While scrutinising the life writing of Mrs N Jones, it is evident that the Jones family, as an economic unit, operated in a systematic fashion that was representative of the wider population, passing down its traditional labour division from generation to generation.
Many British working-class family units towards the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century accepted the notion that married women in the family would cease working in paid employment and would, instead, assume the role of the domestic care giver. According to Bourke, in 1851 only 25% of women continued working in paid employment after marriage (Bourke, 2020, p.62), then from 1901 to 1921 only 14% of women continued in paid employment while married (Bourke, 2020, p.62). These figures are reminiscent of the qualitative data provided by Mrs Jones as her mother, “taught till she married [her] father at 21 years of age” (6), thus gave up her teaching occupation upon marrying her husband. Here, Mrs Jones’s life writing echoes that of her autobiographical cohort, as “just under half [of working-class life-writers]– 44 per cent – indicated their mother had undertaken paid employment during their childhood.” (Griffin, 2020, p.161). Furthermore, Mrs Jones herself also resolved to the traditional custom of leaving the work environment to assume the role of family caregiver upon marrying her husband as she states, “This [domestic service] went on till I married a man who was in private service in 1921” (15). According to Rosemary Collins, an explanation for this rise in women in the domestic sphere after marriage is due to working class families imitating the practices of upper-class nuclear families: “working-class women began to withdraw from industrial life into the home, where they tried to emulate the domestic lifestyles of the wealthy” (Bourke, 2020, p. 62). The focus on women as caregivers and homemakers, evidenced by Mrs Jones being “taught ‘housewifery’ for several weeks” (4) during her education, meant some working-class families were becoming a little more affluent. Joanna Bourke suggests, “the increased prosperity of working-class households from the late nineteenth century was created not only by higher wages, but also by improved housewifery” (Bourke, 1994, p. 65). Unfortunately for Mrs Jones, the notion of ‘prosperity’ was not available within her family unit, as the men in her life did not succeed in providing earnings that would be considered a ‘family wage’ due to the low paid nature of their occupation.
Her father was a salt miner in the Marston salt mine where the work was menial, hazardous and low paid. Feeding, clothing and housing a family of seven with income of that sort was impossible, thus, Mrs Jones and her siblings were forced to enter the workforce from an early age, at a time when child labour was common and exploitative. This is equally true of Mrs Jones’s husband as he too worked in a low paying job that did not afford the luxury of having a ‘family wage’. This, alongside periods of unemployment and no unemployment pay, caused Mrs Jones’s daughter, like herself, to enter the workforce at a young age in order to support the family economy, showing their financial interdependence. Therefore, while “the self-improving working men made an essential contribution to the developing ideology and organization of the working class” (Vincent, 1982, p.195), the working-class men within Mrs Jones’s family unit were not able to self-improve in such a way.
Jones, N. ‘Two Autobiographical Letters’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0444.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity London: Routledge, 1994
Griffin, E. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. Yale University Press, 2020.
Vincent, D. Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography. London: Europa, 1981
Figure 1. Child praying at mother’s knee, 1864. Available at: https://art.thewalters.org/detail/7203/child-praying-at-mothers-knee/
Figure 2. Men as financial gatekeepers, 1911. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarriage.htm