Ruth Mather, ‘The Home-Making of the English Working Class’

[This is the second piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Ruth Mather is a doctoral candidate at Queen Mary, University of London, studying the links between working-class political identities and the home in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She also blogs about her adventures in research.]

I became interested in ‘history from below’ as an undergraduate through the encouragement of Professor Robert Poole, who introduced me to E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson’s book, which reaches its half-century this year, showed me a new way of doing history, one which didn’t patronise working people, or subsume them in a narrative of progress, but instead constructed a story about thinking, feeling people with their own ideas about their lives and their own strategies for living them. It’s important that our histories show the humanity of our subjects  – in my case the English labouring classes in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. This is not about glorifying poverty or writing hero narratives, but simply attempting to understand the messy, complicated details of the real lives of ordinary people.

I’m not alone in thinking this is particularly crucial at the moment, when a new history curriculum threatens to take us back to stories of great men and Whiggish progress and welfare recipients are demonised for political gain. However, other participants in this symposium will be discussing the continued relevance of ‘history from (and for) below’ in much more detail over the coming weeks, and it is not difficult to find excellent explanations of why ‘history matters’ more generally. So, having outlined why ‘history from below’ is important to me, I’d like to focus on the question of how we can find sources that can help to uncover the domestic lives of ordinary people as part of this wider project of uncovering voices that have been underprivileged in the historical record.

These weavers’ cottages in Mount Pleasant, Preston, were demolished in the 1960s. Note the windowed cellars, to allow light for working in the humid basement conditions. From Preston Digital Archive (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/5213242118/)

These weavers’ cottages in Mount Pleasant, Preston, were demolished in the 1960s. Note the windowed cellars, to allow light for working in the humid basement conditions. (Preston Digital Archive)

My current research explores the role of ‘home’ as an idea and as a physical space in radical political culture in England during the late Georgian period (c.1780-1830). In this period, the pressures of war, industrialisation and population growth, shared experiences of work and community, and the spread of democratic ideals led to the increasing involvement in working-class men and women in organised political action. This political participation has been much studied, but usually only in the context of its public expression, while the homes and families of working people have been studied in isolation from any growing political consciousness. My work addresses this dichotomy between public and private worlds, showing that ideas and practices involving home and family were intertwined with politics in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  In doing so, I hope to uncover contributions to radical politics that have previously been neglected, and particularly the contributions of women in their capacities as domestic managers.

However, as I started work on this project, I realised that while we’re now fairly familiar with popular politics and the sources for studying them, we know more very little about English plebeian homes from this period. While Georgian middling- and upper-class homes have benefitted from detailed histories of the social meaning invested in their architecture and furnishings, all but a few historians have neglected the living spaces of plebeian men and women, perhaps assuming from gloomy accounts of slums that little meaning could be found among the misery. The realities of working-class housing are drowned out by disapproving, concerned, moralising voices from above, imposing their own domestic ideals. Furthermore, as Raphael Samuel put it, ‘the built environment [like the historical record] is apt to give a privileged place to the powerful’,1 and it is only fairly recently that heritage organisations have begun to take an interest in preserving the dwellings of working people.2 Many, like the weavers’ cottages pictured above, have been demolished. Buildings that do survive without such intervention tend to have undergone considerable alteration to make them habitable, while those maintained as examples of period architecture do not reflect the variety of spaces (including much older buildings) that people may have lived in.

But the picture is not altogether negative for the historian, and as with so many other ‘histories from below’, the history of labouring-class housing can be pieced together from the fragments we do have. The surviving buildings might not be fully representative, but this does not mean they are not useful. Alongside archaeological investigations and images of workers’ housing, they can tell us a great deal about the size of houses, the availability of natural light, and sometimes the separation (or otherwise) of domestic and work functions. Such knowledge can be further supplemented by the use of probate and pauper inventories and records of witness testimonies in court cases. The former were used to assess the wealth of an individual, either where there was debate about the dispersal of their property after death or where a portion could be claimed back by the parish after death from an individual applying for poor relief. They list items in a house, often by room, and with some description and a monetary value, thus providing a snapshot of an individual’s household goods at a given moment in time.

T. Ovenden, John Bull in his Glory, Hand-coloured engraving, dimensions and publisher not known but probably London, 1793, now in the Library of Congress collection.

T. Ovenden, John Bull in his Glory, Hand-coloured engraving, dimensions and publisher not known but probably London, 1793, now in the Library of Congress collection.

While inventories provide vital information about the kinds of domestic items available to working people, they are productively supplemented by witness testimony, which can provide a less static impression of the movement of goods and the relationships their owners had with the objects and spaces in their homes, as well as with other inhabitants. These kinds of details also emerge from ego-documents – the autobiographies, diaries and letters of plebeian men (and far fewer women) in which they describe their own lives. If court records tend to demonstrate norms only where these have been transgressed, ego-documents tend to emphasise the respectability of the author, who in any case is unusual in his ability and desire to record his experiences. However, such sources provide a useful counter to middle-class social commentary, and can be read alongside ballads and broadsides, or scurrilous caricature, which (while caution must be exercised with regard to their origins and intentions) can provide a livelier image of the working-class home. What, for example, can objects such as Ovenden’s engraving (above) or a Napoleon figurine (below) tell us about the politics of working-class home-making?3

Napoleon figurine found at an 18th-century labourer’s cottage at the Sydenham Brewery site, Museum of London Archaeology. What can this tell us about the politics of working-class home-making?

Napoleon figurine found at an 18th-century labourer’s cottage at the Sydenham Brewery site, Museum of London Archaeology.

What I hope that this brief introduction has emphasised is that even supposedly private aspects of hidden lives can be illuminated by piecing together the fragments of evidence about ordinary lives. There is an excellent essay by Carolyn Steedman in her collection Dust, in which she talks about the symbolism of a rag rug in the working-class home – in this case one that doesn’t exist in the interior depicted in Elizabeth Gaskell’s  Mary Barton (1848). The imagined rag rug, Steedman concludes, is part of the way we use these plebeian interiors to tell our own stories.4 What I hope, through the piecing together of scraps like rags in a rug, is to tell a story that, even if it is my own, is at least an empathetic and multi-faceted one, representative of a variety of experiences and most importantly, of the humanity of my subjects. I hope that histories from below can continue to keep pushing into new areas of research and uncovering new sources and ways of using them, so that our understanding of the diversity of past lives, our empathy for current ones, and our ability to engage our audience with both, is continually enhanced.


1 R. Samuel, Island Stories: Theatres of Memory. Vol. II, edited by A. Light, S. Alexander and G. Stedman Jones (Verso, 1998).

2 English Heritage did not begin a ‘concerted programme of work’ on the country’s industrial heritage until the publication of the Industrial Monuments Survey in 1963. The recent National Heritage Protection Plan makes preservation of workers’ housing a priority in order to counter what remains an ‘insufficient knowledge base’. See ‘Industrial Heritage at Risk’ (English Heritage) and The National Heritage Protection Plan (English Heritage, Version 3, 2012), pp.20-21.

3 For more on the Napoleon figurine, see P.R. Mullins & N. Jeffries, ‘The Banality of Gilding: Innocuous Materiality and Transatlantic Consumption in the Gilded Age’ in International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 16, Issue 4 (2012), pp.745-760.

4 C. Steedman, Dust (Manchester University Press, 2001), pp.127-128.

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14 thoughts on “Ruth Mather, ‘The Home-Making of the English Working Class’

  1. Pingback: The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. I wonder how best we might compare our two different kinds of fragments, Ruth? Both are (as the word suggests) incomplete, which I think is both their strength and weakness: they give us only partial glimpses into the past but, through those glimpses, illuminate, fleetingly, the larger world about which no evidence survives. One difference which occurs to me is that fragments in written records are almost always the product of a specific moment, ‘fugitive in time’ (a phrase I borrow from Colin Heywood). We can collect a series of such individual moments and link them up, but gaps will always remain. Objects, on the other hand, have a more tangibly continual physical existence, even if the meanings ascribed to them are also only momentary.

    These thoughts probably show that, while I am fascinated by the idea of material culture, I often struggle with its study, partially because much less survives of the people I research, but also because I have never been particularly confident in my attempts to understand objects, whereas written documents have a technicality which I feel I can master. Perhaps I am just more of a ‘words’ than a ‘things’ person. On the other hand, ‘things’ certainly offer a great opportunity for the communication of history from below; they can have a much more striking impression on an audience than the bare words of a book or witness statement.

  3. Part of the issue is surely the contrasting reflexivity of words and material objects. As William Sewell points out in his ‘Logics of History’ (pp. 344-6) the capacity for subjects to reflect ‘in language upon language’ and, of course, on non-linguistic forms of expression. In contrast extant objects in and of themselves are relatively quiet about meaning (as opposed to construction or, sometimes, use) and consequently much harder to use without linguistic evidence of their political, cultural, societal etc. meaning. This doesn’t mean that material objects are useless or irrelevant, or that language is the only issue historians should use. However, it does suggest that without working through the problem of how material and textual sources relate (as Carolyn Steedman’s essay cited by the author does so intriguingly) then material objects can be profoundly silent pieces of evidence.

  4. Thank you both for the comments, and apologies for taking a while to reply. You both raise excellent points about the advantages and disadvantages of material culture. Part of interest in both visual and material sources arises from their ability to engage a wider audience, something I’m very keen to do, but I’m still very much working my way around HOW to use them. While a purely material culture approach might be appropriate for some studies – for example, where the object is itself the subject of study, where its biography and the means of its making and use are quite well understood by the researcher – for me it wouldn’t work. Not only is the existence of working-class household objects themselves patchy, but so is the evidence about where they came from, what has happened to them since they were made, who owned them and how they obtained them. I can get some of that, sometimes, from textual sources, but not always. I think what the objects themselves can add is another dimension to our understanding of the experience of owning or using them – images or descriptive texts can’t tell us about the physical, tactile qualities that can make such a difference, for example between an earthenware or porcelain drinking cup. For me, the material objects are just one of a much wider patchwork of sources, trying to approach the fragmentary evidence from all angles.

  5. In response to Richard’s point about written records being the product of a specific moment, and material culture being more permanent. I went to a study day at the Museum of London recently. Someone from the archaeology department commented that they would love a historian to use the ‘assemblages’ they have that come from excavations of cesspits in London. There are several hundred of these dating between 1600 and 1850, and come from dwellings of different social classes. These excavations turned up a huge amount pottery and plate [among other material.]

    The archaeologists said that they would like someone to look at why Londoners threw all this table wear away [some of it is in good condition]. In short, to think about this stuff as a product of a particular moment – the moment of discarding. E.g. Is this evidence that there was already so many things in English households, that people chucked stuff away when they got bored with it?

  6. That’s really interesting, I’d love to hear if anyone can figure that out. It seems irrational if it could be passed on, or sold/ pawned even for a small amount, but the owners must have felt that was more effort than it was worth.

  7. Given the rarity of records about workers’ house, you might be interested in Peter Salt’s recent post on IHR Digital in which he discusses the newly digitised volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England. Apparently some volumes include buildings up to 1850:

    ‘The result was that the volumes cover not only internationally known monuments such as King’s College Chapel, but also include some quite modest terraced houses – so modest, indeed, as to include the house in which I lived from 1991 to 2005, which had been built (it was suggested) for the “outside staff” of the larger houses in the same development. Such houses were sometimes recorded with almost as much care as the major monuments – the development of which my house formed a part is illustrated by a layout diagram and by internal plans of representative houses, the latter presented alongside plans of similar houses to facilitate comparison.’

    http://ihr-history.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/peter-salt-on-rchme-cambridgeshire.html

  8. A comment from my grandmother – she told me how much she enjoyed this post because the mention of a ‘rag rug’ brought back memories of them in the house where she grew up (in a mining community in Yorkshire), and her own grandmother making them. I think this really shows how personal (in multiple senses) and powerful objects are when related to memory. She then suggested to me that history from below must always be a story of oppression and inequality. To some extent, yes, but I feel that if we focus only on this, we risk caricaturing our subjects, and ignoring equally important stories of soldarity, resistance, agency and community – and it seemed to me that all of the attendees of both workshops were pretty agreed on that point.

  9. Ruth, I enjoyed your post. It shows your enthusiasm and optimism for the field. William – that’s a very useful point to make. Looking beyond our interdisciplinary boundaries is an important way we can bring new insights into how people lived / how social systems worked. Alastair Owens (Geographer, Queen Mary) is working on a collaborative project of this nature. He is interested in the significance of pottery too, such as china rolling pins and memorabilia. What this may say about what people found significant is interesting. But, could too much be read into ‘items’? I have a whole host of things around me which may not necessarily say anything about me as a person. If I imagine it, all in a broken up soup of items, what could the historian make of my lifestyle and worldview which I’d find pretty inaccurate? …Also, if these things are thrown away, are they edits from my collection, are they so inexpensive and not precious that they are almost ‘disposable’? Of course at some point, someone would have bought, found or were given the items, so could the finds actually be the ‘community’ items rather than those of specific individuals’/households’?

  10. My apologies for a seeming lack of response – I have been posting but something has been going wrong. A summary of my responses:

    Brodie, thank you for another excellent source. I also find http://www.pastscape.org.uk, which an archaeologist friend recommended, very useful. One of the most challenging and yet most rewarding aspects of my project is its interdisciplinary dimension – it can be hard to work with unfamiliar sources, but I’ve found so many people are willing to share their expertise and resources. There’s a lot to be said for more collaborative research, and it’s been suggested that one outcome of digital, open access publishing (this was discussed at the recent OA monographs conference at the BL – a storify is here: http://storify.com/eventamplifier/open-access-monographs-in-humanities-and-social-sc), which might not be a bad thing.

    Richard, I’m really delighted that your grandmother enjoyed my post. I’d love to hear more about her memories of her grandmother and how that was embodied in the rag rug. I agree that history from below is about oppression and inequality, but also and perhaps more importantly the strategies which were adopted to negotiate this. I’m interested in objects as one of these strategies – as your grandmother points out, they have enormous emotional resonance, particularly in memorialisation, and I’m also very much bearing in mind James Scott’s work on ‘hidden transcripts’ – might objects say the things that were too dangerous to put into words?

    Sam, I’m glad you liked the post, and thank you for mentioning Alistair – he has been one of the fantastic people who extraordinarily generous with his own knowledge and skills. Having talked about how resonant items can be, it’s also only fair to recognise that they can be disposal and pretty much meaningless. I’m hoping that by trying to ‘read’ the objects alongside other texts I can to some extent get around the problem of knowing what mattered, but I do have to maintain an awareness that my findings are often provisional and can’t necessarily be generalised. I’m keen to actually handle physical objects, which can help with understanding their tactile qualities and how they might have been used (eg a pristine item might have been for display rather than use). I’m also interested in the idea of re-enactment as a possible further ‘fragment’ for interpreting objects in particular – I wonder if using an object can help us to understand its value? Serena Dyer has written a good piece on the advantages and drawbacks here: http://wp.me/p2GOmZ-4O It seems to me that re-enactments would also be a good way to engage a wider audience, especially children, in history from below, while perhaps enhancing our understanding of sensory and physical experiences that might be less recorded?

  11. Some really interesting discussions here. Given the level of interest I’m hoping to arrange a follow-up post or two on the relationship between material culture and history from below, so watch this space! Those interested in the study of material culture might also like to check out Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson’s blog ‘Material Histories’: http://materialhistories.wordpress.com/

    I just wanted to add a quick comment of my own here too. I think you are absolutely right Ruth to make the point in a couple of places above that the key to deciphering the meanings of items is to look at material objects in conjunction with other textual sources such as diaries and depositions. Might we again think about the concept of ‘resonance’ across fragmentary sources here? [See the comments to Richard’s piece: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/richard-blakemore-finding-fragments-the-past-and-the-future/%5D

    This approach does raise a question for me though – doesn’t it mean that material objects as a source can only ever be used to support historical interpretations that can be found in other (textual) sources? That they cannot be used to tell stories of their own, or stories that subvert the interpretations we find in textual sources? Can they only ever be a supplementary, rather than a primary, source of information about the past?

  12. Thanks Mark. Would be great to think over these things more. Being fairly new myself to a material culture approach, I think it has a lot to offer in terms of uncovering experiences which weren’t written down – especially useful for history from below – but it offers plenty of problems too, not least that the lack of supplementary sources for this group can complicate interpretation. For my project, which is about objects and spaces within a much wider social context, it’s appropriate to use other sources too, and, as you say, look for ‘resonances’ (I really like that term). There are probably circumstances where a more object-focused approach is useful though – perhaps looking at how things were made as a way of better understanding the process of manufacture, for example. Historians of the elite and middling have found material culture (used in various ways) really useful, and it would be great to hear more about how the particular potential and problems it holds for histories from below have been negotiated.

    • I agree that there is real potential in expanding the study of material culture beyond the middling sort and elite, where it has been very productive, and your project sounds great to me – and in fact my question is probably not that relevant to your approach given that you are using a range of sources. One book I have found helpful in thinking about studying material culture is this collection on ‘Everyday Objects’ – it is medieval/early modern in focus, but the introduction is good on broader methodological issues: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754666370

  13. Pingback: Chris Briggs, ‘Household possessions of the 14th and 15th century peasantry’ | the many-headed monster

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