Published by EH.Net (June 2023).
Emma Griffin. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. xi + 389 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-300-23006-2.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Johnson, University of Western Australia.
The standard of living during Britain’s industrial revolution is one of the most well-worked and contentious topics in economic history, but there is little disagreement about the trajectory of living standards during Victoria’s reign. From the 1830s as economic growth, free trade and the Pax Britannica turned Britain into the globally dominant economic and military power, real wages more than doubled and average living standards rose to levels never previously seen. End of story.
Not so, says Emma Griffin in an exploration of family life in Victorian Britain which challenges many easy assumptions about the relationship between economic opportunity, real wages and living standards. Building on her earlier work that used working-class autobiographies from 1750 to 1850 – the classic Industrial Revolution period – to peer into the lives and experiences of children, women and men (Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale University Press, 2014) she has now taken the same approach to look beyond the standard economic measures of earnings and employment to explore how the unprecedented economic growth of the Victorian period affected the inner lives of ordinary families.
The core of the book is Griffin’s close reading of 662 autobiographies, some well-known personal accounts by political and union activists such as Walter Citrine, Tom Mann and Margaret Bondfield, others the unpublished writings – some little more than informal jottings – created by women and men who wanted to make and leave a record of their lives and thoughts. Two thirds of these autobiographies were written by men, and these were much more likely to be formally published than were the writings of women. Two-thirds of the male autobiographers present a story of personal success, of progressing from manual labour to middle-class or professional occupations – 57 of them became MPs. For the female writers, however, the numbers were reversed, with two-thirds spending their adult lives as unpaid working-class housewives or, less frequently, as manual workers. These women rarely wrote about politics or trade unionism; instead they wrote about the things that mattered to them – neighbours, children, husbands, housework, food and money.
For Griffin the value of the autobiographies is more in the incidental details they offer about the humdrum daily affairs of working-class families than in the overarching stories of personal achievement. The toil of housework, the food put on the table (or not, if times were hard), the behaviour of siblings and parents, the experience of school, the transition to adult life by way of employment for boys and marriage for girls – each autobiographer presents their unique account, yet collectively they provide a persuasive and intimate view of working-class family life. This enables Griffin to reassess the impact of Victorian economic growth on the working people who experienced it, and it is a much more nuanced picture than is told by the history of real wages.
Boys could find easy access to work with just a few years of elementary education, and industrialisation significantly expanded employment opportunities and real wages for men. For many girls, however, their adolescence was spent in unpaid domestic work in the parental home or elsewhere, and Griffin sees this lack of access to early-career work experience and training as setting the stage for low female wages and a life of adult dependency on male earnings. Just about the only job that provided working-class girls with a living wage and the prospect of independence was teaching; for the great majority of women the only way they could share in Victorian Britain’s economic success was by being tied to a male breadwinner through marriage.
Women’s principal role continued to be the provision of unwaged domestic labour while rising male wages gave men increased financial power and autonomy. The wellbeing of a family depended both on the male head’s skill and capacity to earn, but also on his willingness to share with his family. The autobiographies indicate that almost half of fathers were reliable wage earners who dutifully shared their earnings, but a quarter of them were not, and the dominant reason for this was drunkenness. Drunkenness was overwhelmingly an urban problem, mentioned by more than a quarter of urban autobiographers, but only 5% of rural autobiographers. Griffin points out that the rise of urban male wages gave men discretionary spending power which ‘altered an individual’s access to the fundamentals of human existence – food, clothing, warmth, companionship and contentment – in unexpected and highly gender-specific ways.’ The pub, the pie shop, the trade union meeting, the friendly society, the football team all provided men with an opportunity for sociability and ‘mass merriment’ which women had neither the money nor the time to enjoy.
Although by 1914 real wages in Britain were higher than at any time previously, it was still the case that ‘men earned the bread and women baked it.’ Griffin argues that the very process of Victorian economic growth – the development of a more urbanised, more monetised, more wage-dependent society – made gender divisions sharper. In pre-industrial Britain low wages created a degree of equality within the household between money income and unpaid labour which was snapped apart by the growth of the male industrial wage and the opportunity this gave working men to spend on themselves outside the family home.
Autobiographical writings are usually viewed as subject matter for social and cultural historians but here Griffin uses them as a source for economic historians to gain a fuller understanding of how the rising real wages of Victorian Britain were earned, used and shared. She has consciously chosen to focus only on these life writings rather than blend them with other more commonly used source material or place them within the existing historiography of women and the family in Victorian Britain. This creates a consistency in her account but leads to a degree of repetition as examples of similar experiences are layered over each other to build an evidence base which could be more persuasively supported by drawing on a wider range of source material. The focus in these autobiographical writings on the personal and familial also means that formal institutions such as churches and the Poor Law, and informal networks around local shops and market, and the role they played at various times in the family life course, have only a shadowy presence in Griffin’s account.
The overall impression created by Griffin’s deep and close reading of these autobiographies is one of continuing unpaid domestic drudgery for wives and mothers, episodic hardship and poverty for many children, particularly if fathers were drunk or absent, and widening gender inequality. This may seem a dismal outcome from half a century of Victorian prosperity, but no less dismal than the findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that in 2022 one in five British children live in a female-headed single-parent household, and that half these households are living in poverty.
Paul Johnson taught economic history at the London School of Economics prior to serving as Vice-Chancellor and President of both La Trobe University in Melbourne and the University of Western Australia. His publications include Making the Market: Victorian Origins of Corporate Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (as joint editor) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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