Working Women

February 8, 20197:49 amLeave a Comment

Working Women

Portrait taken at Langdale Studio, Westway, Caterham. Standing woman wearing nurse’s uniform (labelled ‘Lane’), 1903 (SHC Ref 4209_3_134_35)

My friend is taking an online course with through Royal Holloway, University of London on the History of Women’s Rights. It looks fascinating and, of course, very topical just now. As she was telling me about the course, and as we are both ridiculously obsessed family historians, we got to chatting about the women in our own family trees and their place in a very male dominated society.

Among my friend’s 18th and 19th century female antecedents are a pawnbroker, a publican, a nurse, a milliner and one ran a Ragged School. In my own family, my great-grandmother ran a theatrical boarding house and my grandmother danced in a chorus line.

We are often guilty of assuming that women played a fairly minor role in the workplace but that isn’t always the case.

Just for fun (yes, I know, I’ve an odd notion of what is ‘fun’!) I started to play around with a few statistics gleaned from the census on  The 1911 census is good to look at because people were describing their own occupations. Some of these have been amended by the enumerator but by and large, we get a far better picture of what people actually did than previous census returns. Out of a sample of 39,523 working women living in Surrey, I found the following:

Not surprisingly, most of the women are working in service but there are some other occupations which indicate that women are playing a pretty important role as breadwinners. Now, please don’t take these figures as anything but a bit of playing around on as I’ve been very broad with some of my searching and not checked every single entry, but it does rather make you realise that there are some interesting women out there!

(Incidentally, before everyone writes to tell me that ‘Dressmaker’ was a euphemism for a ‘lady of the night’ I have assumed that they are mostly telling the truth!)

It’s hard to garner any similar statistics from the other census returns but I did make a search for female servants in other years with the following results:

It’s interesting that there is a sharp rise in domestic servants in the latter part of the 19th century. There was a severe agricultural depression in the second half of the 19th century which may well have prompted women who would have normally worked on the land to seek employment elsewhere. It is worth remembering that even fairly low income families would strive to employ a servant so the market for female workers in this respect would have been fairly good.

The social historian Pamela Horn has written several books on servants and their place in 19th century society and I thoroughly recommend raiding your local library for them as they make fascinating reading!

Prior to the 1911 census, women were at the mercy of the enumerators and much the same as ‘Ag Labs’ their precise occupations tended to be largely ignored. I suspect that unless they were widowed or single, their contribution to the household economy was glossed over and thus we probably have any number of married women who simply don’t show up as workers.

However, women have always worked in one capacity or another. I suspect that many 19th century married women, despite the conventions of the time suggesting otherwise, were involved in many other occupations and certainly many took in washing, minded children and went out char-ring.
The further back we go the more difficult it is to find any evidence of women’s occupations but wills can be a good source.

When Ann Burgen, widow of John Burgen of Bermondsey [Pawnbroker] died in 1730 she left “…to my sister Mary Adams wife of Cornelius Adams of Bermondsey, mariner all money and all my goods to be managed by her in business of lending money on pledges which I now follow…”. You can see a full transcription of this will here at the History Centre or online at The will doesn’t mention sums but seems probably that Ann was leaving a fairly respectable amount.

These are the documented instances of women working but, as I have outlined above, I think it is safe to say that women were doing a lot more than dusting off cobwebs and raising children in their lives. It’s just a shame that it’s a difficult one to prove!

Has anyone found any interesting women’s occupations in their research? I’d love to hear about them.

Happy Researching!


PS:  Thank you to everyone who braved the icy weather to join us on the Researching Your Family History Online workshop last Saturday!  I had a great time (despite the frosty conditions) and hope you did too!  Don’t forget that there are lots more family history workshops on offer on the Surrey History Centre website!

Written by Jane Lewis

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