This post discusses the role that labour plays in Robert Ward’s memoir ‘A Lancashire Childhood’. You can read in full here, which is his memoir transcribed by myself.
“He did heavy manual work all his life and lived to be 86” (2)
Some may have thought that women of this generation had an easier life compared to men as they did not have to physically go out to work, however as Robert says, his mother and other women lived “hard and monotonous lives” (8). It is clear that Robert had mutual respect for both his mother and father despite their very contrasting roles; his father is the one that provided the money in order for their family to survive and have the somewhat struggle free life that they led, but without the work his mother did, it would not have been such smooth sailing.
Robert’s father was a man who believed in working as hard as you can until you can’t anymore; he did manual work all his life until he became ill and died at the whopping age of 86. Robert’s father received a “reasonably good education” due to his father having a profitable small business, meaning he was able to afford to keep him in education. His father’s business would have been passed down to his son, Robert’s father, however, for a reason unknown to us, this financial stability “frittered away” (3) which left Robert’s father somewhat in the lurch. This is what began the time in which Robert remembers his father having “to take any kind of job he could get” (3); this explains why his list of professions covers several different sectors. It is easy to look at the fact that his father was frequently looking for a new job as a negative, however, Robert tells us that “thanks to his intelligence, versatility, and capacity for hard work he was always in demand” (3). This is a testament to his father’s character; it shows that with the education he received and the drive he had inside him, he would do anything to want to provide for his family.
Robert suggests on multiple occasions that his father was very much respected in the community and this is largely down to how hard he works. His father did many different varying jobs that ranged from more hands-on labouring work, to being a secretary to the Rechabites, and then eventually becoming the “Sunday School Superintendent” (3). It is not stated which job was seen as perhaps more respectable in the eyes of the community, but it is thought that “the nicer work, the finer work, the work requiring delicate handling, is done by men who used more tools, thereby making a better class of work” (Morgan, 1997). This tells us that when Robert’s father worked in the Sun Mill, managing the steam engines for the Lancashire boilers, he may have been looked at as more superior than when he was working within the church as he was using more skill.
Like most families of this generation, it was the father who went out every day to a paid job and earned money for the family, however, this does not mean that the mother figure didn’t have her own labour and work. Robert goes into great detail explaining the jobs and chores that his mother did day-to-day. A large part of his mother’s chores was ensuring all washing and drying of clothes was done to a high standard. Something interesting to note is that his mother tried to get most of her chores for the day done before she then had to prepare lunch for her husband; if his father would come home to find the “fry-up of Sunday’s left-overs not ready” (8) it would cause him to go “into a temper” (8). This shows the how both men and women’s work coincide with one another, as the wife of the family would need to ensure she is working at a quick enough pace so that it does not interfere with her husband’s schedule. We are told that Robert’s father would receive “thirty shillings or so a week” (9) from his job and would have to give part of this to Robert’s mother as “house-keeping money” (9). With this money, Robert’s mother would go out and buy food for the following week, usually in the local “co-op” (9).
From 1890’s, the legal age children could start work was 10 years old, with restrictions as to how much they could do (Griffin, 2020). There is no indication from Robert’s memoir that he partook in any sort of paid work when he was young; he did help his mother “crush the salt with a rolling pin and put it in the wooden salt box” (9), but I don’t think we call that a full time job!
Ward, Robert. ‘A Lancashire Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Special Collections. 2:0797.
Griffin, Emma (2020). Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. Yale: University Press.
Morgan, Carol E (1997). Gender constructions and gender relations in cotton and chain-making in England: a contested and varied terrain. Women’s History Review. 6(3)
Rose, J. (1993). Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918. Journal of British Studies, 32:2, pp. 114-138.
Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, 5:2, pp. 223-247.
Image 1 – The Cotton Mill Towns of Lancashire. Retrieved from: https://lancashirevillages.com/the-cotton-mill-towns-of-lancashire/
Image 2 – Littleborough co-op (updated picture). Retrieved from: https://www.littleboroughshistory.org/coopdeclineandchange.html
Image 3 – Co-op’s Competition in Littleborough. Retrieved from: https://www.littleboroughshistory.org/coopdeclineandchange.html