Keep the Door of My Lips: Exhibition Booklet. Educating Women in Work?

The British Workwoman (1863-1913):

When the British Workwoman was launched in November 1863, it stood out from other women’s magazines with its large broadsheet format, its bold masthead, and its striking front-page wood-engraved illustrations. Priced at one penny (1d = less than ½p today), this monthly evangelical Christian temperance magazine aimed to grab the attention of working-class women across Britain. The British Workwoman was designed for sharing and reading aloud to fellow workmates. Its stunning front-page illustrations – some of which are reproduced here and in the exhibition – were intended for posting on the walls of the reader’s home. 

The British Workwoman was not affiliated to any particular religious, temperance, or women’s organisation. It was founded and run by a small all-male group of publishers, most notably Job Caudwell (1820-1908) and the editor Richard Willoughby (1801? -1879). Both were well-connected to the Christian and temperance publishing network in London. Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) supported and endorsed the magazine which proudly displayed his quotation alongside its editorial column: ‘I believe that any improvement which could be brought to bear on the mothers, would effect a greater amount of good than anything that has yet been done.’ (British Workwoman Nov 1863, p. 2) Although there is limited information about the circulation figures for the magazine, its fifty-year longevity suggests that it was popular. Not many copies survive simply because the magazine was designed not just to be read but to be used in various material ways.

The origins of the magazine can be best understood if we look at the many public concerns dominating British society at that time. Public anxieties were heightened in mid-Victorian Britain with the rapid expansion of the cheap and popular press, considered to be immoral and seditious by religious organisations.  The low attendance at church services identified in the 1851 religious census also raised questions around working-class estrangement from organised religion. High levels of visible prostitution and intemperance amongst the working class, particularly in London and major towns, also caused concern.  Not least, the growth of industrial capitalism had a dramatic impact on women in relation to the family, home, and work, which caused many within the political and religious establishments the greatest consternation.  Women were drawn to the new employment opportunities which brought relative freedoms and higher wages when compared to the other major employment options such as dressmaking or domestic service. The long hours young women were committing to the factories and workshops raised worries that they would be ill-equipped for the domestic responsibilities needed for married life and motherhood. And, if married mothers were working, they were thought to be neglecting their ‘real work’ at home to the detriment of the children and their husbands.

The results of the 1861 occupation census, published not long before the launch of the magazine, had shown that high numbers of working-class women were employed in a broad range of jobs in the expanding industries across Britain. While the magazine accepted that many married women had to work to support their families, an equally strong sentiment presented was that a husband’s wages should be sufficient on its own, provided the money was spent judiciously and not wasted on fashionable frippery or beer. In response to a reader’s money worries in March 1869, the magazine responded that ‘A family man would find it necessary to do without many things you and your husband enjoy. The old saying ‘cut your coat according to your cloth’ is applicable.’ (British Workwoman March 1869, p. 136)  However, if women had to work to keep the family from destitution, then the magazine advocated work which could be carried out at home, such as needlework and basket making, to fit around their domestic and moral duties. This idea is very visible in its illustrations, not one of which shows a woman working in an industrial setting.

The British Workwoman believed that it was principally a woman’s influence over her husband and children that upheld the moral and religious health of a civilised Christian society. In accordance with society’s views at this time, the magazine believed that women were morally and spiritually superior to men. It praised women for their strength and endurance upholding this burdensome responsibility, especially amongst those sisters in the poorest sections of society. The British Workwoman valued women’s moral influence and guidance more highly than any paid work. As women’s influence was so powerful (so it claimed), the magazine believed they did not need the vote. In February 1867 it stated that

‘it will, perhaps, never be known to what extent laws have been made and nations ruled by women. Is there an election where she has not taken part in her influence despite not having the vote?    

British Workwoman Feb 1867, p.318

In parallel, or possibly in reaction, to the fears over women’s increasing progression into many new areas of the paid workforce, British society witnessed the rise in a virulent domestic ideology which propagated the belief that women’s natural domain was the home and family. Men’s domain was considered to be the public sphere of work, politics, and governance. The ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was presented as axiomatic across all strands of nineteenth-century society: politics, religion, public policy, literature and the arts.  As British society at this time was deeply patriarchal, with power and privilege reserved for men, the separate spheres narrative fully supported the inequitable status quo. Women were excluded from public office, most professional jobs, higher education, and could not take part in national elections.

As we have seen, in reality and irrespective of anxieties or the dominant domestic ideology, most working-class women had little choice but to seek external paid work to support their households. There was little job security for working-class men, and a survey carried out in 1904 showed that four out of five married women worked because of financial necessity (Ann Oakley, Housewife, Penguin 1974, p. 50). Nevertheless, the domestic ideology was powerful and played a central role in the ethos of the British Workwoman

The British Workwoman was aimed at working-class women because it believed many were at risk of corruption through the nature of the work or the workplace itself. It feared that women working in mining and heavy manual labour would be ‘unsexed’. And if female factory workers worked alongside men, the magazine believed it would lead to women’s moral degradation. Many examples were cited of young women adopting foul language and drinking habits from men. Working outside the home was also considered to heighten women’s sense of independence which drew them away from their moral duties and responsibilities at home.

Above all, women’s moral integrity had to be protected. In a debate about women and children’s employment in the mines in 1842, Lord Shaftesbury stated that ‘it is bad enough if you corrupt the man, but if you corrupt the woman, you poison the waters of life at the very fountain’ (Lord Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley) House of Commons Debate, 7 June 1842, Hansard 63 cc1320-64).The magazine therefore offered its readers religious instruction and moral guidance by every means possible: not only through advice columns but through stories, songs, poems, maxims, proverbs and, of course, illustrations.

Itseditorials offered women readers advice about issues they would experience as mothers and workers, but they also sometimes strayed into broader political areas, such as when the magazine referred to the American Civil War in the June 1865 issue.  It was glad that slavery had been abolished and linked the conflict to ‘our own war’ between employers and employees caused by the impact of the American Civil war on the cotton industry in Lancashire (British Workwoman, June 1865, p. 157). Reference to education reform and an emphasis on the importance of educating the young was another strong theme of the editorial columns.  For example, in 1870 the magazine strongly supported the proposed Education Act which was progressing through Parliament that year. However, most of the editorial columns offered moral guidance to women about their role within the family, their behaviour and attitudes when in paid employment or when outside of the home.  It spoke to mothers, daughters and young single women whether they worked in a factory or in service away from home.

An example of the kind of advice meted out can be read in an ‘Out from Home’ editorial article in July 1864.  The question ‘What shall we do in the evenings?’ was easily addressed for those women with families to look after, as naturally, the magazine insisted, they should be at home.  However, ‘young women in factories’ should be careful what they did with their spare time:

They may walk about the streets in the twilight – flirting or chatting, with noisy mirth. They may read some of the cheap trashy novels, of which there is such a large class within their reach … But, O, we entreat all British Workwomen, away from home, to beware of these ways of spending their evenings.   

British Workwoman July 1864, p. 68

Unsurprisingly, the magazine castigated idleness. In a New Year’s greeting to women in January 1865 it addressed daughters living at home:

those who do not work, but fritter their time away over the worthless operations of embroidery, or the unedifying perusal of novels, while their mothers are slaving for them, do not deserve to be very happy, – and we do not think they will be. But all brisk, bustling girls … these are the girls to be happy … who cannot afford time to be idle, you may be far happier than the rich who have the misfortune to have nothing to do.

British Workwoman Jan 1865, p. 116

Attending to the sick and needy in their local communities was considered a fundamental duty for any committed Christian woman. It was also made clear that this charitable work was the best use of the half-day Saturday ‘holiday’ many working women were entitled to from 1867: women’s work never ceased!

Many stories involved the trope of the damascene conversion of a young woman, who, previously distracted by worldly pursuits, had seen the error of her ways and transformed herself from a self-centred individual to an altruistic carer – that is, she had learned to embrace her role and to love the sacrifice of her self.


The expansion of the middle-classes in Britain from the 1820s saw the demand for domestic servants rapidly grow.  The number of female domestic servants increased twice as fast as the population between 1851 and 1871 (Angela John, Unequal Opportunities: Women’s Employment in England 1800-1918. Blackwell 1986, p. 12).  Vast numbers of young women flocked from rural areas to the mostly middle-class homes in London and large towns.  These young women, often as young as thirteen, were away from their families for the first time (Pamela Sharpe. Adapting to Capitalism: Working Women in the English Economy 1700-1850, Macmillan 1996, pp.102-106).  Mostly working within a middle-class patriarchal family, young female domestic servants were under the strict control of their ‘social betters’ and answerable to the male head of the family, the butler or steward (Gerry Holloway, Women and Work in Britain since 1840, Routledge 2005, p.20).  

The British Workwoman proffered more support and guidance to domestic servants than to any other workers.  From the very first issues of the magazine, domestics were regularly and directly addressed through articles and series such as ‘Friendly Counsel’ and ‘The Hardships of Service and How to Bear Them.’ The British Workwoman was blunt in the advice it offered servants in recognition that many found the job difficult. In the January 1864 issue, ‘Friendly Counsel No.3’ was addressed to ‘Female Domestic Servants. The Maid of all Work.’  The preamble to the advice is illuminating but makes dismal reading:

Servants in this capacity have need of a large share of patience and self-denial…They are compelled to lead a very secluded life; their work is multifarious and laborious, there is not always that consideration on the part of the employer which there should be, and the best are often disheartened…         

British Workwoman Jan 1864, p.23

The advice went on to instruct the servant to be obedient, courteous, methodical, keep her temper, and finally to be religious: to keep the door of her lips indeed.

In a ‘Hints to Servants’ article in March 1869, servants were encouraged to save. The magazine informed readers that a recent survey at one of the London workhouses had established that out of the thousand people living there as paupers, over 300 had previously been in-door servants.  The article claimed that there were few people more careless about saving, due to the servants’ position of always having a meal and a bed provided. The piece went on to spell out explicitly how servants were not supposed to present themselves: ‘a dirty servant, with twisted hair, greasy fingers, torn boots, stockings with holes and gown with the hooks-and-eyes endeavouring to part company is a disgusting sight, especially at meals.’ Avoiding bad company, being respectful and loyal to the family was paramount.  In respect of gratuities, the magazine warned that ‘the only perquisites which a servant is entitled to, are such things as those which could be destroyed but for her extra care. Bones saved from the dust-heap, waste grease from the kitchen are usually allowed’ (British Workwoman, March 1869 p. 130). The ‘Voice of Domestic Workers’ shows such attitudes exist still.

In addition to direct advice the magazine regularly included stories directed at domestic servants. Many aimed to encourage those who might be homesick; others intended to top up words of advice. For instance, in the December 1868 issue, Lizzie experienced ‘a first going out into life’. She left home at fourteen to become a nursemaid for a local family.  The difficulties of service were outlined, including working with young children and a mistress who might be hard to please.  The advice proffered Lizzie was simply to do her best and leave the rest with God (British Workwoman, Dec 1868, p. 110).  In the July 1869 issue, a ‘Letter from Sister Martha to Sister Jenny’ appeared, with a note to inform the reader that Jenny had just gone into service. Martha offered sage advice to Jenny. She equated service as a maid-of-all work to the service they would give to ‘our Saviour’ if they had been in the house of Bethany. Martha suggested Jenny’s place was good, and that Jenny was ‘well off’ earning £8 a year.  Her mistress was kind except when she ‘is cross’. Martha instructed Jenny ‘to be patient. You must keep quiet and if something unjustly sharp is said to you. Remember it is not your mistress speaking, but temper and the headache’ (British Workwoman, July 1869, p. 164).  The individual worker has to work on themselves, transforming their resistance into acceptance.

During the last decade of the magazine in the early twentieth century, the publishing and editorial responsibilities were apparently taken over by ‘Mary Southwell Ltd’.  Original copies of these later issues of the magazine are in the process of restoration at the British Library.  When they are available, it will be fascinating to uncover what changes Mary Southwell brought to the magazine at the turn of the twentieth century.  Was the name merely a different cover for men trying to sound more convincing by claiming to speak as a woman?  I am determined to find out.

Deborah Canavan

Funded PhD student working on BLT19