For 12-Year-Old, 10 Hours a Day in Mine “Really Meant Freedom for Me”

(p. A15) For Jack Lawson, “ten hours a day in the dark prison below really meant freedom for me.” At age 12, this Northern England boy began full-time work down the local mine. His life underwent a transformation; there would be “no more drudgery at home.” Jack’s wages lifted him head and shoulders above his younger siblings and separated him in fundamental ways from the world of women. He received better food, clothing and considerably more social standing and respect within the family. He had become a breadwinner.

Rooted in firsthand accounts of life in the Victorian era, Emma Griffin’s “Bread Winner” is a compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. Ms. Griffin, a professor at the University of East Anglia, investigates the personal relationships and family dynamics of around 700 working-class households from the 19th century, charting the challenges people faced and the choices they made. Their lives are revealed as unique personal voyages caught within broader currents.

“I didn’t mind going out to work,” wrote a woman named Bessie Wallis. “It was just that girls were so very inferior to boys. They were the breadwinners and they came first. They could always get work in one of the mines, starting off as a pony boy then working themselves up to rope-runners and trammers for the actual coal-hewers. Girls were nobodies. They could only go into domestic service.”

Putting the domestic back into the economy, Ms. Griffin addresses a longstanding imbalance in our understanding of Victorian life. By investigating how money and resources moved around the working-class family, she makes huge strides toward answering the disconcerting question of why an increasingly affluent country continued to fail to feed its children. There was, her account makes clear, a disappointingly long lag between the development of an industrialized lifestyle in Britain and the spread of its benefits throughout the population.

For the full review, see:

Ruth Goodman. “BOOKSHELF; Livings And Wages.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 8, 2020): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Bread Winner’ Review: Livings and Wages.”)

The book reviewed above, is:

Griffin, Emma. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020.

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