Under-recording of women’s work in the census 1841-1881

Are the Victorian censuses of England and Wales a reliable source for studying the work of women? A good question to ask for the #OnePlaceWomen prompt.

Quite a big question to take on in a blog post, and I couldn’t do it justice here. So, in this post, I’m going to take on a smaller question: are the census returns of 1841-1881 for England and Wales a reliable source for studying the work of women in Cransford?

(Spoiler: the answer to both questions, I feel, is ‘no’. However, it is still one of the top sources we have, as long as we treat it objectively, understanding its shortcomings).

In the planning stages for this post, I tweeted a poll asking whether other researchers believed the enumeration books to be a reliable source for women’s occupations. Sixty-four people voted, 84% of whom said ‘no’. The ‘yes’ vote came in at 5% and the ‘not sure’ at 11%. Quite the landslide. 

Before I can sum up whether there is any evidence that supports this widely held opinion for this place, Cransford, we need to know what the returns for the parish do tell us about women’s occupations.

The background

Who was doing what (and was recorded as such) between 1841 and 1881? In 1841, 16 women were recorded with an occupation, 15 of those as F[emale] S[ervant] and one as a charwoman. Ten years later, the number had risen to 20 women. While most were still in domestic service (11 house servants, five housekeepers), there was also a needlewoman, a schoolmistress, a shoe binder and a wheelwright.    

Oddly, in 1861, the number of women recorded with occupations fell to just 13. That number was spread more evenly across various roles because the women were categorised more precisely than in previous years: a cook, four dairymaids, three house servants, two housekeepers, a nursemaid. In addition, there was a dressmaker and a schoolmistress. Was the enumerator in 1861 – so keen to record women as ‘ag lab’s wife’, ‘blacksmith’s wife’ etc. – obscuring other work they were undertaking relative to the enumerators before and after him? 

Despite a falling population, the number of working women – at least as far as the census was concerned – rose back over 20 in 1871. The 21 women in 1871 included ten house servants, four housekeepers, a cook, a dairymaid: similar roles to those performed throughout the century. Yet it also recorded a dressmaker, a milliner, two schoolmistresses and a farmer. 

The final census used for this post, 1881, featured 16 women with occupations. Again domestic work was prominent, taking up half of these roles. Still, there were also two governesses, two nurses (likely monthly nurses), the now regular feature of a schoolmistress, another dressmaker, a grocer and a post office assistant.

This is a small study, but the data suggests a gradual increase in the types of work being undertaken by women as the years went on. It also points to an increasingly proportion of women in regular work. Lastly, there is also limited evidence of growing prosperity in some parts of the population and the ability and desire to hire nurses, governesses and the like. 

What’s with the italics?

I want to look in a little more detail here at the wheelwright, farmer and grocer because they have something in common despite being recorded in different years:

  • Ann Cook, Head, Widow, 29, Grocer, born Badingham [five children under eleven at home]
  • Mary Ann Smith, Head, Widow, 59, Wheelwright, born Stradbrook (sic) [living with three sons, also wheelwrights]
  • Sarah Barham, Head, Widow, 55, Farm 33 acres employing one man, born Blaxhall [with children; 23-year-old son noted ‘farmer’s son’]

Widows, of course, had greater autonomy than married women, and it was, therefore, more ‘seemly’ for them to carry on a business than their married counterparts. However, are we to believe that they had nothing to do with the family business before their husbands’ deaths? That they simply learnt how to run the business after their other halves were gone? It seems unlikely to me; I suspect they had more experience than that. Either the census had no mechanism for recording their involvement (especially in its earlier years), and/or the enumerator’s interpretation of the instructions meant that he (always a ‘he’ in Cransford at this time) did not think it correct to record it.

Is there evidence in other sources that some of the women recorded with no occupation or as ‘so-and-so’s wife’ on the census were doing other roles that we might consider ‘work’ or ‘occupations’?

Yes. Women running businesses sometimes appear in trade directories, but this only tells part of the story – they were often widows like the three women above. But what of women’s work other than the widows of tradesmen?

A succession of ‘Wanted’ notices appear in local newspapers looking for men to fill situations vacant, both in Cransford and other local parishes. What makes several of these particularly interesting is that many note that the man’s wife would have her own duties. Below is the example that set me off on this piece of research; it appeared in the Framlingham Weekly News on 25 September 1880, p. 4.

Example 1: Framlingham Weekly News, 1880

I believe I have found the couple appointed enumerated in the census taken the following year. While John is noted as ‘farm bailiff 130 acres employ 3 men’, his wife is listed only as ‘wife’ (copied again in the occupation column). 

In 1881, the following advertisement appeared in the Norfolk News (17 September, p3) hoping for an engine driver with a wife that could manage a small dairy and poultry:

Example 2: Norfolk News, 1881

I do not know for sure if this role was filled and by whom. However, married women with occupations were absent from the enumeration books for Cransford in 1891; the wife’s work went unrecorded if the couple were indeed residing there.

Forgive me, but this final example relates to a vacancy in nearby Peasenhall, which I thought was a particularly good advertisement. It was printed in the EADT on 22 August 1891 and underlines again that farm workers’ wives were often expected to muck in (pun intended):

Example 3: EADT, 1891

Joshua Moore lived at Yew Tree Farm in 1891 and 1901. In neither set of enumeration books can you spot a wife with an agricultural occupation listed. In fact (as is a familiar tale to researchers) women in the parish were rarely noted to have any profession or occupation at all

We know women took up informal work because it is recorded in sources like diaries and news reports. For example, in Labour and the Poor: The Rural Districts (Vol. VI), we hear from a woman near Bury St Edmunds who was questioned about her budgeting:

“We never gets pork, except on Sundays, and then my husband is at home. I don’t think about none all the week, and it is no use a thinking about it, if you can’t get it,” said the sharp little woman, resuming her work at making flour sacks, at which she informed me she could “arne,” if she got up before daylight, and worked all day, the remunerating sum of 6d.” 

As such, the evidence for women’s work is hidden from some of the most popular sources we access, and where it is referred to in others, we get only examples, not a comprehensive list. Our job – as always! – is to find the evidence, evaluate it, and apply it to our places.

Does this mean that the census records are wrong?

In Cransford, in agriculture at the very least (there is limited evidence of other trades and callings in the village at the time), the census does not appear to give a comprehensive reflection of the scale, type and variety of women’s work. Does this mean that the enumerators were negligent in their duties, though? No.

In 1841, enumerators were instructed as follows:

“Profession, Trade, Employment, or of Independent Means. – Men, or widows, or single women, having no profession or calling, but living on their means may be inserted as independent, which may be written shortly, thus “Ind”.

The profession, &c., of wives, or of sons or daughters living with their husbands or parents, and assisting them, but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be set down.” See Genuki for source.

We have to remember that the census was not taken for our purposes as local historians 150 years later. Made by and for men and copied up by enumerators who were predominantly men, it – and other contemporary records – must be viewed in the context of its creation and purpose in the 19th century.

Just what counts as a ‘Rank, Profession or Occupation’ after 1841?

In 1851, the instructions were more extensive. Where farmers are concerned:

“The term FARMER to be applied only to the occupier of the land, who is to be returned – “Farmer of [317] acres employing [19] labourers;” the number of acres, and of in and out-door labourers, on March 31st, being in all cases inserted. Sons and daughters employed at home or on the farm, may be returned – “Farmer’s Son,” “Farmer’s Daughter”.

In Cransford, two farmers’ daughters were specifically recorded in 1871, and four in 1881. In 1861, the enumerator diligently recorded women as ‘carter’s wife’, ‘rector’s wife’, ‘journeyman’s wife’ against a further 17 women (33 were not written-up as such). The big problem is that we don’t know to what extent these women were involved in their father’s or husband’s occupations or whether they were also undertaking additional informal or casual work. Still, the enumerator may well have had his reasons for choosing to record ‘x wife’ or not.  

“In TRADES the Master is to be distinguished from the Journeyman and Apprentice, thus – (Carpenter – Master employing [6] men)”

On this point, the wives of tradesmen are rather left out. The wife of a blacksmith, for example, would be neither Master, Journeyman, nor Apprentice. If and when her husband died, the enumerator might write down the trade against her name for want of a Master and/or because she had taken the householder’s role (occupying alone or as head of household).

The last paragraph of the list deals with women and children:

“The titles of occupations of ladies who are householders to be entered according to the above Instructions. The occupations of women who are regularly employed from home, or at home, in any but domestic duties to be distinctly recorded. So also of children and young persons.” 

We might expect lots of female occupations, then? Hmmm. Note that enumerators were told to record ‘the occupations of women who are regularly employed‘. This statement has the potential to keep many women’s occupations out of the census records because their work was decidedly irregular. (It is worth noting that many men did not have a steady wage, either. In Suffolk at this time they may have been employed by the week, or even by the day. However, men were perhaps more likely to be identified as an ‘ag lab’ even when not receiving a regular wage: their occupation was their identity as much as their job). Consequently, for decades after 1851, researchers will be familiar with a blank box to the right of a married woman’s name in the enumeration books. 

Life as the wife of an agricultural labourer in the 19th century was tough – regardless of any additional duties beyond the house, children, and perhaps a vegetable patch and a pig. Making ends meet was an unrelenting struggle for vast numbers of labouring families trying to keep themselves and their children warm and fed, especially if they had a large young family that could not yet contribute to the family pot. 

It is purely logical that women would have sought ways to add to the family’s income, whether that be through assisting in their husband’s trade or business, farm work, laundry, piece work, domestic service or the like. But their employment could be casual, seasonal, informal or taken as and when available; interrupted by childbirth, sick nursing and other responsibilities, perhaps with blurred lines between ‘domestic duties’ and ‘domestic service’. The census was deliberately timed not to coincide with the harvest when many women might have taken on agricultural work. Wives might earn 5s a week in 1840s Suffolk if they were lucky (significantly less than their male counterparts, but enough to make harvest in Cransford ‘the good times’).

Census records do not include all women’s occupations, but they were never meant to.

Does everyone agree that women’s occupations are not reliably recorded?

No, although it’s more a debate about how reliable they are in various places and circumstances rather than a yes or no question. 

There is, as one would expect, to-ing and fro-ing about just how far we should trust the picture offered by the census in as far as women’s occupations are concerned. Some argue that there are exceptions to the rule and that, for example, married women doing factory work in Lancashire may be better recorded than might be expected when compared to married women in rural areas. 

Others in my twitter replies mentioned under-recording in their own places relative to working on the canals and women in small scale business and enterprise, encompassing everything from boarding houses to midwifery, sporting business to beer making. My gratitude to all that replied with their experiences.

Conclusion and further reading

The question I posed at the beginning was: are the census returns of 1841-1881 for England and Wales a reliable source for studying the work of women in Cransford?

I feel the examples in the post show that it is not reliable if we want to view a comprehensive record of the informal, irregular and seasonal work of the agricultural community in Cransford, especially for the female part of the population – and we don’t know exactly how big an omission this is. However, over the years this post covers, the census records do begin to show an expansion in more formal roles with regular wages. If we keep these things in mind, we can view the records in a more objective and focused way.

I prepared this blog for #OnePlaceWomen, the One-Place Studies blogging prompt for March 2021, tying into Women’s History Month, but I think the theme is important all year round. I couldn’t help but notice that even the 2021 census only wanted us to record the job we spent most hours doing. I will go down in history as a Marketing Manager, not a Qualified Genealogist. In these days where so many of us – and perhaps particularly women – have a ‘portfolio’ career, still doing multiple flexible and part-time roles to fit around children and expensive childcare (even besides the pandemic!), the most recent census won’t answer the questions of researchers in a century’s time, either…

I hope my thoughts and sources have raised questions about interpreting the census enumeration books, particularly in their reflection of women’s roles. I’d be interested to hear your insights below.

For further reading, see:

  • Higgs, E., Wilkinson, A. (2016) Women, Occupations and Work in the Victorian Censuses Revisited. History Workshop Journal, 81 (1), 17–38.
  • Mackay, A., Brooks, S. (2019) The Morning Chronicle’s Labour and the Poor, Volume VI: The Rural Districts, 271-292.
  • You, X. (2020). Working with Husband? “Occupation’s Wife” and Married Women’s Employment in the Censuses in England and Wales between 1851 and 1911. Social Science History, 44(4), 585-613. doi:10.1017/ssh.2020.32