In 1871, Ruth Holdsworth walked through the streets of Leeds on her way to work weaving wool, worsted and flax in a textile mill. Working women were a common sight in northern towns during the industrial revolution, as they travelled to factories, workshops and mines to make money for their families.

Some 750,000 working women in this period were also mothers. Both historians and contemporaries have claimed that factory mothers spent the working day away from their infants and children, as the 19th-century industrious period ended any form of control these women had over their working lives. This separation dictated who did what work and where they did it, leading women to be pushed out of the public sphere into domestic spaces. Working-class women’s inability to combine waged work with childcare bit hard when insufficiency of a husband’s earnings forced mothers out to work. If they were to venture out, they had to split their wage with a carer and disrupt the family by being away from home, leading historians to analyse whether women’s quest for a wage in the industrial revolution benefitted their families.

‘Love Conquered Fear’, Frontispiece,Frances Trollope, Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (London, 1840).

However, my research questions whether the division between work and childcare was so absolute during the industrial revolution. For instance, parliamentary papers on the northern industrial districts reveal that some mothers had a legal and customary ‘right’ to take their children to work with them. Giving testimony before the 1876 Select Committee Inquiry into the Working of the Factories Act, Mr Bury, a school master, explained that it was mothers’ right to take their children to work and that this practice was a remnant of old customs prior to the industrial period. The practice of taking children to work meant that some working-class mothers were not barred from the public sphere and were able to contribute wages to their family economy.

Indeed, when visiting northern industrial areas in the nineteenth century, one Ellen Barlee reported that ‘the temptation [for wives] to work is great; for so large is the demand for female labour, that fifty women can find employment where the man fails. Thus, it is quite true that many women do keep their husbands and families, the men merely doing such jobbing work as they can pick up’.

Such work could be done in tandem with childcare. In 1865, Yorkshire mill mothers recounted that ‘they had [their children] at the mill, and put them in a basket until [they] were ready to go home’ for ‘it was their ‘duty’ to take’ them, especially when ‘they were at the breast’. Once their looms were up and running, mothers were able to attend to their infants, apart from when a ‘weft’ or ‘waft’ broke and the cloth had to be replaced, and could also use ‘work intervals’ and breaks. Inside the mills, women workers adapted the industrial architecture to ensure that they could supply breast milk to their infants and used the surface of the steam engine to warm their children’s dinners of pies and potatoes. These working-class mothers avoided pap – an unsuitable mixture of water/milk, bread and sugar – ‘like they shunned the devil’ .

Practices of childcare in the factory were a result of mothers’ desire to care for their infants, their inability to pay for separate childcare and support from some employers. At the Select Committee, Mr O’Conor reported that the infants were better off in the factory than at home and Mr Knowles, concurred saying ‘the children are under their [mothers] eye the whole of the day and they take them off home again by the time that the father comes home from work’.

Of course, mills and workshops were not environments built for children and may have resulted in health problems for the youngsters. Moreover, the combination of waged work and childcare meant a tiring day for the mothers concerned. However, it indicates that employers did not force working-class mothers into the isolation of the domestic sphere and instead understood the importance of their participation in the workforce.

Not only factory and mill workers used this childcare practice: it was also found amongst salt miners and chain, nail and brick workers. William Henry Edwards remembers his mother taking him to the brick yards in the Midlands, where he contributed to the workplace as a young child:

‘I had a little swing fixed up for me on the beam opposite the horse and round and round I would go all day. If the horse dropped anything, it had to be cleared away immediately to keep the path from becoming greasy and in bad condition. So, as I was travelled round and round, I kept a diligent eye for this, and was delighted when I could call out, “Tom, Old Jack’s messing again”.’

William’s mother earned 30 to 40 shillings a week, a similar wage to some factory mothers. Many 19th-century working-class mothers effectively combined waged work and childcare. The industrial revolution did not mean a choice between maternal separation or confinement to the domestic sphere for all women. The workplace could be a place of both labour and childcare, so that mothers did not have to pay childcare costs and rely on others to bring their children up. Meanwhile, the ability to work gave mothers, both married and single, some financial independence and made a strong contribution to their family’s prosperity, buffering them from poverty.

These practices from over 150 years ago were very different to working-class mothers’ experiences of work and childcare today. 21st-century mothers cannot take their children to work and have to pay prohibitive childcare costs if they are in work. This can render working-class mothers dependent on partners for financial support and in many cases subject to poverty, while they suffer a child rearing penalty in pay on their return to work. To some extent, 19th-century working-class mothers ‘had it all’, in today’s feminist parlance, since they did not have to be childless to participate in the workplace. Restoring the positive link between women’s waged work and childcare today could be achieved by establishing onsite workplace crèches, helping to close the gender pay gap. Crucially, today’s working mothers need committed campaigns and the support from feminist groups, MPs and unions to make sure that both labour and love are possible.

Dr. Melanie Reynolds is an Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and author of Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care 1850-1899. Previously she was Tutor in History of Ruskin College, Oxford. 

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