Theme 5: Women in the “British Workman”

Academic Level

Key Stage 3 (UK)


English Language and Literature

  • Interpreting Texts
  • Interpreting Images

Downloadable/Printable Files of Materials on this Page

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Despite its title, the British Workman‘s target audience also included women–in particular, British workmen’s wives. In fact, the magazine included a “Column for Wives.” In the first issue, printed in 1855, the column includes a poem and a small etching of a young women opening a window to enjoy the ‘pure air.’ By the third issue, the name of the column had changed to “Wives and Mothers.”

"The Buttonless Shirt," "British Workman" 2 (1855): 7.
“The Buttonless Shirt,” “British Workman” 2 (1855): 7.

A ‘good’ wife was considered essential in the working class home to provide an ideal domestic environment for the working man. Disorganised wives were criticised and blamed for driving men to the public-house and beer shop. At this time in British society, women were considered morally and emotionally superior to men. Women, it was believed, could curb men’s bad behaviour.

"The Power of Pence," "British Workman" 3 (1855): 11.
“The Power of Pence,” “British Workman” 3 (1855): 11.

Wives in the British Workman are presented as full-time domestic workers at home, looking after children and husbands, constantly cleaning, cooking, and sewing. There are very few references to women in paid employment outside the home. Yet we know from historical records that many women did. However, finding accurate details of how and where women worked during the mid-nineteenth century is difficult. This is partly due to the way information about employment was gathered at the time. the Census (a national survey carried out every 10 years in Britain), takes a snapshot of the population, who they are, where they live, and what they do for a living. In the mid-nineteenth century, women’s work was not considered as important as men’s, so sometimes women in the household surveyed were not included in the Census. Also, some women did not want their husbands to know they were working; sometimes women’s work was illegal, such as prostitution; or, the worked in unregulated sweatshops, which they did not want to declare as they thought they might lose their jobs. Although we do not have full records, we do know that women were employed in large numbers across most areas of industry.

"Dr. Baker's Interview with the Yorkshire Factory Girls," "British Workman" 16 (1856): 61.
“Dr. Baker’s Interview with the Yorkshire Factory Girls,” “British Workman” 16 (1856): 61.

CLICK HERE for a slideshow of some of the images of women found in the British Workman.