Text 1: The Character of
Mining Communities : South Wales, 1840
… The people are for the most part collected together in masses of from4,000 to
10,000. Their houses are ranged round the works in rows, sometimes two to five deep,
sometimes three storeys high. They rarely contain less than from one to six lodgers in
addition to members of the family, and afford most scanty accommodation for so many
inmates. It is not unusual to find that 10 individual various age and sex occupy three
beds in two small rooms.
The entire population of these five parishes, according to the lowest estimate given by
persons most conversant with each, amounts to 85,000. It is perceived by them that
their children are of being able to gain an ample livelihood at an early age, without aid
of ‘learning’. The parents are, therefore, apt to believe that their superiors are actuated
by some selfish motive in endeavouring to induce them to send their children to
school... . (The boys) leave their homes at an early age, if they find that they can be
boarded cheaper elsewhere, and they spend the surplus of their wages in smoking,
drinking and gambling. Boys of 13 will not infrequently boast that they have taken to
smoking before they were 12.
All parental control is soon lost. Shortly after the age of 16 they begin to earn men’s
wages. Early marriages are. very frequent.
Seymour Tremenheere, Inspector of Schools, Parliamentary Papers, 1840, vol
XI, pp 208—13, quoted in G. M. Young and W. D. Handcock, op cit
Text 2: ‘Very hard work for a woman’(Female labour in the mines, 1842)
Betty Harris, age 37: I was married at 23, and went into a colliery when I was married. I
used to weave when about 12 years can neither read nor write. I work for Andrew
Knowles, of Little Bolton (Lancs), and make sometimes 7s a week, sometimes not so
much. I am a drawer, and work from 6 in the morning to 6 at night. about an hour at
noon to eat my dinner; have bread and butter for dinner; I get no drink. I have two
children, but they are too young to work. I worked at drawing when I was in the family
way. I know a woman who has gone home and washed herself, taken to her bed, been
delivered of a child, and gone to work again under the week.
I have a belt round my waist, and a chain passing between my legs and I go on my hands
and-feet. The road is very steep, and we have to hold by a rope; and when there is no
rope, by anything we can catch hold of. There are six women and about six boys and
girls in the pit I work in; it is very hard work for a woman. The pit is very wet where I
work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, and I seen it up to my thighs; it
rains in at the roof terribly. My clothes are wet through almost all day long. I never was
ill in my life, but when I was lying in.
My cousin looks after my children in the day time. I am very tired when I get home at
night; I fall asleep sometimes before I get washed.
Parliamentary Papers, 1842, vol XVII, p 108, quoted in E.
Royston.-Pike, op cit
“The world is upside down”
from The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) by Frederick Engels
In many cases the family is not wholly dissolved by the employment of the wife, but
turned upside down. The wife supports the family, the husband sits at home, tends the children,
sweeps the room and cooks. This case happens very frequently; in Manchester alone, many
hundred such men could be cited, condemned to domestic occupation. it is easy to imagine the
wrath aroused among the working-men by this reversal of all relations within the family, while
the other social conditions remain unchanged. There lies before me a letter from an English
working-man, Robert Pounder, in Leeds. [...]
He relates how another working-man, being on tramp, came to St. Helens, in
Lancashire, and there looked up an old friend. ‘He found him in a miserable, damp cellar,
scarcely furnished ; and when my poor friend went in, there sat poor Jack near the fire, and
what did he, think you ? Why he sat and mended his wife’s stockings with the bodkin ; and as
soon as he saw his old friend at the doorpost, he tried to hide them. But Joe, that is my friend’s
name, had seen it, and said “Jack, what the devil art thou doing ? Where is the missus ? Why, is
that thy work ?“ and poor Jack was ashamed, and said: “No, I know this is not my work, but my
poor missus is j’ th’ factory; she has to leave by half-past five and works till eight at night, and
then she is so knocked Up that she cannot do aught when she gets home, so I have to do
everything for her what I can, for I have no work, nor had any for more nor three years, and I
shah never have any more work while I hive; “and then he wept a big tear. Jack again said
“There is work enough for women folks and children hereabouts, but none for men ; thou
mayest sooner find a hundred pound on the road than work for men - but I should never have
believed that either thou or any one else would have seen me mending my wife’s stockings, for
it is bad work. But she can hardly stand on her feet ; I am afraid she will be laid up, and then I
don’t know what is to become of us, for it’s a good bit that she has been the man in the house
and I the woman ; it is bad work, Joe” and he cried bitterly, and said, ‘It has not been always
so.” [...] Thou knowest when I got married I had work plenty and thou knows I was not lazy.”
“No, thou wert not.” “And we had a good furnished house, and Mary need not go to work. I
could work for the two of us; but now the world is upside down. Mary bas to work and I have to
stop at home, mind the children, sweep and wash, bake and mend; and when the poor woman
comes home at night, she is knocked”
Can one imagine a more insane state of things than that described in this letter? And yet
this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness without
being able to bestow upon the man true womanliness, or the woman true manliness - this
condition which degrades, in the most shameful way, both sexes, and through them, Humanity,
is the last result of our much-praised civilization, the final achievement of all the efforts and
struggles of hundreds of generations to improve their own situation and that of their posterity.
We must either despair of mankind, and its aims and efforts, when we see all our labour and toil
result in such a mockery, or we must admit that human society bas hitherto sought salvation in a
false direction ; we must admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can have
come to pass only because the sexes have been placed in a false position from the beginning. If
the reign of the wife over the husband, as inevitably brought about by the factory system, is
inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the wife must have been inhuman too.
The contract of marriage
By way of distinguishing and honoring this class of the proscribed half of the human race, man
condescends to enter into what he calls a contract with certain women, for certain purposes, the
most important of which is, the producing and rearing of children to maturity. Each man yokes
a woman to his establishment, and calls it a contract. Audacious falsehood ! A contract ! where
are any of the attributes of contracts, of equal and just contracts, to be found in this
transaction ? A contract implies the voluntary assent of both the contracting parties. Can even
both the parties, man and woman, by agreement alter the terms, as to indissolubility and
inequality, of this pretended contract ? No. Can any individual man divest himself, were he
even so inclined, of his power of despotic control ? He cannot. Have women been consulted as
to the terms of this pretended contract ? A contract, all of whose enjoyments [...] are on one
side, while all its pains and privations are on the other ! A contract, giving all power, arbitrary
will and unbridled enjoyment to the one side ; to the other, unqualified obedience, and
enjoyments meted out or withheld at the caprice of the ruling and enjoying party. Such a
contract, as the owners of slaves in the West Indies and every other slave-polluted soil, enter
into with their slaves - the law of the stronger imposed on the weaker, in contempt of the
interests and wishes of the weaker. As little as slaves have had to do in any part of the world in
the enacting of slave-codes, have women in any part of the world had to do with the partial
codes of selfishness and ignorance, which every where dispose of their right over their own
actions and all their other enjoyments, in favor of those who made the regulations ; particularly
that most unequal and debasing code, absurdly called the contract of marriage. This, alas ! the
best boon that the selfishness and ignorance of men have permitted them to grant to women compelling at least the waywardness of man to provide, till adult age, for the children he begat
- this pretended contract is, as to the women, in every other respect the law of restraint and
exclusion, the law of the stronger, enacted with reference to the enjoyments of that stronger
alone ; and no more consulting the interests of women, the other pretended contracting party,
than the interests of bullocks are consulted in the police regulations that precede and follow
their slaughter. From regulating the terms of this pretended contract, women have been as
completely excluded as bullocks, or sheep, or any other animals subjugated to man, have been
from determining the regulations of commons or slaughter-houses. Men enacted, that is to say,
willed the terms, let women like them or not : man to be the owner, master, and ruler of every
thing, even to the minutest action, and most trifling article of property brought into the common
stock by the woman ; woman to be the moveable property, and ever-obedient servant, to the
bidding man.
"But women may or may not marry ! they may refuse to enter into this contract." So when, in
happier times of East India monopoly, the food of provinces was bought up by individuals
under the shield of mercantile political power, the poor people were kindly told, "they were at
liberty to buy or not to buy." But if they did not buy, the trifling inconvenience of the
alternative was, that they must starve. So by male-created laws, depriving women of
knowledge and skill, excluding from the benefit of all judgment and mind-creating offices and
trusts, cutting them off almost entirely from the participation, by succession or otherwise, of
property, and from its uses and exchanges - are women kindly told, "they are free to marry or
not." Things are so arranged, knowledge, property, civil as well as political exclusions, man's
public opinion, that the great majority of adult women must marry on whatever terms their
masters have willed, or starve.
William Thompson, Appeal of One-Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of
the Other Half, Men (1825), London : Virago, 1983, pp. 55-56.
Of more immediate concern to Victorian women were the other legal disabilities they
suffered. Until 1839, a woman who was separated from her husband, regardless of the reason,
lost custody of their children; in that year the law was changed to allow her to retain those
under seven, and in 1873 the age was raised to sixteen. The law under which everything a
married woman possessed or acquired became the inalienable property of her husband was
changed only by a series of parliamentary acts in 1870—82. Until 1857, divorce, which opinion
condemned except in the most intolerable circumstances, was possible only by means of an act
of Parliament introduced for the individual case. The plight of Stephen Blackpool, the
workingman in Hard Times who was married irrevocably to an alcoholic wife, was typical of
many such situations. Even after divorce became available through the courts, the procedure
was so expensive that few could afford it. And, as with employers in their relations with
workers, the balance of justice was tipped toward the ruling party. A husband could divorce his
wife on the simple ground of adultery, but a wife had to prove not only her husband’s adultery
but an additional offense such as desertion, cruelty, rape, or incest. As late as the nineties, less
than six hundred divorce cases went through the courts in a year.
“The Queen,” wrote Victoria in her regal third-person style, “is most anxious to enlist
everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad wicked folly of Women’s Rights,
with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor, feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of
womanly feeling and propriety.” But the poor, feeble sex was not without its champions. John
Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) was the most important statement of the feminist
position since Mary Wollstonecraft’s. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It gave
impetus to an emancipation movement which, by the end of the Century, achieved several
goals in addition to the ones just mentioned and built up so much pressure in behalf of others
that they were won early in the present Century. During the later eighties and the nineties “the
new woman” was a familiar figure in social commentary, humorous papers, and once in a while
in fiction. She sought equal moral standards, to replace such anomalies as the legal assumption
that adultery was a worse offense for a woman than for a man. The adoption of more sensible
clothing, coupled with the invention of a manageable pneumatic-tired bicycle to replace the
clumsy old hard-rimmed “penny-farthing” machine which had jolted men’s bones, gave her
greater physical mobility; simultaneously she deserted the Croquet lawn for the tennis court.
Most important of all, she could make her own respectable living in an increasing number of
occupations, not only in teaching, where the new government-run board schools afforded many
more opportunities than had previously been available, but in shops and offices, in professions
such as nursing, and in the civil service.
R. J. Altick, Victorian People and Ideas, London, Dent, 1973
Thursday 10 September 1992
A preoccupation with manliness is blamed for the brutality of criminals but the public’s fear of being
Glass Structure
No view of the English working class in the first quarter of this century would be accurate if
that class were shown merely as a great amalgam of artisan and labouring groups united by a
common aim and culture. Life in reality was much more complex. Socially the- unskilled
workers and their families, who made up about 50 per cent of the population in our industrial
cities, varied as much from the manual élite as did people in middle station from the
aristocracy. Before 1914 skilled workers generally did not strive to join a higher rank; they
were only too concerned to maintain position within their own stratum. Inside the working
class as a whole there existed, I believe, a stratified form of society whose implications and
consequences have hardly yet been fully explored.
In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street3 had the usual social rating;
one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied
from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had
special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it;
neighbours would consider a daughter in one household as ‘dead common’ while registering
her sister as ‘refined’, a word much in vogue. (Young women with incipient consumption were
often thought ‘refined’.) Class divisions were of the greatest consequence, though their
implications remained unrealized: the many looked upon social and economic inequality as the
law of nature. Division in our own society ranged from an élite at the peak, composed of the
leading families, through recognized strata to a social base whose members one damned as the
‘lowest of. the low’, or simply ‘no class’.
Drunkenness, rowing or fight in the streets, except perhaps at weddings and funerals (when
old scores were often paid off), Christmas or bank holidays could leave a stigma on a family
already registered as ‘decent’ for a long time afterwards. Another household, for all its dean
curtains and impeccable conduct, would remain uneasily aware that its rating had slumped
since Grandma died hi the workhouse or Cousin Alf did time. Still another family would be
scorned loudly in a drunken tiff for marrying off its daughter to some ‘low Mick from the Bog’.
With us, of course, as with many cities in the North, until the coming of the coloured people
Irish Roman Catholic immigrants, mostly illiterate, formed the lowest socio-economic stratum.
A slum Protestant marrying into the milieu suffered a severe loss of face. Such unions seldom
At all times there were naturally many unsnobbish people in the working class who remained
indifferent to the social effects of affluence or poverty on those about them and who judged
others not at all by their place and possessions. On the whole, though, most families were well
aware of their position within the community, and that without any explicit analyses. Many
households strove by word, conduct and the acquisition of objects to enhance the family image
and in so doing often overgraded themselves. Meanwhile their neighbours (acting in the same
manner on their own behalf) tended to depreciate the pretensions of families around, allotting
them a place in the register lower than that which, their rivals felt, connections, calling or
possessions merited. In this lay much envy (envy was the besetting sin), bitterness and bad
blood which, stored up and brooded over, burst on the community in drunken Saturday night
brawls. Tiffs over children usually provided the opening skirmishes, but before the fighting
proper began between the males, housewives shrieked abuse at one another, interspersed with
‘case history’ examples aiming to prove to the world that the other party and its kindred were
‘low class’ or no class at all.
Source: R.Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salfford Life in the First Quarter of the
Twentieth Century (Penguin, 1973),pp.13,17,22-3.
A Workhouse near Manchester
The building is huge, perfectly dean, and well maintained: big courtyards, gardens round the building, a view of
fields and tall trees, chapel, public rooms twenty feet high. It looks as if the founders and administrators of the
place have taken pride in doing a handsome and useful job.
There was no bad smell anywhere about the place. The beds were almost white and provided with patterned
bed-spreads. The oldest and most infirm women had white bonnets and new c1othes...
The kitchen is enormous: a structure of masonry contains eight or ten boilers in which oatmeal gruel is
cooked: this is the principal article of their diet. Each inmate receives two pounds of oat-meal’ a day, a pound
and a half of potatoes, half a pound of bread and, four times a week, four ounces of minced-meat or boned meat.
The only drink is water, excepting in case of sickness.
We were considerably surprised: beside the rows of hovels in which the poor live, this place is a palace. One
of US gravely requested our friend and escort to keep a place for him in the institution where he could spend his
old age. Consider this: a labourer at Manchester or Liverpool can barely afford to eat meat once a week, yet has
to work ten hours a day! Here, a person in good health works six hours a day, has newspapers and the Bible to
read, as well as a few other good books and Reviews; and he can live in pure air and see trees. Yet at the time of
writing there is not one able-bodied person to be found in a workhouse: the one we saw is almost empty and will
only be filled when winter comes...
What is the reason for this repugnance? I saw, today, an old woman sorting through a heap of rubbish, and
picking out remnants of vegetables with her thin hands: she may have been one of those who are unwilling to
give up their drop of gin. But what of the others? I am told that they will stick to their ‘home’ and their liberty at
any price and cannot bear to be shut tip and become subject to discipline. ‘They prefer to be free and to starve.’
But then, the children? All those little ones, with their white skulls showing through the tow-coloured hair,
crammed into a single room with their thin and haggard mothers— how can the fathers bear such a sight? They
do bear it, they do not want to be parted from them...
The workhouse is looked upon as a prison and the poor make it a point of honour never to enter one.
Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England, trans. E. Hyams (Thames and Hudson, 1957), pp 237—8

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