Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy 
by Emma Griffin.
Yale, 389 pp., £20, April, 978 0 300 23006 2
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In​ 1894, Mary Molloy married Jimmy O’Meara, a Liverpool docker. She was 30 and he was 37. Mary may well have fallen in love, but the marriage made economic sense too. Although she had worked since girlhood, she earned only 12 shillings a week – just above the average women’s wage at the turn of the century, but not really enough for her to live comfortably on her own. And, given the limited employments available to women, Mary knew she had little hope of ever getting more. Jimmy could earn more than twice her wage – hardly a fortune, but enough (if his wife were a canny manager) to support a family in this hardscrabble, low-income town.

But Mary was also taking a gamble on marriage. She’d likely lose control of her own fertility; if children came, she wouldn’t be able to go out to work. She would be, as the law would consider her, a ‘dependant’, entitled to be supported by her husband but not really able to enforce that right if Jimmy proved unreliable. And so it turned out. Jimmy preferred the pub to the docks; he worked, but not regularly, and drank much of what he earned. Mary had seven children: the two who survived endured childhoods marked by violence, serial evictions and gnawing hunger.

I imagine Emma Griffin chose to open her engaging history of 19th-century working-class family economics with the story of the O’Mearas because it suggests what was structural and inescapable about their trajectory but also what was a consequence of personality and luck. The labour market and the wage system were both structured by sex; married women and children had no choice but to depend on the husband’s wage. If that wage failed – because of injury or death, desertion or neglect – the family would face desperate poverty. Mary may have experienced her fate as individual and accidental – a consequence of Jimmy’s weak character and her own poor choices – but it was in fact common and predictable. Inevitably, a proportion of men would fail to provide; inevitably, their families would suffer the consequences.

But Griffin opens with the O’Mearas for a second reason: because they left a record. We know a lot about this unhappy couple because their fifth child, remarkably, wrote an autobiography. Timothy O’Meara, born in 1901, ran off to sea and then emigrated to the United States. He settled in Baltimore, became a taxi driver, and in 1933, as ‘Pat O’Mara’, published a picaresque account of a ragged but adventurous childhood lived on the docklands streets. The Autobiography of a Liverpool Irish Slummy still finds appreciative readers. Few of those readers, though, can have Griffin’s purposes in mind.

Her goal in Bread Winner is to help us see the gendered economic logic that structured Victorian working-class life, but in a way that keeps its human consequences always in view. For Griffin, this has involved a decision to restrict her source base to the more than 650 autobiographies written by working-class men and women who lived between the start of the 19th century and the First World War. These sources are rich and revealing, and historians have been using them for decades to explore working-class culture, politics, religiosity, literacy, family relations and much else. Using them as a database for a quantitative as well as qualitative account of the economics of family life is quixotic, however – and not just because working-class autobiographers were, simply by virtue of picking up a pen, unrepresentative. The problem is more that Griffin has excluded from her purview the ocean of records produced by 19th-century local authorities, charities, social investigators and moralists who were obsessed, really obsessed, with the earning and spending habits of the poor. Rather disarmingly, she tells us that she had intended to exploit these materials, but in the end simply ‘could not wean myself off life writing as a historical source’ – although, of course, using the latter did not oblige her to ignore the former. I’ll return to the consequences of these choices later.

There was only one template for 19th-century working-class family life, Griffin tells us: ‘a father who was the breadwinner; and a mother who was, primarily, the homemaker’. This isn’t to say that families followed the script, still less that it worked to protect their most vulnerable members. Far from it. If fathers failed or disappeared, mothers almost invariably tried to earn. Unfortunately, they entered a landscape in which women’s wages were low, women’s jobs scarce, and women’s absolute and sole responsibility for managing their household unquestioned, even by the women themselves. In her 650-plus autobiographies, Griffin found only three wives of fully employed men who kept working throughout their marriages, and just one (yes, one) wife who earned more than her working husband – which made the husband resentful and destroyed the marriage. Whether marriage really was women’s ‘pleasantest preservative from want’ (as clear-eyed Charlotte Lucas tells Lizzie Bennet before accepting the fatuous Mr Collins), for most working-class women in this era, it was their only preservative from want, full stop.

This profound inequality of opportunity meant that boys’ and girls’ experiences of work, and all its associated blessings (respect, pocket money, camaraderie, outside interests), were very different. Rampant sexual harassment notwithstanding, girls relished earning as much as boys did: it was, after all, their only means of claiming better treatment, a modicum of leisure and a few coins of their own. But because sons had much better opportunities, families had a far greater interest in keeping them in work – and so in possession of more freedom and spending money. Girls, by contrast, were routinely pulled out of jobs to care for younger siblings or help with housework. This domestic drudgery was almost never preferred to wage-earning, especially since it also cut off the possibility of wider interests and adult pleasures. Male autobiographers often recount finding their way into adult education, the trade union movement, the Labour Party, ultimately even Parliament, through their work; the very few working-class women who entered politics, by contrast, relied on supportive parents – and tended to be unmarried and childless to boot. The suffragette Hannah Mitchell recalled the desperation she felt on falling pregnant, as she feared family responsibilities would end her political work. Unusually, she managed to limit her family to that one child – a choice we now take for granted, but which was almost impossible at that time for women of her class. And if marriage could curtail women’s modest earnings or freedoms, bereavement was an economic disaster, sending widows scrambling to find some, any, employment compatible with their domestic work (selling baked goods, taking in sewing or washing, renting out a room) as well as, if possible, a replacement spouse.

Now, there is a serious chicken-and-egg problem here. Were women and girls so poorly paid because they were expected to marry, or did they withdraw from wage earning and marry because they could gain their bread no other way? Did men earn so much more because they had ‘families to keep’, or did families rely on fathers because they were the only people with money? Griffin insists that low female wages need to be seen as ‘an important structural element of society’, a means of ensuring that all families had access to women’s unpaid domestic work – and, 19th-century feminists would have added, that all men had access to one sexual bondswoman of their own. But the key point is that even if both partners understood the contract underlying working-class marriage, only one of them – the man – had much choice about whether to keep up his end. Because most of the money on which the family relied was paid to the man, he alone could choose whether or not to share it. This is where Griffin’s statistics are most revelatory. Fewer than two-thirds of her working-class men were ‘good providers’, she finds; just over a third were not. Rather shockingly, of these ‘bad providers’, just under two-thirds were what one might call ‘bad providers by choice’: that is, they could have supported their families, but spent their money on their own interests and pleasures instead. (Women, I’m afraid, were much less interesting. Although a few neglected or exploited their children – including one mother who pimped out her young daughter – most slaved away at the endless cycle of water-hauling, shopping, cooking, cleaning, child-minding, mending and nursing that raising half a dozen children in a back-to-back without indoor plumbing involved.)

So women and children who had the misfortune to be dependent on ‘bad providers’ suffered all the indignities and hardships familiar to readers of Victorian fiction. It’s in sketching the routine aspects of life in the ‘average’ male-breadwinner family, however, that Griffin’s devotion to autobiography pays off. Children were well aware that a ‘good father’ was a good provider, and vividly recalled the weekly ritual – often performed in their presence – when their father turned over his pay packet unopened to his wife, who would then ‘tip back’ some money for tobacco or other treats. They knew their own lives depended on that performance (or on the stratagems their mothers devised to extract wages from reluctant men), and while some recalled supportive or loving fathers, paternal affection – even attention – was understood as just an added bonus. A good father didn’t have to be interested in his children, or especially like them: he merely had to accept that they were his responsibility. Fathers, after all, were almost always out; they were distant figures, ever at work. One child could recall his father – and this was a ‘good father’ – speaking to him directly only once in his life.

No one considered it unjust that fathers received the lion’s share of anything good that was going. Griffin has a chapter on food that might be shocking today but will seem quite familiar to anyone raised (as I was) in a family still in the backwash of the male breadwinner norm. Respectable working-class families tried to put a roast on the table on Sundays – and to make it stretch to stews and meat pies for a few days after that – but children remembered that their fathers ate the best (or all) of the meat, while they ate the onions and gravy. Fathers sat down to a kipper or a boiled egg at breakfast (and gave one favoured child the top); their dependants ate porridge. Kind fathers sometimes shared tidbits; others avoided the whole drama and ate alone. It’s true, of course, that many men were doing hard manual labour: they needed those hearty meals. But these behaviours were also about status. Even men in sedentary jobs ate eggs and bacon while their children ate bread and dripping.

Mothers were different. Mothers fed you, sent you to school, decided when you’d go to work – and, if you were a girl, pulled you out of school when you were needed at home. Mothers ruled every aspect of your life. Precisely because they were so familiar, however, children’s attitudes towards mothers were less transactional and more complex. Autobiographies are replete with paeans to the heroism of mothers, who took in washing and riffled their husbands’ pockets for the odd extra shilling, or, when all else failed, sent their children out to soup kitchens. But mothers were not necessarily loving; or rather, as Ellen Ross showed in Love and Toil (1993), her luminous study of London’s working-class mothers, love was expressed through struggle and not caresses. The good mother might cuff her children, might shout at them, might show no interest at all in their imagination or ‘development’ – but she kept food in their bellies and coats on their backs. Griffin notes an undercurrent of something – not quite resentment, more loneliness or disappointment – in some children’s accounts of their harsh and beset mothers, but she is aware, too, of how changes in attitudes towards childrearing inflect autobiography. We think now that parents (especially mothers) should nurture their children’s personalities. These mothers had more than enough to do just keeping them alive.

Paradoxically, that struggle was hardest for the working-class mothers – like Mary O’Meara – living in booming late Victorian towns. Working-class incomes rose in the 19th century – and yet, in turn, women’s and children’s vulnerability increased. Griffin’s most striking finding is that once the subsistence crises of the first half of the century were overcome, urban children were much more likely to suffer privation than rural children, with roughly a third of urban fathers failing to provide, compared to a tenth of rural fathers. This was not because rural families were richer than urban families: on the contrary, they were poorer. But, precisely because of that poverty, rural families clung to an older, mutualist model of family life, with all their members pitching in and pooling resources. In cities, by contrast, men came to regard their wages as their own. The results of that shift were, for ‘dependent’ women and children, calamitous, with some fathers spending the ostensible ‘family wage’ on gambling, prostitutes, second families, religious causes, political activism, or whatever else they fancied; better-paid urban fathers were also much more likely to simply lose interest and walk away. The biggest problem, however, was always alcohol, with as many as a third of urban autobiographers reporting a ‘problem drinker’ in the family – usually the father, occasionally the mother. Children going to bed hungry so that their fathers could be ‘continually drunk’ makes for ‘uncomfortable reading’, Griffin admits, but she adds that alcohol is, after all, an addictive substance and one that was everywhere on offer in Victorian towns. Small wonder working men were tempted to turn in to a warm and inviting pub with their mates rather than face a furious wife and a row of hungry faces in their damp and cheerless homes. Rural men too would probably have liked a glass of ale at the end of a working day but, Griffin notes, often had to abstain for no better reason than that the nearest pub was three miles away.

We know that the 19th century was an era of rampant economic growth, rapid urbanisation and rising urban industrial wages. But Griffin concludes that ‘something less positive was hiding in its slipstream: a sharp uptick in inequality between the sexes.’ Those rising wages were enjoyed mostly by men; increased insecurity was suffered mostly by women and children. ‘Wage-sharing at the family level is far more significant than scholars have recognised,’ Griffin writes. ‘We need to think more critically about the ownership of money within households and recognise the gap that could, and did, exist between real wages and family living standards.’

I agree with what Griffin says about the need to track distribution within the family and not simply across class lines, but I can’t help but bristle at her admonitions. The economics of the working-class family, and the gendered effects of the institutionalised male family wage, are hardly neglected subjects. They were among the major research interests of a generation of social and women’s historians – Deborah Valenze, Barbara Taylor, Sonya Rose, Anna Clark, Jane Humphries, Ellen Ross, Melanie Tebbutt, Hilary Land, Jane Lewis, Wally Seccombe, and many others. Griffin credits this generation of historians with ‘establishing domestic life as a subject to be taken seriously’, but says they were less successful ‘in inserting the domestic into the mainstream’. I am not sure what this means. Feminist historians wrote a great deal about the economics of the family, publishing that work in the standard academic journals and with the usual university presses. If ‘mainstream’ historians, whoever they are, simply declined to read their work, I hardly think those pioneering historians are to blame.

Yet​ Griffin’s work is genuinely revisionist – of an economic history too reliant on quantitative methods but also, interestingly, of her own earlier work. In 2013 Griffin published Liberty’s Dawn, a fairly sunny account of popular experience during the industrial revolution. That book acknowledged that women and children gained less from the rising wages and spreading prosperity of the era, but as a whole it leaned towards an ‘optimist’s’ interpretation. It’s easy to see why Griffin made that argument, for the earlier book drew on the same corpus of working-class autobiography on which Bread Winner is based. In this corpus, men’s texts outnumber women’s two to one and are (big surprise) on average three times the length. Working-class men’s autobiographies also tend to conform to the template of the ‘upward climb’: two-thirds of their authors rose into the middle class (compared to a tiny fraction of ordinary working-class men) but only a third of working-class women autobiographers. Griffin’s source base, then, is very likely to produce a progressive, male-centred and optimistic account of social change.

It is impressive that Griffin managed, in Bread Winner, to correct for this bias, milking her scarcer and briefer women’s texts to write an account as attentive to women’s experiences as men’s. She has found that gender mattered a great deal, telling us (echoing Virginia Woolf) that ‘the private world of the family is not separate from the public sphere of politics and economics.’ I believe that her conclusions and indeed her statistics are basically right. But I base that judgment less on my faith in her autobiographical source base than on the fact that her arguments mirror, in almost every detail, those made by a generation of women social investigators, social reformers and socialists who worked with and among working-class housewives in the two decades before the First World War. The settlement house worker Anna Martin, the district nurse Margaret Loane, the Fabian socialists Barbara Drake and Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Llewelyn Davies of the Women’s Co-operative Guild and, especially, the social reformer and politician Eleanor Rathbone: these were the women whose studies first documented the inadequacies of the male breadwinner norm.

These works supply confirmation of Griffin’s findings and a genealogy for her arguments. Let’s go back, for example, to turn of the century Liverpool, the site of the O’Mearas’ unhappy story. Here, as Jimmy drank and Mary struggled, the young Rathbone launched an investigation into the structure of dock labour – a study that showed just how damaging the shift work and job insecurity of that trade were to dockers’ families. A few years later she teamed up with local Fabians, social investigators and settlement house workers – as well as, crucially, working-class wives themselves – to produce How the Casual Labourer Lives (1909), a study of working-class budgets which revealed that labourers’ wives had little idea what their husbands earned, that they were nonetheless entirely dependent on fluctuations in the male wage, that they struggled ceaselessly to keep their children fed against impossible odds, and that they would willingly earn themselves if they could find jobs that would pay. These investigations persuaded Rathbone that the economy was indelibly structured by gender, and after spending the First World War administering the payments made to soldiers’ wives (and noting the resulting improvements in women’s and children’s health and independence), she threw herself into a 25-year campaign for children’s allowances. That campaign finally succeeded with the Family Allowances Act of 1945 – which Rathbone, by then in the House of Commons, amended to ensure that the allowances would be paid to the mother.

Let me come clean here. Some twenty years ago, thinking that people should at least have heard of the woman who did more than anyone to build some recognition of the hard work of motherhood into the welfare state, I wrote Rathbone’s biography. I know that Rathbone’s The Disinherited Family, first published in 1924, prefigured nearly all of Griffin’s arguments, detailing how inadequately the purported ‘family wage’ met the needs of women and children, how deeply it undermined women’s independence and self-respect, how it compromised women’s capacity to earn, and how it was far from ‘natural’ but rather a human institution of relatively recent vintage. So I can’t help but feel indignant on Rathbone’s behalf when reading a work that painstakingly rediscovers, seemingly de novo, her findings of a century ago.

Writing this, though, I feel the weight of Rathbone’s disapproval settling around me. She wouldn’t have worried about whether Griffin studied or cited her work. Her aim was to blow up – or more precisely to disaggregate – the male family wage, so that the womanly work of care could bring with it an entitlement to economic security and citizenship. She would be delighted with this book, which so thoroughly and empathetically exposes the entire inadequacy of the male breadwinner model. And her generous assessment should carry the day.

We currently face a frightening curtailment of women’s fragile right to care for their children without sacrificing economic independence. Rathbone understood that the debilities of women stemmed less from their gender than from their motherhood, and so it is proving today. During the pandemic, with schools closed and virtually no social services available, mothers in the US and elsewhere are finding the dual burden of childcare and waged work impossible to sustain. Yes, men do more than they used to, but in May the New York Times reported that 45 per cent of men thought they spent more time home-schooling their children than their female partners did, while only 3 per cent of their partners agreed. One day recently I woke up to the headline that in September four times as many women as men in the US had lost or left their jobs, often to care for their children. Griffin’s book argues – but also, inadvertently, shows – not just that the male breadwinner norm was damaging to children’s wellbeing and women’s equality, but also that this truth is still news to many. I hope against hope that this book might open their eyes.

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