Household headship and masculinity have been closely entwined throughout history. In the Victorian period household headship was closely allied with notions of manhood (not surprisingly given the laws of coverture). Yet overlooked by many historians has been the significant incidence of female household headship. Who retained headship of the household was not just a matter of formal record in a population census. It also had practical implications in terms of freedoms and responsibilities. The fictional town of Candleford in the BBC adaptation (2008-2011) of Flora Thompson‘s childhood-inspired Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) would be very bland without the striking female character Dorcas Lane (the independent postmistress) and Pearl and Ruby Pratt (dressmaker sisters and keepers of ‘The Stores’ haberdashery). These independent characters of historical fiction are depicted as keeping their own households as well as generating their own income. There were indeed real women like them.
It isn’t easy to gauge what proportion of actual Victorian households at any time were headed by women. The data that has been extracted from the census has tended to be collected to answer research questions concerned with different goals. What we have been left with however is a useful collection of data-sets drawn from specific population samples such as businesswomen, occupational groupings, middle-class or working class neighbourhoods, and migrant areas. These studies suggest that women headed between 13 to 23 per cent of households in such communities. In London, this result isn’t entirely surprising. In 1851 between the ages of 20 and 40 there were 119 women to every 100 men of this age. However the majority of female household heads were not spinsters (ranging from 7 to 20 per cent), except in studies of businesswomen (27 per cent). The excess of women over men became more exaggerated with age. Between the ages of 60 and 80, there were 137 women to every 100 men. Hardly surprising then that every household wasn’t supported by a man and organized around and subordinate to the paterfamilias.
What were these female headed households like? Female household heads were often widows (over two thirds). Not much data has been collected on their ages but from the limited data there is it would seem that the mean age was in the late 40s. Given the the excess of women over men in the population, this suggests it is highly likely that these households would remain headed by women for some time and were not short-term solutions. As per your typical Victorian novel, historians have found that in some locations around a third constituted cohabiting sisters. At this point I can’t help pausing to think about the wonderful Ruby and Pearl Pratt, dressmaker-haberdashers in the TV adaptation of Lark Rise to Candleford. Their real-life counterparts were the likes of Mary & Ann Hogarth (sisters of William Hogarth).
However, in my own research on the households of London’s businesswomen, cohabiting sisters were actually rather rare. Help was more likely to take the form of servants or children. After the grand houses, trades households whether headed by men or women did tend to dominate the market for servant employment. Hence, Dorcas Lane’s keeping of a maid, Minnie Mude, is very much in line with the historical evidence. Generally speaking though, female headed households, even the middle class ones, were not significant employers of servants. Perhaps this reflects lower household income levels but also lower household sizes. There is more information on the cost of retaining servants in this earlier blog post.
Lone motherhood was also another aspect of female household headship. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century around 9 per cent of British households with children were estimated to have been headed by women. By the mid-nineteenth century this had increased to 13 per cent. Sometimes these women were widows or had been abandoned, however as heads of households some women inherited their charges from other deceased or impoverished family members.
In Lark Rise this manifests itself in Dorcas Lane taking in Sydney, James Dowland’s son, and raising him as her own despite the demands of her busy household and business. A surprising proportion of businesswomen’s households were home to children. However, on reflection these were women not only independent in household but also in economic endeavor. Business could be conducted from the home in a time when a converted downstairs front room often doubled as a shop front. Such proprietorship could be dovetailed with childcare in a way that paid work outside the home could not.
The conventional view has tended to see these women as victims of circumstance, essentially passive and not as agents of their own destiny. This is clearly too simplistic. These women were free to choose their own friends, pursue their own interests and take up causes or occupations of their own choosing. Indeed many such women consciously rejected social protection and others around them could see that widows and spinsters did not invariably live under the wing of male social and economic protection. They often offered such protection to others. As Gordon & Nair have pointed out: ‘all women knew legions of lone women: all women could reasonably expect to be lone women at some stage. Such women could enjoy considerable social independence without sacrificing respectability.’
An excellent and very readable study of Glasgow’s female headed households is:
Gordon E. and Nair G. Public Lives: Women, Family and Society in Victorian Britain (2003)
A more detailed analysis of the households of businesswomen can be found in:
A. Kay, The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, home and household in London c.1800-1870 (2009)