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
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.
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.