and assisted me in the work of my printing office, with a child in her arms, I have no space to tell, nor in fact have I space to allude to the many ways she contributed to my good fortune.” James Hopkinson, Victorian Cabinet Marker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894, J.B. Goodman, ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p. 96. A 1739 poem by Mary Collier suggests that carrying babies into the field was fairly common; it contains these lines:

Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,
And wrap them in our Cloaths to keep them warm,
While round about we gather up the Corn;
. . .
When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too.

Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour, Augustan Reprint Society, #230, 1985, p. 10. A 1835 Poor Law report stated that in Sussex, “the custom of the mother of a family carrying her infant with her in its cradle into the field, rather than lose the opportunity of adding her earnings to the general stock, though partially practiced before, is becoming very much more general now.” (Quoted in Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, Routledge, 1930, p. 85.)

32 Sarah Johnson of Nottingham claimed that she ” Knows it is quite a common custom for mothers to give Godfrey’s and the Anodyne cordial to their infants, ‘it is quite too common.’ It is given to infants at the breast; it is not given because the child is ill, but ‘to compose it to rest, to sleep it,’ so that the mother may get to work. ‘Has seen an infant lay asleep on its mother’s lap whilst at the lace-frame for six or eight hours at a time.’ This has been from the effects of the cordial.” [Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 157] Mary Colton, a lace worker from Nottingham, described her use of the drug to parliamentary investigators thus: ‘Was confined of an illegitimate child in November, 1839. When the child was a week old she gave it a half teaspoonful of Godfrey’s twice a-day. She could not afford to pay for the nursing of the child, and so gave it Godfrey’s to keep it quiet, that she might not be interrupted at the lace piece; she gradually increased the quantity by a drop or two at a time until it reached a teaspoonful; when the infant was four months old it was so “wankle” and thin that folks persuaded her to give it laudanum to bring it on, as it did other children. A halfpenny worth, which was about a teaspoonful and three-quarters, was given in two days; continued to give her this quantity since February, 1840, until this last past (1841), and then reduced the quantity. She now buys a halfpenny worth of laudanum and a halfpenny worth of Godfrey’s mixed, which lasts her three days. . . . If it had not been for her having to sit so close to work she would never have given the child Godfrey’s. She has tried to break it off many times but cannot, for if she did, she should not have anything to eat.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 630].

33 Elizabeth Leadbeater, who worked for a Birmingham brass-founder, worked while she was nursing and had her mother look after the infant. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 710.] Mrs. Smart, an agricultural worker from Calne, Wiltshire, noted, “Sometimes I have had my mother, and sometimes my sister, to take care of the children, or I could not have gone out.” [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 65.] More commonly, though, older siblings provided the childcare. “Older siblings” generally meant children of nine or ten years old, and included boys as well as girls. Mrs. Britton of Calne, Wiltshire, left her children in the care of her eldest boy. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 66] In a family from Presteign, Wales, containing children aged 9, 7, 5, 3, and 1, we find that “The oldest children nurse the youngest.” [F.M. Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797, vol. iii, p. 904] When asked what income a labourer’s wife and children could earn, some respondents to the 1833 “Rural Queries” assumed that the eldest child would take care of the others, leaving the mother free to work. The returns from Bengeworth, Worcester, report that, “If the Mother goes to field work, the eldest Child had need to stay at home, to tend the younger branches of the Family.” Ewhurst, Surrey, reported that “If the Mother were employed, the elder Children at home would probably be required to attend to the younger Children.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B, “Rural Queries,” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 488 and 593]

34 Parents heard of incidents, such as one reported in the Times (Feb. 6, 1819):

A shocking accident occurred at Llandidno, near Conway, on Tuesday night, during the absence of a miner and his wife, who had gone to attend a methodist meeting, and locked the house door, leaving two children within; the house by some means took fire, and was, together with the unfortunate children, consumed to ashes; the eldest only four years old!

Mothers were aware of these dangers. One mother who admitted to leaving her children at home worried greatly about the risks:

I have always left my children to themselves, and, God be praised! nothing has ever happened to them, though I thought it dangerous. I have many a time come home, and have thought it a mercy to find nothing has happened to them. . . . Bad accidents often happen. [Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (510) XII, p. 68.]

Leaving young children home without child care had real dangers, and the fact that most working mothers paid for childcare suggests that they did not consider leaving young children alone to be an acceptable option.

35 In 1840 an observer of Spitalfields noted, “In this neighborhood, where the women as well as the men are employed in the manufacture of silk, many children are sent to small schools, not for instruction, but to be taken care of whilst their mothers are at work.”[ Reports from Assistant Handloom-Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (43) XXIII, p. 261] In 1840 the wife of a Gloucester weaver earned 2s. a week from running a school; she had twelve students and charged each 2d. a week. [Reports from Assistant Handloom Weavers’ Commissioners, British Parliamentary Papers, 1840 (220) XXIV, p. 419] In 1843 the lace-making schools of the midlands generally charged 3d. per week. [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46, 64, 71, 72]

36 At one straw-plaiting school in Hertfordshire,

Children commence learning the trade about seven years old: parents pay 3d. a-week for each child, and for this they are taught the trade and taught to read. The mistress employs about from 15 to 20 at work in a room; the parents get the profits of the children’s labour.[ Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 64]

At these schools there was very little instruction; some time was devoted to teaching the children to read, but they spent most of their time working. One mistress complained that the children worked too much and learned too little, “In my judgment I think the mothers task the children too much; the mistress is obliged to make them perform it, otherwise they would put them to other schools.” Ann Page of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, had “eleven scholars” and claimed to “teach them all reading once a-day.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 66, 71] The standard rate of 3d. per week seems to have been paid for supervision of the children rather than for the instruction.

37 First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, British Parliamentary Papers, 1833 (450) XX, C1 p. 33.

38 Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46.

39 David Davies, The Case of Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered, London: Robinson, 1795, p.14. Agricultural wages for this time period are found in Eden, State of the Poor, London: Davis, 1797.

40 In 1843 parliamentary investigator Alfred Austin reports, “Where a girl is hired to take care of children, she is paid about 9d. a week, and has her food besides, which is a serious deduction from the wages of the woman at work.”[ Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, British Parliamentary Papers,1843 (510) XII, p.26] Agricultural wages in the area were 8d. per day, so even without the cost of food, the cost of child care was about one-fifth a woman’s wage. One Scottish woman earned 7s. per week in a coal mine and paid 2s.6d., or 36 percent of her income, for the care of her children.[ B.P.P. 1844 (592) XVI, p. 6] In 1843 Mary Wright, a “over-looker” at a Buckinghamshire paper factory, paid even more for child care; she told parliamentary investigators that “for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for three others.” [Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures), British Parliamentary Papers, 1843 (431) XIV, p. 46] She earned 10s.6d. per week, so her total child-care payments were 21 percent of her wage. Engels put the cost of child care at 1s. or 18d. a week. [Engels, [1845] 1926, p. 143] Factory workers often made 7s. a week, so again these women may have paid around one-fifth of their earnings for child care. Some estimates suggest even higher fractions of women’s income went to child care. The overseer of Wisbech, Cambridge, suggests a higher fraction; he reports, “The earnings of the Wife we consider comparatively small, in cases where she has a large family to attend to; if she has one or two children, she has to pay half, or perhaps more of her earnings for a person to take care of them.” [Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiry in the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Law, Appendix B, “Rural Queries,” British Parliamentary Papers, 1834 (44) XXX, p. 76]

Citation: Burnette, Joyce. “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/women-workers-in-the-british-industrial-revolution/