The Victorian Census – what did women say about their occupations?

What did women say were their occupations in Victorian Britain? Most were simply “wife” of the head of the household.

Housework was heavy in those days (all that heaving of buckets of coal and hot water) so most did not work beyond the home. But intriguing questions do crop up for those who did. There are fascinating snippets of social and industrial history to be picked up from census records.

One of my great-great-grandmothers was widowed, when her husband was killed in an industrial accident in 1861. At the time, she was pregnant with her eighth child. Several of her children later did well in life, and I am curious to know how she held the household together, and got them to school, in the days before benefits and compulsory schooling.

She lived in Cripplegate in the City of London, in over-crowded housing mainly occupied by rural migrants, her labourer father in the same building, but he too died seven years later. Cripplegate was a hub for the rag trade, and the description of her occupation, which in the census form is almost illegible, seems to be something to do with “clothes”.

But 30 years later, in 1891, she was definitely a “needlewoman”. Was she working from home with one of the new sewing machines now mass-produced in Britain? Was she just repairing clothes on order for 30 years?

Old spinning or weaving machines in victorian England cotton mill
Photo 159711224 © Philip Kieran |

At the same time, another of my great-great-grandmothers proudly told the census that she was a “retired grocer”, which put her on an equal status with her grocer husband in an increasingly successful shop that she had motivated her carpenter husband into starting!

Trying in vain to trace the single mother of an ancestor in Manchester, I came across one likely woman who was “keeper of the Mangles” in 1861. This was undoubtedly a position of power as it was a listed occupation mainly of men, and probably not just for backyard mangles, but for huge pieces of steam machinery in the textile factories of the time.

The last census?

There is a rumour that the current UK census might be discontinued in the future. It is an expensive exercise and much of the information can be gained from joining up the data from the NHS, HMRC, EPC on houses, as well as lots of real-time behaviour from our fitbits and smart phones.

However, in my view, social trends data is not as interesting for later generations as self-declared information, possibly revealing categories that statisticians had no idea existed.  This is why I am pleased that the 2021 census does not consist entirely of tick-boxes. There are windows where you type in the identity and occupation you want to declare in your own words.

Future generations may value your own unique self-declaration.