Books interview with Emma Griffin: “Looking at family life reveals a dark side to Victorian economic progress”

Emma Griffin speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book examining the unexpected ways in which economics played out within the working-class homes of Victorian Britain

Historian Emma Griffin. (Photographed by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine)

Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book argues that looking at family life and the domestic sphere can offer a different perspective on the broad economic trends of the Victorian era. How so?

Emma Griffin: As historians, we’re really comfortable with thinking about the economy just in terms of numbers. And if you do that, the 19th century can look like a big success story. Historians say “Look, real wages went up in the Victorian era. For the first time in history, working people were really getting richer – what good news!”

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But I’ve been trying to offer a different perspective. For a long time, I’ve been studying working-class autobiographies, in which people describe in great detail what life was like inside their family. More than 600 of these autobiographies, ranging from the early 19th century to the Edwardian period, make up the basis of my book. What I found from reading them is that while wages did rise, in reality there could be a big gulf between what a man earned and the wealth as it was felt by the other members of the family.


Listen: Emma Griffin explores how economic changes in 19th-century Britain affected family life for working class Victorians in an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


What we must understand about Victorian family life is that it was dominated by the so-called ‘breadwinner’ ideal. How this model is supposed to work is that a man goes to work, brings back his wages, and gives them all to his wife. She then spends them on rent, clothing and food for the family, and everybody lives a comfortable life.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out, however, that some men did not give over all of their wages to their wives. When this happened, a much more complicated story unfolded, in which what families ought to have had didn’t necessarily match up with what women and children actually did have. While it’s important to emphasise that not every family broke down, we need to acknowledge that there was a dark side to Victorian economic progress, as families struggled to adapt to this newly industrialised world of higher wages.

Children play in a London Street in an 1872 engraving
Children play in a London Street in an 1872 engraving. The tricky task of securing childcare was one of the many obstacles that Victorian women faced if they wanted to take on paid work. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Why were families not feeling the benefit of those higher wages for men?

In the pre-industrial era, when wages were really low, men didn’t have any choice but to give all of their wages to their wife, because they were dependent on her to cook their meals and to keep their home. In a quiet, rural area, there was no cafe you could go to. You couldn’t even get a loaf of bread, never mind a cup of tea or a hot cooked meal. You could only get these really basic things if your wife made everything for you from scratch. That meant that there was actually some form of equality between a man’s paid wage and a woman’s domestic work. But when men started to earn more and more, that began to break down. Now a man didn’t need to share all of his money with his wife. He had the means to buy things that she provided, such as cooked meals, and so he was no longer dependent on her in the same way.

There’s also an intriguing connection between industrialisation and increased rates of men deserting their families. Desertion rates were roughly equal to death rates in some urban areas. In a small rural face-to-face community, where everybody knows everybody else’s business, it was really difficult for a man to desert you would essentially have to vanish in the night. But in industrialised and urban areas, it was much easier for men to slip away and live a different life.

So this ‘breadwinner’ model of family life left more women and children vulnerable to poverty?

Yes, I think that’s right. While in some cases the breadwinner ideal could work really well, it was a fragile model for family life when rolled out across the board. Relying on a single wage is fine as long as there’s a reliable father figure who can provide for the family. But if not, then really intractable problems begin to emerge.

The simplest issue was that men could die particularly in this period, when men’s work was often dangerous and the death rate was high. It was a risk for any family that they might suddenly tumble right to the bottom of the social pile because their breadwinner had died. Another fragility of the system was its dependency on a man doing what society told him he ought to. That’s simply not realistic: human nature just doesn’t work like that. Obviously some men did share their wages, but others would not work regularly or start keeping money back to spend on their own hobbies and pleasures. And women had no recourse – there was nothing they could do to try and get that wage out of their husband except shout and scream at him, which was not necessarily effective.

Men’s work was often dangerous and the death rate was high

All of that was compounded by the fact that families were expected to look after themselves; there was no other support system to turn to. If you were truly destitute you could resort to the workhouse, but there was nothing remotely like the welfare state of the 20th century. I think the fact that the state wouldn’t step in was why there was such brutal poverty in this period. While families could provide an important safety net, they couldn’t offer reliable final support for everybody, leaving many women and children unprovided for.

For the families that were thrust into poverty in this era, what did that poverty look like?

It looked quite different as the Victorian period progressed. In the early 19th century, poverty really meant not having enough food to eat. Some of the autobiographers I studied were hungry throughout their childhood. Particularly if there was a bad harvest, families could be plunged into grinding poverty, lacking the very basic essentials.

By the Edwardian period, poverty was not so desperate or acute. Although the government hadn’t stepped in, lots of charities – Barnardos, the Salvation Army, local church associations – were now helping out. Being poor was not quite such a brutalising experience as it once had been. What you saw instead was poverty within plenty: on the one hand, Edwardian society was relatively affluent with lots of money floating around. But on the other, there were children running around with no shoes to wear.

As well as male breadwinners, this family model was dependent on female homemakers. How significant was domestic labour?

I think the best way to understand it is just to imagine that your house doesn’t have electricity, and very likely no running water either. That means that everything requires so much more work. You’ve got to go and fetch the water, and light the fires from scratch every time you want to heat any food or have a hot drink. You’re perpetually getting fuel, clearing away dirty fires, fetching water and firewood. There’s no refrigeration, so food has to be bought on a daily basis – and that food will arrive in a really dirty state, not as the clean packaged goods we’re used to today. That’s not to mention childcare and other tasks. Everything required so much more labour than it would today, and all of that work fell to the woman of the house.

Did women have any opportunities for paid work?

The options were fairly dismal. Many of the female autobiographers that I studied needed to work, because their families didn’t have a male breadwinner. Maybe he had died, or was drinking, but they weren’t getting the wage so the mother needed to work.

The gender pay gap in Victorian Britain was considerable. In any kind of industry that employed both men and women, women generally earned about half of what men did

But there weren’t many choices available and they tended to be very badly paid. In London, women could take on ‘sweated labour’, making boxes or packing goods in factories. Outside that, you could do a bit of cleaning, or if you were lucky you might find work in a shop or a laundry. Around Lancashire, where large factories were emerging, women could find relatively well-paid work. Nevertheless, employers would put men and women on different machines, call the machines that men worked on ‘skilled’, and pay them a lot more.

The gender pay gap in Victorian Britain was considerable. In any kind of industry that employed both men and women, women generally earned about half of what men did. And it’s important to remember that if women can’t earn as much as men, they’re never going to have as much power.

Is it possible to untangle whether most women stayed at the home because of low wages, or whether wages were low because women were expected to stay at home?

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, so it’s hard to say. I think we’ve always assumed that so many chose to stay at home because women’s wages were low. But I would argue that they didn’t really have very much choice, because they weren’t able to earn enough to be independent.

If society’s ideal is to have women staying at home, preparing meals and looking after children, then there’s no point having well-paid work for women out there. Because evidence shows that if decent waged work was available, women would take it – that’s what happened in factory districts.

So while we can’t really say exactly why women’s wages came to be so low, I think it’s right to be cynical and questioning. It’s certainly the case that keeping women’s wages down was a really good way of making sure that houses had the women that they needed.

Were there any other obstacles to women taking on paid work?

A major hurdle was childcare. There was no formalised system, so every woman had to scrabble around to figure out her own solution. Some factory districts had some form of childminding services available, but anywhere else, there really was nothing. You were dependent on finding a family member or neighbour willing to look after your child. As women were paid really low wages, they weren’t able to pay much for childcare – so, obviously, the standard of care that your children would receive was really low. Mothers with small children who wanted to work were faced with some really difficult options. It’s quite depressing to look at.

As well as the pressures placed on women by the single-earner system, what kind of pressures did it place on men?

On the surface, it may seem like men were the ones benefiting from this system. But when you scrape away at men’s stories, you realise that it was actually a very difficult set-up for them as well.

A working man could be out of the house for 50 or 60 hours a week, so a lot of children saw their fathers as distant, remote figures. And because the home was so powerfully coded as a space for women and children, fathers often felt out of place there. Many autobiographers wrote about how their fathers didn’t seem to belong in the home, and didn’t know how to speak to their children. This often ended up in a vicious circle where a father would start drinking because he felt rejected by the family, but that just made his children hate him even more.

A lot of working-class men were also expected to hold down difficult and draining jobs – heavy labour with long hours. Many jobs like mining were dangerous, and even scary. Several men reported turning to drink because it gave them courage, and alcohol was a very significant problem in the Victorian era. It was cheaper to get a mug of alcohol than a cup of clean water, and lax licensing laws meant that pubs were everywhere. Workplaces often permitted people to bring drinks in, or even provided alcohol for working men, so temptation was rife.

On the flip side, how important was work in shaping masculine identities in this period?

Work and masculinity were closely interlinked. Autobiographies show that a family found it very difficult to respect a man if he wasn’t bringing in any money. Earning money provided men with their status, first and foremost within the family. Young boys started off like girls unimportant people in the family. They were the last people to be fed, didn’t get good-quality meat, and wore hand-me-downs.

But at some point, boys headed out to work. Autobiographers often described as pivotal the moment at which they started to earn more than they needed for their own keep. New opportunities opened up, such as joining political parties or clubs, wearing clothes that they chose themselves, or enjoying leisure time – they could start to form their own identities. The workplace also offered new opportunities for male friendship, as young men formed bonds with their peers.

It’s clear from your research that economics shaped family relationships. What was the emotional impact of all of this?

We like to idealise the working-class poor and how they look after their own – this dreamy image of people banding together to take care of themselves collectively. And while that’s true to a certain extent, there’s no denying that acute poverty doesn’t bring out the best in people. Much more often, they’re overwhelmed and can’t provide adequate emotional support for their children. At the core of many of the autobiographies I looked at was the fact that poverty puts a lot of strain on family relationships. If a mother and her children are over-worked and under-nourished, it can be very difficult to create a happy home. So it certainly wasn’t all milk and honey for these families, particularly when money became really scarce.

Were there any winners in this breadwinner system?

I think my evidence from Victorian Britain suggests that paying a large wage to men and then just hoping for the best really doesn’t work for anyone involved. It’s very easy for it to start sounding as though this system worked to men’s advantage and allowed them to be utterly exploitative. But I don’t think it was an unmitigated blessing for men either: it put a lot of pressure on their physical, mental and emotional health.

But having said that, it was clearly worse to be the wife in this set-up. Women definitely found themselves as the weaker half of the partnership, because they were stripped of any kind of economic power. If you were trapped in an unsuccessful or abusive relationship you could never get away, because you would have no money to fund a departure. Not having enough money to feed yourself and your children meant that you were utterly disempowered.

How does all of this change our understanding of economic trends of the Victorian era?

My research feeds into the field of feminist economics, which argues that we need to challenge assumptions about the way economies actually operate. Often these assumptions are unrealistic, because they don’t capture female experience. We need to start thinking about what counts as ‘work’ in a different way, and get rid of the idea that paid work is the only labour that counts, because that just privileges men’s work.

When it comes to the Victorian era in particular, historians and economists need to take the impact of women’s domestic work into account – because if a woman wasn’t doing those tasks, somebody else would have to be paid to do them. Throughout the 19th century, society wouldn’t have been able to function without women contributing their domestic labour. What’s clear is that we have to start looking at economic history in a way that understands and values women’s contributions.

Emma Griffin is professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, and the author of Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy (Yale 2020). Her previous books include Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution and Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain Since 1066 (both Yale). Emma has written and presented several BBC Radio 4 documentaries, and acted as historical advisor for the Channel 4 drama The Mill.

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This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine