Primed for her working duties as a domestic servant from age twelve while studying ‘service’ as a vocation during her education, Mrs Jones, in her autobiographical letters to Burnett, provides shocking insight into the exploitative reality of working life for women in the early twentieth century. While reflecting on her working life, Mrs Jones confronts the servitude nature of her labour when detailing the harsh, fatiguing working conditions she endured as a young girl, referring to her working life as “the days of slavery.” (15). In contemplating the ethics of her treatment as a worker, Mrs Jones’ life writing reinforces the notion that, “an autobiography is not a record or a reconstruction of the past, but an interpretation in which all the events, the activities and the thoughts of a lifetime are subjected to an overall analysis” (Vincent, 1980, p.225).
For working-class children like Mrs Jones in the early 1900s, mass industrialisation afforded the opportunity to enter the workforce, as employment was made available due to the demand for unskilled workers. In the early decades of the industrial revolution, employment in hazardous environments such as factories and mines was common practice for children as, “the new factories and mines were hungry for workers and required the execution of simple tasks that could easily be performed by children.” (Griffin, 2014). Though children were banned from working underground in the early 1840s, many continued to be employed in occupations with little regulation of working conditions. Children were coerced into these harmful settings as a result of pressure for financial independence, commented on by Mrs Jones as she states, “We went for our food in those days as our parents could not affort [afford] to keep us at home, as we got older.” (14). Throughout her autobiography, Mrs Jones examines the many jobs she undertook during her youth, such as cinder picker, child minder, farm worker, and domestic servant, revealing the unethical practices that ensued.
As a cinder picker, Mrs Jones completed fatiguing work for pitiful pay, exhibited as she reminisces, “I used to go with two buckets to a set of works where I used to pick cinders for this aunt for ½ d [half of a penny] I was not old enough to carry two full buckets so I used to bring one + [and] then go back for the other” (4). Crouching towards the ground, filling buckets of waste in toxic environments, too heavy to carry more than one bucket at a time, is a great strain on a child’s undeveloped physique. Yet such concerns had to be overlooked by these children and their families as providing an income became the priority that permitted survival.
Further enhancing her resume of laborious work, with experience in childcare as the second eldest daughter of five, Mrs Jones moved on from cinder picking to childminding, outlined as she recollects, “When I was 14 years of age, I went + [and] lived in at a farm to take care of two children. Wages [were] 2/6d [two shillings and six pence] per week or 6 £ [six pounds] per year. No days off at all.” (14). A child herself given the responsibility to care for two children seven days a week is a shocking truth for modern readers, as we cast our minds to a society far removed from our current child-centric culture. Mrs Jones emphasises the exhaustive nature of her work when stating “No days off at all” (14), drawing our attention to the fatigue that occurs as a result of work without rest. Alongside caring for the children, Mrs jones would assist in carrying out farming duties, “In the harvest, I used to help to milk + [and] this was by hand not machine, we had over 30 cows + [and] I had to take one of the children who was on the bottle with me in the shippon. I used to fill her bottle straight from the cow. I was then 14 years of age.” (14). The normalisation of the straining conditions of the work carried out by Mrs Jones, that would now be considered abusive and exploitative, is almost unfathomable.
Finally securing a job as a domestic servant for three years in Hale, Cheshire “at 3/6 per week [three shillings and six pence]. ½ day off per fortnight” (14), Mrs Jones continued to provide food for herself and ‘keep’ for her family during her later teenage years. The work of a domestic servant was demanding and extensive, depicted by Mrs Jones as she reports having to prioritise work over her own hygiene, “before I could wash, I did all the work in the house.” (14). Despite the hard work she produced, Mrs Jones did not benefit financially as she maintains, “Domestic servants didn’t pay any in those days” (8).
Many critics debate the consequence of child labour during the industrial era of Britain, some arguing that the practices in factories, mines, and the cotton trade were not exploitative, focusing on the vitality of child labour for Britain’s economic success. Yet, through inspection of the qualitative testimony provided by Mrs N. Jones and similar working-class men and women, it is evident that the work that the children ensued was a result of inescapable economic necessity, while employers utilised this desperation to allow unsafe, harmful practices to occur unrestricted.
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. Available at: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/mrs-n-jones-b-1900-biographical-entry
Griffin, E., 2014. Child labour. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/child-labour\
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century Working Class’. Social History 5:2 (May 1980), 223-247.
Figure 1. Sketch of women coal bearers. Available at: https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/24960/1/296852.pdf
Figure 2. Women scavengers in a dust pit. Available at: http://www.weddingtoncastle.co.uk/servants-lives.html
Figure 3. Domestic servants working. Available at: https://www.groundsure.com/resources/victorian-dust-yards-early-example-recycling-uk/