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Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner reveals the human stories of the punishing Victorian economy

The historian explores the lives of families by making a detailed examination of 662 working-class autobiographies written from 1830 to 1903.

By Jad Adams

When Jack Lawson started work in a mine in County Durham in 1893 it meant, he said, “I was a man and I knew it”. He was 12, but for all the long hours and dangers, work provided him with status and identity. The way men were defined by their work is exemplified by the titles of the books they wrote: Autobiography of a Handloom Weaver; An Inspector’s Testament; From Garden Boy to Head Gardener; From Workshop to War Cabinet. The upward progression through paid labour described in men’s life writing was almost unheard of in women’s.

In Bread Winner, Emma Griffin wrestles with the paradox of an enduring connection in the 19th century between higher wages, bequeathed by industrialisation, and poor “breadwinning” – the passing on of this income to women and children for the provision of a secure home, food on the table, clothes on the back and coal on the fire. The historical question Griffin addresses is how British society witnessed a steady rise in real wages – commonly considered a reliable measure of living standards – but no advance in human heights: body mass actually declined among some segments of society in this period. Child poverty persisted.

A professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, Griffin looks into the lives of families by making a detailed examination of 662 working-class autobiographies written from 1830 to 1903 – almost all by men in the early years, but after 1890 by equal numbers of men and women.

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If men were defined by their work, women were defined by their low or complete lack of remuneration; wage growth directed a greater share of the nation’s wealth into the hands of men. For girls, leaving school was a time of regret, heralding an introduction not to work and independence, as it did for boys, but to unpaid work for their families. Girls were frequently taken out of school – which was supposedly compulsory after 1880 – early to tend to a new baby.

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When women worked outside the home, it was a stopgap and they were paid both below a level that would sustain life and less than men, even when they did the same work. As one man in a sewing factory said: “a machiner was a man, a machinist was a girl” – the alternative titles evidently all that was needed to justify the wage disparity.

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Even with a grammar-school education and a certificate in shorthand and typing, a young woman might earn just eight shillings a week, which was less than a living wage, and one she could only survive by living with her parents. Young women had to forge a relationship with a male wage earner if they were to ever leave their family home.

While Griffin makes all efforts to flesh out the mothers, daughters and sons, Bread Winner is really a book of bad dads. Either there were a great many drunken and workshy fathers in this period, or the offspring of such folk were disproportionately moved to write about them. It was the fathers, in these narratives, who were responsible for earning higher wages and then for withholding them from their families.

Not all fathers, of course. One young man got an annual summer holiday in Norfolk thanks to his father’s commitment to the family; but another boy’s only nights away from home were spent cowering in the privy when his father locked the whole family out of the house in a drunken rage. It was not only abuse that damned these fathers: indifference and selfishness played their part even when there was no violence. We see a fancier of whippets and greyhounds who had income sufficient to buy meat for his dogs, but not for his children. Another man believed in sharing half his wages: his 15 shillings went on beer and tobacco and his wife’s fed and clothed a family of ten.

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Even when father was at home, he might not interact with his children. Charles Doyle sometimes wondered if his father “realised I was his son or some urchin from the tenements”. He remembers his father speaking to him personally only once.

Men also received food denied to their wives and children. Elizabeth Twist recalled the daily theatre of watching enviously as her mother beat an egg in a glass of milk, which her father then downed in front of the family. Better rations for men were justified to some extent by the hard physical work many did, but Griffin underlines that not all breadwinners did manual work. Twist’s father was an elementary schoolteacher: his daily egg was a means of underscoring his special status.

The steady rise in wages in the industrial age placed hitherto unknown levels of choice and power within the hands of the men who earned them. As male wages moved beyond subsistence levels, the necessity for all individuals in the family to pool their resources and labour for the common good diminished. Yet the startling conclusion of Griffin’s work is that low wages actually benefited children since they deprived fathers of the ability to squander their money on themselves. A man’s basic needs could only be fulfilled through the services of unpaid family members on whom he was therefore reliant. There were noticeably fewer cases of fathers failing to provide for their families in the countryside; agricultural labourers were the poorest and also the most reliable dads. A third of Griffin’s writers who were raised in towns, where the wages were higher, had inadequate fathers.

Diaries as a source can be frustratingly low on detail: family size can be a mystery and few writers attach much importance to dates – Bread Winner contains rather fewer than one would expect. But the book is a detailed, well-thought-out contribution to economic and social history that does an excellent job of bringing the domestic into focus, and it is full of stories worthy of Thomas Hardy.

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Take John Paton, for example, whose mother remarried 12 years after Paton’s feckless father Jamie disappeared. After nearly 30 years, Jamie returned to find out if he was the beneficiary of his late father’s will. Fortunately for Paton’s mother, Jamie was travelling with “a lady he claimed as his wife” and so did not want to let on that he was married. She was saved from a prosecution for bigamy by Jamie not being mentioned in the will, meaning he had no need to declare himself. Paton’s absent father retreated again and nothing more was heard of him. Well, they were better off without him.

Jad Adams’s books include “Women and the Vote: A World History” (OUP)

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy
Emma Griffin
Yale University Press, 320pp, £20

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism