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‘The wife's administration of the earnings’? Working-class women and savings in the mid-nineteenth century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 August 2011

York Management School, University of York.


A survey of working-class women's activity as savers offers a new insight into their economic activity, opening questions about the sources inside and outside the family of the money saved by single and married women. It is relevant to a number of issues: the economic activity of married women and its relationship to the legal context in which they were operating – in particular before the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882; the extent to which women's employment in the nineteenth century may have been mis-stated and/or under-reported; and the distribution of income within the working-class family. A study of investment patterns within two savings banks, one in Huddersfield and one in Sheffield in the mid-nineteenth century, suggests that working-class women may have been more active as savers than has been reported by earlier studies.

L'épouse, administratrice du revenu»? les femmes de la classe ouvrière anglaise et l'épargne à la mi-xixe siècle

Une enquête sur l'action des femmes de la classe ouvrière en matière d'épargne offre un aperçu nouveau de leur activité économique. Des questions se posent sur l'origine, à l'intérieur et à l'extérieur de la famille, de l'argent économisé par les femmes qu'elles soient célibataires ou mariées. Les problèmes soulevés concernent d'abord le contexte juridique dans lequel les femmes mariées pouvaient exercer une activité économique – en particulier avant l'entrée en vigueur de la législation spécifique qui concerne les biens des femmes mariées au Royaume Uni, les Married Women's Property Acts de 1870 et 1882. On se demande ensuite dans quelle mesure le travail des femmes au XIXe siècle a pu être mal rapporté et/ou sous-estimé et enfin quelle était la répartition des revenus au sein de la famille de la classe ouvrière. L'étude des modes d'investissement dans deux caisses d'épargne, l'une à Huddersfield et l'autre à Sheffield à la mi-XIXe siècle, suggère que les femmes de la classe ouvrière semblent avoir été beaucoup plus actives comme épargnantes que ne le laissaient entendre les travaux antérieurs.

„die frau als verwalterin der verdienste“? arbeiterfrauen und ersparnisse um die mitte des 19. jahrhunderts

Sieht man sich das Sparverhalten von Arbeiterfrauen genauer an, ergeben sich neue Einsichten zu ihrer Wirtschaftstätigkeit. Die damit verbundene Frage, aus welchen Quellen innerhalb und außerhalb der Familie die Gelder stammten, die ledige und verheiratete Frauen sparten, berührt eine Reihe von Themen: die Wirtschaftstätigkeit verheirateter Frauen im Verhältnis zu den rechtlichen Rahmenbedingungen, insbesondere vor den eigentumsrechtlichen Regelungen für verheiratete Frauen in den Gesetzen von 1870 und 1882; der Umfang der Fehlanzeige und/oder mangelnden Erfassung von Frauenbeschäftigung im 19. Jahrhundert; die Einkommensverteilung innerhalb der Arbeiterfamilie. Eine Untersuchung der Investitionsmuster in zwei Sparkassen – eine in Huddersfield und eine in Sheffield – um die Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts deutet darauf hin, dass Arbeiterfrauen doch aktivere Sparerinnen gewesen sein könnte als es in früheren Studien berichtet wurde.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Alan Kidd, State, society and the poor in nineteenth-century England (London, 1999), 132.

2 See, for instance, David R. Green, Josephine Maltby, Alastair Owens and Janette Rutterford, Men, women, and money perspectives on gender, wealth, and investment 1850–1930 (Oxford, 2011) for an overview of recent writing.

3 For a discussion of women and family earnings, see among others, Oren, L., ‘The welfare of women in labouring families; England 1860–1959’, Feminist Studies 1, 3/4 (1973), 107–25Google Scholar; and Williamson, M., ‘“The iron chancellors”: the dynamics of the domestic economy in ironstone-mining households 1918–1964’, Journal of Family History 28 (2003), 391410CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On short-term borrowing, see Ross, E., ‘Survival networks: women's neighbourhood sharing in London before World War 1’, History Workshop Journal 15, 4 (1983), 428CrossRefGoogle Scholar for an overview; and also Paul Johnson, ‘Credit and thrift in the British working class 1870–1939’, in Jay Winter ed., The working class in modern British history: essays in honour of Henry Pelling (Cambridge, 1983), 147–70; Melanie Tebbutt, Making ends meet: pawnbroking and working-class credit (Leicester, 1983); Pember Reeves, Round about a pound a week (London, 1913); and V. de Vesselitsky and Bulkley, M. E., ‘Money-lending among the London poor’, Sociological Review IX (1917), 129–38Google Scholar.

4 Higgs, E., ‘Women, occupations and work in the nineteenth century censuses’, History Workshop Journal 23, 1 (1987), 5980CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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6 R. J. Morris, Men, women and property in England, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 2005), 403; Finn, Margot, ‘Women, consumption and coverture in England, c. 1760–1860’, Historical Journal 39, 3 (1996), 703–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 706.

7 See, for instance, M. Moss and I. Russell, An invaluable treasure: a history of the TSB (London, 1994), 10–14.

8 See Moss and Russell, Invaluable treasure, 8–33; P. H. Gosden, Self-help voluntary associations in nineteenth-century Britain (London, 1973), 210; and Oliver H. Horne, A history of savings banks (Oxford, 1947), 27–43.

9 The Doncaster Savings Bank, founded 1856, is an example of this regime. It opened for three hours weekly (Monday and Saturday), had the Earl Fitzwilliam as its president and a committee made up of 32 managers plus the mayor, recorder and aldermen of the Borough of Doncaster. It offered 3 per cent interest, with a maximum of £30 to be deposited annually and a minimum 1s deposit allowed (Doncaster Archives, Doncaster Savings Bank Depositor's Book 1856, DD WA M/64/1).

10 Moss and Russell, Invaluable treasure, 36–7; House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (hereafter HCPP), 1857–1858 (441) Select Committee on Acts relating to Savings Banks: Report Appendix 5, 336–7. The website was used to access the papers.

11 Ross, See D., ‘Penny banks in Glasgow, 1850–1914’, Financial History Review 9, 1 (2002), 2139CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see p. 25 for the quotation from Smiles.

12 A. M. Carr Saunders and D. Caradoc Jones, A survey of the social structure of England and Wales as illustrated by statistics (Oxford, 1927), 165.

13 The studies reviewed are: Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The early history of Irish savings banks’, UCD Centre for Economic Research working paper series WP08/04 (2008), [last accessed in May 2011]; P. L. Payne, ‘The Savings Bank of Glasgow 1863–1914’, in P. L. Payne ed., Studies in Scottish business history (London, 1967), 152–86; S. Pollard, A history of labour in Sheffield (Liverpool, 1959); R. Lloyd-Jones and M. J. Lewis, Small savers in the late Victorian period; a business data base of the Sheffield Savings Bank c. 1861–1901 (Sheffield, 1991); Lawson, Zoe, ‘Save the pennies! Savings banks and the working class in mid nineteenth-century Lancashire’, Local Historian 35, 3 (2005), 168–83Google Scholar; B. Lemire, ‘Gender, savings culture & provident consumerism – patterns, practice & research opportunities’, paper given at the workshop on working-class women's savings strategies 1780–2008 (unpublished workshop paper, York, 2008); Ross, ‘Penny banks’, 2002; and Gordon Douglas Pollock, , ‘Aspects of thrift in east end Glasgow: new accounts at the Bridgeton Cross branch of the Savings Bank of Glasgow’, International Review of Scottish Studies 32 (2007), 117–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Ó Gráda, ‘Irish Savings Banks’, 13 [pages not numbered].

15 Johnson, ‘Credit and thrift’, 166.

16 Board of Trade, Second series of memoranda, statistical tables and charts prepared in the Board of Trade: with reference to various matters bearing on British and foreign trade and industrial conditions (London, 1905), 179.

17 Ibid., 179.

18 Ibid., 190.

19 Horne, History of savings banks, 96–7.

20 Payne, ‘Savings Bank of Glasgow’, 161.

21 George R. Porter, The progress of the nation, in its various social and economical relations from the beginning of the nineteenth century (London, 1851).

22 Ibid., 616.

23 Lawson, ‘Save the pennies!’, 172–3.

24 P. Johnson, Saving and spending: the working-class economy in Britain 1870–1939 (Oxford, 1985), 116.

25 See, for instance, the claim that ‘we believe that the working man, so-called, invests far more rarely (in a savings bank) than the poor clerk, the small tradesman, especially the domestic servant’, in J. M. Ludlow and Lloyd Jones, Progress of the working class 1832–1867 (London, 1867), 119.

26 Ó Gráda, ‘Irish savings banks’, 13 [pages not numbered].

27 Ó Gráda, ‘Irish savings banks’.

28 Johnson, ‘Credit and thrift’, 167.

29 Payne, ‘Savings Bank of Glasgow’, 158–62.

30 A point explicitly made by Pollock and discussed below.

31 Payne, ‘Savings Bank of Glasgow’, 161.

32 Payne, ‘Savings Bank of Glasgow’, 164.

33 Pollard, History of labour, 28.

34 Lloyd-Jones and Lewis, Small savers, 12.

35 Lawson, ‘Save the pennies!’, 181.

36 Lemire, ‘Gender, savings culture & provident consumerism’, 7–8.

37 Lemire, ‘Gender, savings culture & provident consumerism’, 9.

38 Ross, ‘Penny banks’.

39 Fishlow, Albert, ‘The trustee savings banks, 1817–1861’, Journal of Economic History 21, 1 (1961), 2640CrossRefGoogle Scholar, see especially 35–6.

40 Pollock, ‘Aspects of thrift’, 118.

41 Ibid., 133.

42 Ibid., 134.

43 Freeman, M., Pearson, R. and Taylor, J., ‘“A doe in the city”: women shareholders in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain’, Accounting, Business and Financial History 16 (2006), 265–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Maltby, J. and Rutterford, J., ‘“She possessed her own fortune”: women investors from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century’, Business History 48, 2 (2006), 220–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See, for instance, A. Laurence, J. Maltby and J. Rutterford, ‘Introduction’, in A. Laurence, J. Maltby and J. Rutterford eds., Women and their money 1700–1950 (London, 2009), 1–29; Berg, M., ‘Women's property and the industrial revolution’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1993), 233–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Green, D. and Owens, A., ‘Gentlewomanly capitalism? Spinsters, widows and wealth holding in England and Wales, c. 1800–1860’, Economic History Review 56 (2003), 510–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 N. Henry, ‘“Ladies do it?” Victorian women investors in fact and fiction’, in F. O'Gorman ed., Victorian Literature and Finance (Oxford, 2007), 114–15.

46 J. D. Milne, Industrial employment of women in the middle and lower ranks (reprinted New York and London, 1984 [London, 1870]), 237.

47 HCPP, Report of the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor 1895 [c7684], 185.

48 Williamson, M., ‘“The iron chancellors”: the dynamics of the domestic economy in ironstone-mining households 1918–1964’, Journal of Family History 28 (2003), 391410CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Jan Pahl, ‘Household spending, personal spending and the control of money in marriage’, in Stevi Jackson and Shaun Moores eds., The politics of domestic consumption (London, 1995), 53–66.

50 Oren, ‘The welfare of women’, 107–25.

51 Ibid., 121.

52 E. Ross, Love and toil: motherhood in outcast London (Oxford, 1993), 76; Williamson, ‘The iron chancellors’, 409.

53 Ross, ‘Survival networks’, 4–28.

54 Barbara J. Blaszak, The matriarchs of England's cooperative movement: a study in gender politics and female leadership 1993–1921 (Westport, 2000), 174.

55 Carl Chinn, They worked all their lives: women of the urban poor in England 1850–1939 (Manchester, 1988), 51–2.

56 Ibid., 76–9.

57 Elizabeth Roberts, A woman's place: an oral history of working-class women 1890–1940 (Oxford: 1984), 110–112. In the exceptional family the wife was a heavy drinker.

58 Ibid., 163–4.

59 Susan Pedersen, Family, dependence and the origins of the welfare state (Cambridge, 1990), 39.

60 J. Lewis, Women in England 1870–1950: sexual division and social change (Chichester, 1984), 26.

61 Lewis, Women in England 1870–1950, 52–65.

62 Higgs, ‘Women, occupations and work’.

63 Burnette, Gender, work and wages, 21.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid., 23.

66 Ibid., 17–18.

67 Honeyman, K., ‘Doing business with gender? Service industries and the gendering of British business history’, Business History Review (2007), 471–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 482.

68 Chantal Stebbings, The private trustee in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2002), 10–11.

69 Holcombe quotes Jessel's 1859 comment that ‘the laws of this country were made by the rich and for the rich, and wealthy women had no cause of complaint’; see Lee Holcombe, Wives and property (Oxford, 1983), 159.

70 Ibid., 47.

71 Finn, ‘Women, consumption and coverture’, 706.

72 Finn, Margot, ‘Working-class women and the contest for consumer control in Victorian county courts’, Past and Present 161 (1998), 116–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar, see 130.

73 Morris, Men, women and property, 406.

74 Anonymous, , ‘Workmen's earnings and savings’, Quarterly Review 108 (1860), 81120Google Scholar, see 93.

75 Ibid., 109–10.

76 Ibid., 116.

77 Lewis, Women in England 1870–1950, 45–7.

78 Samuel Smiles, Thrift (NewYork and London, 1875), 187–8.

79 Ibid., 162.

80 Peter W. Sinnema, ‘Introduction’, in Samuel Smiles ed., Self-Help (Oxford, 2002), xxi.

81 Smiles, Thrift, 154, 182–3.

82 Sinnema, ‘Introduction’, xxi.

83 HCPP, Report of the Select Committee on Married Women's Property Bill 1868, paragraph 1146.

84 HCPP, Select Committee on Married Women's Property, paragraphs 1200 and 1231.

85 HCPP, Select Committee on Married Women's Property, paragraph 1345. See also Hansard, 10 June 1868; see, for instance, speeches by Mr Goldney, 1359, Mr Melly, 1360, Mr Jacob Bright 1361–3.

86 HCPP, Select Committee on Married Women's Property, paragraphs 1266–338.

87 HCPP, Select Committee on Married Women's Property, paragraph 1287.

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 Finn, ‘Women, consumption and coverture’, 719–20.

92 In 1851, 27 per cent of the Huddersfield female labour force worked in the textile industry – ‘by far the major local occupation’. See D. T. Jenkins, ‘Textile and other industries 1851–1914’, in E. A. Hilary Haigh ed., Huddersfield, a most handsome town (Huddersfield, 1992), 241.

93 Huddersfield University Archives (hereafter HUA), HMI 2/1, Report of the Committee of the Huddersfield Mechanics Institution 1851, 8.

94 HUA, HMI 2/1, Reports of the Committee of the Huddersfield Mechanics Institution for 1852, 1853 and 1875.

95 HUA, HMI 2/1, Report of the Committee of the Huddersfield Mechanics Institution 1858.

96 The history of the Sheffield and Hallamshire Savings Bank is based on R. E. Leader, A century of thrift: an historical sketch of the Sheffield Savings Bank 1819–1919 (Sheffield, 1919).

97 C. D. Hebden, The trustee savings banks of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire (Sheffield, 1981), 290.

98 Ibid.

99 Pollard, History of labour, 6.

100 Pollard, History of labour, 70, 77.

101 G. C. Holland, The vital statistics of Sheffield (London, 1843).

102 Leader, A century of thrift, 9–10.

103 Held in the Lloyds Banking Group Archives, London.

104 The 1857–1860 Declaration Book is kept at Sheffield Archives, ref. BUS7/1/1. The 1860–1863 Book is part of the Lloyds Banking Group Archives, ref. TD296a30.

105 ‘Boy’ and ‘girl’ are used here for savers below the age of 16 years.

106 Green and Owens, ‘Gentlewomanly capitalism?’, 530.

107 David R. Green, Janette Rutterford, Josephine Maltby and Alastair Owens, ‘Women and investors in England and Wales 1870–1930: executive summary’, available on, 9.

108 Maltby, Josephine and Rutterford, Janette, ‘“She possessed her own fortune”: women investors from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century’, Business History 48, 2 (2006), 220–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar, see 233.

109 Green, Rutterford, Maltby and Owens, ‘Women and investors’.

110 As, for instance, Lloyd-Jones and Lewis, Small savers, 12.

111 Ó Gráda, ‘Irish savings banks’.

112 Burnette, Gender, work and wages, 21.

113 Ibid.

114 Finn, ‘Working-class women’, 130.

115 For instance, Smiles, Thrift, 154, 182–3.

116 As in evidence by George Bartley of the Penny Bank to the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, 1895 q 418: ‘You would be surprised at the number of … married women who do save very often without the knowledge of their husbands.’

117 Select Committee on Married Women's Property, paragraphs 1266–338.

118 Finn, ‘Working-class women’, 130.