University of Leicester
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Changing patterns of female employment in rural England, c.1789-1890

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posted on 2014-12-15, 10:44 authored by Nicola. Verdon
This thesis examines a previously neglected aspect of agrarian social and economic history: the work of rural labouring women in nineteenth-century England. The subject is approached firstly through a thorough investigation of a variety of contemporary printed sources: parliamentary papers, census figures, journal articles, books and pamphlet literature. The general pattern of female employment emanating from this analysis suggests a continuity - and in some sectors, an increase - in rural women's work opportunities and wages until the 1840s. Thereafter, the sense of decline in women's economic participation is shown to pervade the printed literature. This 'official' model of change forms the background to an in-depth analysis of women's work at a local level. A three county inquiry - in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Norfolk and Bedfordshire - constitutes the main body of the thesis. These counties all lay in arable-dominated eastern England, but the types and amount of work available to women varied significantly. The sexual division of work and wages, the importance of the family economy, the role of ideology and the significance of the lifecycle are all considered using farm and estate accounts, local newspapers, census enumerators books and autobiographical material. The concepts of work and earnings are used throughout in a broad sense to encompass the whole range of tasks women undertook in the formal and informal economies of the nineteenth-century countryside. However the nature of the surviving sources means that women's paid employment in the formal economy of nineteenth-century rural England forms the main focus of the thesis. Women's employment patterns are shown to differ according to the nature of the agricultural system, the method of hiring labour, the crops grown, and the proximity to industry in the three counties. Contrasts in female employment patterns, both between different counties and within the same county are uncovered. In conclusion, it is argued that archival sources also indicate continuity and perhaps a rise in women's work and earnings opportunities in the period c. 1790-1840. In the mid Victorian era the general pattern of women's work shows a considerable decline from the early nineteenth century trend, and in the period c. 1870-1900, this decline continues. However archival research shows this pattern was not universal and the contradictions and complexities in women's employment over the nineteenth century are discussed.


Date of award


Author affiliation

Nene College

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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