Maud Clarke (1887-1982): Life and Labour – Part 1: Women’s Work

They say a woman’s work is never done. Maud Matilda Clarke (née Mills, b. 1887) must have believed this growing up, watching all the inspirational women around her labour tirelessly to provide for the family. Her mother Maria Mills (née Hughes, 1859-1937) and aunt Rebecca Taylor (née Hughes, b. 1862) get particularly frequent mentions as the women who built her homes to be what they were.

There were various roles women played during the period of Maud’s childhood, stereotypically they were domestic. Her earliest experience of labouring women was in her own home. The most recognisable of these is the housewife: in charge of cooking, cleaning, shopping and childcare. This was a round-the-clock job and very physically demanding. Maud recalls seeing her mother “very hot and red in the face” (42) slaving over the hob making a pile of pancakes for Pancake Day and her grandmother staying over for pig killing to assist the women in the kitchen and take pressure off the workload.

Going hand-in-hand with the responsibilities of the housewife is the role of the mother. Maud summarizes the significance of mothers when she describes coming home from school: “Reaching home, the first cry of a child was “where is mamma” for mother was an important and dearly loved parent” (13). Women were typically married within a decade of leaving school (Roberts) and were required to serve their husband and children effectively and efficiently. More on the male role within the family can be found on my Life and Labour – Part 2: Men at Work post.

Mothers were meant to support their families at home. While fathers were out at work, they were keeping the house presentable, cooking every meal and organising children for school. Usually, it would also be mother who taught her children life lessons such as sewing, housekeeping or childminding (Roberts). Perhaps unsurprisingly, daughters benefitted most from their mother’s lessons as they were more likely to stay at home after school while sons went straight out to work. As educators, mothers were highly successful, as we find from Maud who appears frequently inspired by her mother’s hard work.

John Burnett insists on the relentless labour of the house-proud mother and wife who would strive to keep her home presentable regardless of the environment – in Maud’s case it was industrially revolutionised Dudley, Staffordshire.   

But it was not only married women who had their work cut out for them; from the age of 13-14 onwards, or at least until marriage, many young women and girls went out to earn themselves wages; for most it was the only time in their lives they could do so (Roberts). The working-woman had less opportunities than boys and men the same age as her as she would not be accepted for as many roles; there are very few cases of women miners, for example.

Women might share in their husband’s responsibilities, though. Maud’s father, Samuel Mills (1854-1930), owned a shop when she was a young girl and it is likely that when he was busy with one of his other jobs, such as plumbing, Maria Mills would be left in charge of the store (Vincent). Or, as in the newspaper clipping from Maud’s memoir pictured below, women might find work doing something that they had learnt at home like baking. Maud seems to be quite inspired by their hard work as her occupation was not quite so labourious.

Image 11 of Maud’s memoir. Beneath this newspaper clipping Maud writes: ‘Notice the dignity of the chief waitress, as well as the order & cleanliness’. There are also notes written across the image, but most are illegible.

Maud was incredibly lucky in this regard. From the age of 13, for 13 years, she worked in teaching roles at various levels of education (see Education and Schooling – Part 2: Teaching). Her wages, although initially very low, rose as she became more qualified and experienced until she was earning £90 a year. Regenia Gagnier suggests that female working-class autobiographers were more likely to write about their husbands and children, choosing to focus on relationships, whereas male authors would talk about their careers and social status. Maud stands out from this pattern, barely talking about her life after teaching at all.

Yet, as much as she loved her job and earning her own salary, she gave up her work for the labours of a wife and mother in 1913 when she married Nehemiah Clarke (1882-c.1965). She writes that she “never regretted leaving” (64) teaching, but her enthusiasm throughout the rest of the memoir tells a different story. I wonder if it had been more socially acceptable for married women to work in the early 20th century if Maud would still have left the role.

“Men deemed it a terrible disgrace for their wives to go out to work.” (Clarke, 49)

Maud managed to have an unexpectedly rewarding career, from the 13-year-old child who snatched at the first opportunity she was given to a fully qualified teacher earning “the same salary as a college trained woman” (63). Her life and labour went on beyond the confines of her autobiography when she became a mother to Janet M Clarke in 1915 and Phyllis M Clarke in 1920.


Clarke, Maud. ‘Untitled’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 156, available at

‘Maud Clarke’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 156

Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure. London: Allen Lane Penguin Books Ltd., 1982.

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. (Links to an external site.)

Purvis, June. Hard Lessons. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.

Roberts, Elizabeth. A Woman’s Place. 1984. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.

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