Women at work in Ulster, 1845-1911

  • Margaret Neill

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis entitled, Women at work in Ulster, 1845-1911, examines the waged work of women throughout the period. The first chapter examines the numbers of women recorded in employment in the Census of Ireland and the distribution of women within the occupational structure. An analysis of the Census of Ireland as a source is also given, highlighting the way in which contemporary assumptions about the nature of work influenced the recording of women’s labour in the census. An attempt is also made to demonstrate how assumptions of the husband as the breadwinner and the wife and daughters as dependents resulted in the exclusion of certain areas of women’s work from the productive category in the census. The proceeding chapters examine the wages and working conditions of women as hand-loom weavers, power loom weavers, home-workers, dressmakers, milliners and teachers in the elementary schools. Despite the establishment and growth of factories in the north-east of Ulster from the 1830s onwards, paid work in the home remained an important source of employment for women throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in rural areas. The chapters on hand-loom weavers and home-workers demonstrate that work in the home was organised on a familial system of labour with all members of the family from the young to the elderly expected to contribute to the process of production.

There were significant differences between the waged work of women in the different social classes and between single, married and widowed women. The final chapter, which is based on the enumerators’ books for 1901, provides a comparative analysis of the numbers of women in employment in relation to social class and marital status. The areas selected for study were the towns of Lisburn, Lurgan and Belfast and the rural areas of Dromore and Lisburn. This section also looks at the role of female-networks in providing assistance amongst the poorer sections of the working-classes. The enumerators’ books, in conjunction with the evidence from other sources, indicate that as a result of the low and irregular wages of husbands, many wives had to take up paid employment at some stage in the family life- cycle. Indeed, amongst the wives of labourers and semi-skilled workers it was common for wives to be in employment. The enumerators’ books also highlight the high number of widows and deserted wives living in labouring and working-class districts in both urban and rural areas. The fact that a very high proportion of widows and deserted wives were in employment tends to reflect their role as the main breadwinners.

Women were not a homogeneous group bound together by the common values of domesticity and motherhood. Rather there were divisions between social classes and within social classes. What existed was a diverse and complex system of cultural values comprised partly of a dominant middle-class culture and partly of sub-cultures and alternative value systems. In contrast to the idea of redundant labour, the waged work of women was widespread. Whether as wives, daughters or widows, the wages of women were often central to the economic survival of the family. Despite having to work for low wages, often in bad working conditions, many women felt a great deal of satisfaction and pride in their work.
Date of AwardDec 1996
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorMary O'Dowd (Supervisor)

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