How important were women to the economy in Berkhamsted in the mid-nineteenth century? Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, yet at first glance surviving official records and newspapers around that time might give us the impression that women’s efforts counted for nothing, so little were they mentioned. By investigating a range of local records and secondary sources, might it be possible to define the niche that women occupied in this area?

Some indication of men’s perception of women’s role in the local farming community (largely to sit idly by) has been noted on the page for Farming. However, a study into the contribution of female rural entrepreneurs asserted: “It has been argued that women have always played an important role in the farm economy although it varies and seems to depend on… farming’s fortunes… there seems to be a cyclical pattern where women’s role is more peripheral when agriculture is going through a boom and more central during a slump” (Warren-Smith & Monk, 2007). Even following the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, the price of wheat soon steadied and ushered in “a golden age of development and productivity”.

Is there evidence for women’s contribution to farming in the local census records? In the 1831 statistical census, more than half the population of Berkhamsted were women and 35 per cent of families were involved in agriculture. By 1841, women still outnumbered men and of 846 households 24 per cent were headed by agricultural workers, but there were no women over 15 reported as farm workers in Berkhamsted at the time.

It must be indisputable that the efforts of farmers had a positive effect on the economy of the area, harvests permitting, but what of their spouses in 1841 whose occupations were left blank? This tended to obscure the work that these women took in their stride every day. Because their toil was largely unpaid and therefore unrecorded (for instance, in wage books), it has been difficult to assess its value. However, Verdon in her study in praise of farmers’ wives (Agricultural History Review, 2003, 51:1) found that their scrupulous supervision of the valuable process of cheese-making boosted their status in the farming and wider community. She went on to say, “Farmers’ wives continued to take responsibility for the dairy, poultry, pigs, garden and kitchen, either performing the work herself or superintending the labour of others.” In 146 Berkhamsted households in 1841 where the bread winner was an agricultural labourer, he might have worked alongside his wife (and sometimes his children as well) and he would receive payment on his family’s behalf, but his wife was likely to dictate where and how the money was spent.

Women’s role in agriculture may be open to conjecture, so how else may their efforts have added value in the community? For this, we can study their occupational structure. Of 2,238 females in the 1841 census (of age 16 and above) 24 per cent, were recorded with occupations. These have been categorised using a table of occupational groupings appended to Garner’s “The use of census enumerators’ returns in local history studies” (Local Population Studies, Number 30, 1983).

Womens occupations_1841

Chart of women’s occupations as a percentage of those with
occupations recorded in the 1841 census

Verdon (in Rural women workers, 2002) stated that the four most common occupations for women in London were domestic service, making and mending clothes (crafts), laundering (lower servants) and nursing. In Berkhamsted, the first three London categories applied, albeit in a slightly different order.

We can study two connotations of women’s importance; one is in the context of rank, high social position and influence (included among ‘Independent’ women on the chart) and the other is having value or significance, worthy of consideration.

Independent Women

Looking at social position, the first point of investigation is the resident nobility and gentry, often the focus of economic and social activity.

Ashridge Estate near Berkhamsted was the seat of the Countess of Bridgewater following her husband’s death in 1823. She continued as lady patroness and in 1842 donated an acre of land between the Old Rectory and Three Close Lane as there was little space for burials in St. Peter’s churchyard in Berkhamsted. When the Countess died in 1849, the Estate passed to Viscount Alford but he died in 1851. In the uncertainty over who should inherit, his widow Lady Alford made plans for improvements to estate properties in Little Gaddesden including installing a water supply and building a school for her tenants’ children.

The presence of resident aristocracy boosted the status of the community and where they settled, others followed, including wealthy professional families from London, as shown in the Georgian Town page.

By 1841 the remnants of these families can still be seen. Of 87 independent women, 18 were inhabitants and visitors at the grand estates of the gentry including the Dorriens and Drevers at Haresfoot and the Duncombes of Lagley House in Northchurch. Berkhamsted Hall was by then occupied by the Hon. William Booth Grey, his wife Fanny and 11 servants along with eminent visitors such as Mark Lord Somerville (Fanny’s brother) and Sir Thomas Digby Aubrey (Fanny’s cousin) and their respective servants. Lord Somerville was one of those who contributed to the erection of walls enclosing Countess Bridgewater’s new graveyard.

Among the women of the nobility noted in the 1839 Pigots Directory for Berkhamsted and Northchurch were the Honourable Miss Grimstones who regularly appeared at the balls given by John Page at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted and gave their address as Berkhamsted Castle in the ‘Fashionable World’ section of the Morning Post charting arrivals and departures for the London season.

Other independent women were able to reach that status through endeavours to meet the requirements of gentry and professionals settling within reach of the metropolis. Having accumulated some capital from trade, some women were able to live on the proceeds by investing in property (for example Mary and Elizabeth Impey).

Popular fiction and semi-autobiographical works (such as Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, 1934, p.133-4), describe the wives and daughters of the rector taking the lead in charitable works, arranging for food and clothes to be supplied to poor families, or perhaps supplying a box of useful items for newborn babies, to be returned after a month or two to the rectory, cleaned and ready for the next baby.

There was just one wife of a clergyman in Berkhamsted, Isabella Brown, who may have been rather busy attending to her own family of nine children, though she had the help of three servants. Thomas Dupr é was a widowed clergyman but also school master of Berkhamsted school. Francis Leighton lived in Northchurch with three servants and no sign of a wife to help with charitable works. Finally, Rev. John Crofts was 74 years old, living with three servants at the Rectory House, birth place of the poet Cowper. Crofts had outraged the Gentleman’s Magazine  (1834, Part II, p.150) by being seemingly determined “to  leave no vestige of the poet which could possibly induce any stranger to intrude upon his privacy, or any visitor to encroach upon his hospitality”. Rev. Crofts from this account may not appear a candidate for charitable works, but he was another contributor to the Countess’ cemetery walls.

The poor would have been left to the dubious care of the workhouse and a few worthy widows would benefit from the town’s almshouses.

Worthy Women

In 1841, crafts such as dress making, millinery, lace making, bonnet making and needlework all appear as occupations for the women of Berkhamsted, but the most common job for women and girls (and some boys) was straw plaiting. Six women were employed in sewing the plait into bonnets. The dying craft of lace making was still continued by six women in the age range 59-70. Four doughty widows took over as head of their households and continued their late husbands’ work in turning, ironmongery, plumbing and upholstery, thereby securing work for others in the community. In some cases, sons were able to provide assistance in the family businesses and widows were able to continue to take on and train apprentices, though they would not expect the same support and consideration that craft guilds provided to their husbands.

In the category of ‘domestic service’, there were five housekeepers, but by far the biggest group were the 134 female servants to ladies, gentlemen and farmers. To employ servants on farms presumably afforded some cachet to farmers’ wives and families. Many of their houses must have been fairly substantial, able to accommodate children, relatives and visitors.Three nurses were recorded in the census but they merely worked as servants in a town where there were four surgeons who could be called upon to provide medical expertise. Unlike in some rural areas lacking resident doctors, there was no trusty old midwife (or at least none recorded) to attend home deliveries and to involve professional help only when she recognised problems with the labour.

Traders in the town included John Page’s three daughters who continued to run the King’s Arms after his death. Three other women ran public houses in the town:  Elizabeth Christie (at the Bell), Charity Austin was publican for an establishment in Albert Place (possibly the Queens Arms) and Martha Manton ran the George in Northchurch. Women also took jobs in three beer shops; there were six female grocers, two bakers, a butcher and a draper’s assistant. Lower Mill was the province of widow Sarah Littleboy. In addition, surely the Berkhamsted bakers, shopkeepers and innkeepers listed in the 1839 Pigots Directory worked with the assistance of their wives and families?

Sarah Littleboy. Copy of frontispiece from "Memoranda relating to the late Sarah Littleboy of Boxwells Great Berkhamsted with selections from her poetry and manuscripts." From BLH&MS collection Ref:bk12081

Sarah Littleboy, from
BLH&MS collection Ref:bk12081

Representing the ‘lower servants’ group, “The laundry industry was an important part of the nineteenth century shift in the economy towards services” (Malcolmson, English Laundresses: A Social History, 1986, p.xii). There were ten char / washer women  in Berkhamsted, and a widow and her daughter whose jobs were referred to as ‘mangling’. They took in washing at home and this was probably fitted around the normal domestic routine. Certainly this work would have been a welcome supplement to the household earnings.

Making up the ‘lower professional’ group, there were seven school mistresses, an assistant governess and two instructresses helping to provide valuable skills in educating Berkhamsted’s youngsters. The schools were important components of the town’s attraction for potential inhabitants.

At the most basic level, women’s contribution was crucial – producing and nurturing the next generation to work the farms and businesses and save the old-timers from the workhouse. With the struggle to keep body and soul together “everything depended on the skill and character of the mother… the struggle for respectability!” (Burnett, Destiny Obscure, 1982, p.83). Queen Victoria did not have much time for women who did not display this essential element and she may not have been ‘amused’ by married women holding down jobs as well as bringing up children.

It is on that note that we end by looking into the world of Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872): “And finally the tranter had to stand up in the room and let his wife wheel him round like a turnstile, to see if anything discreditable was visible in his appearance.”

Based on Advanced Diploma essay How important were women to the rural economy of Cumnor?