A woman's work (Georgian and Victorian)
Many women worked in factories in the Victorian period. Their wages were cheaper for the employers, though not as cheap as children’s wages.
One of the largest industries in Buckinghamshire was paper making. Girls worked in the paper mills, shredding bundles of rags, cutting away buttons and hooks and lengths of whalebone because only pure cotton or linen could go into the rag boiler.
The boiled cotton went to the beaters to be crushed and soaked in water, which separated the fibres and turned it into a sodden white porridge called "stuff". The Vatman judged the quality of the stuff, which was poured into moulds on which it formed into paper. The mould itself was a rectangular wooden frame supporting a fine wire mesh of phosphor-bronze.
The Coucher (from the French coucher, to lie down) laid down each sheet of paper from the mould on to a thick piece of woollen felt. Two moulds were used together, so that as one was empty it was exchanged for another. Finally the paper was dried on hessian sheets or ropes of cowhair. It was pressed, then glazed or left alone, and lasted for centuries.
Women or girls did the simple, tedious task of shredding the cotton and it was the men who were given the more responsible positions.
Do a search on Buckinghamshire's Heritage Portal for the eighteenth and nineteenth century paper mills in Buckinghamshire. Mark five locations on the map of paper-mills in Buckinghamshire attached to this page.
Lace making was usually done in women’s own homes. If the family was poor sometimes men and boys also took up lace making. When young girls were made to go to school from 1880 and much lace was being made on machines instead, this industry mostly died out.
However, in good times the trade paid 1s to 1s 3d (one shilling to one shilling and threepence) a day, much better than the wages of agricultural labourers. Servants were hard to get; women could earn more at lace making and they had more independence.
The 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Children's Employment Commission found that between the ages of 15 and 25:
"More than double the number of females died of tuberculosis and other lung diseases than did males".
This was because of poorly ventilated overcrowded lace schools that girls were sent to from a young age.
Lace schools were big in the early to mid nineteenth century. Their purpose was to teach young children how to make lace and earn a little money for their parents. Some reading and writing was also taught. The quality of the teaching varied from school to school.
There were two Lace Schools in Hanslope in what is now Milton Keynes. The rules were:
- The children started on the narrowest edging, working 6 to 7 hours a day;
- They were paid 6d (6 pence) a day;
- They were not allowed to talk;
- Children who were slow to learn had their noses rubbed on the pins and those who were inattentive had their hands rubbed raw for "looking off the pillow";
- They were allowed ten minutes to 'scramble';
- Another break was given where the girls had to break straw for stuffing pillows.
Do a search on the Buckinghamshire County Museum collection website to find any nineteenth century lace. Where does the lace come from?
Did you find the flash-candle? This was a wooden candle socket adjustable for height. Around the nozzle there would have been three, four or five holes to take glass flasks. The flask or flash, a glass globe with a long narrow neck, was filled with snow water or crushed ice - the purest water available. It was then corked and inserted into one of the holes. It acted as a lens concentrating and whitening the candlelight.
By positioning the pillows around the flash-stool so that the candlelight fell in a concentrated beam on each, three to five lace-makers could work comfortably by the light of a single candle. This is the origin of flashlight.
Do a search on the Buckinghamshire Photographs website. Put the word lacemaking into the “Activity” field. Find the answers to the following questions:
- Find the oldest photograph showing lacemaking. What is the name of the woman?
- Find Mrs Tilly Turner. Which village is she in? Which pub is she sitting outside?
- Can you find a male lacemaker? Where was he photographed?
- How many nineteenth century lacemakers are photographed in Long Crendon?
Straw plaiters, many of them children, made hats and bonnets as well as decorative items. Do a search on the Buckinghamshire County Museum collection website for straw. Where were the straw-plaits made? You can see the straw plaits themselves and also some of the hats that the plaits were made into. There are also three strawsplitters. Where were they from?
Straw would be pushed through the straw splitters to split them into thin lengths. these would then be plaited into the straw plaits and then woven into hats and bonnets. Do a search on the Buckinghamshire County Museum collection website for the words hat mould. This mould would give the basic shape of the straw hat, which would be woven around it. New fashions and the end of child labour brought this industry to an end.
Many women in the countryside would work on farms. It didn’t pay as well as lacemaking, but if you hadn’t been taught how to do it, there was not much else to do. Do a search on the Buckinghamshire Photographs collection to find out all the kinds of work women had to do on farms. Put the word farm into the “Summary” field. Find the answers to the following questions:
- Find the picture of Westfield Farm. Where is Westfield Farm? How many women are in this photograph? How many men? What have they been doing?
- Find Pygle House poultry farm. Where is Pygle House? How many women are in this photograph? How many men? What are they doing?
- Find Brun’s Farm. Where is Brun’s Farm? How many women are in this photograph? How many men? What are they doing?
- Find Seely Farm. Where is Seely Farm? How many women are in this photograph? How many men? What have they been doing?
Work in pairs and do a role-play. One person will be the lace-maker or straw-plaiter from the late nineteenth century who doesn’t have any work anymore. The other will be a modern careers advisor, coming up with alternative nineteenth century careers.
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