Tag Archives: Employment

19th – 20th century family life in a Derby almshouse: Family (hi)stories and literary parallels


This is a revised version of a post that I wrote in January 2012, for one of my other blogs (ARCHAEOLOGY OF DOMESTIC LIFE IN EARLY 20TH CENTURY BRITAIN). I have developed the earlier post, having begun work on an academic article that will incorporate these memories and this information – this process has provoked my remembrance of additional details that relate to life in and around these streets that are relevant to this site, and the LIP Community Archaeology Project.

The original post was provoked by my reading of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – hence reference to and use of extracts from the book below – which contains details relevant to my family history, and provides colour in considering the home lives of my forebears. I have not attempted any critique of this work, nor investigated it in any depth; my interest at this point is in how the past may be perceived through both family history and literature, in the light of fragmentary historical sources. Part of my current research involves exploring how I might integrate family history (my own, and that of others) within broader historical research.

I approach such investigations by examining historical sources alongside family and personal memories relating to housing in and around one Midlands street on the edge of an industrial town, with which my mother’s family has long associations (through her mother, now deceased). These houses were early forms of social housing – ‘almshouses’ – and were demolished several decades ago, new houses built on the site in later years.

The street: keeping it in the family

Looking towards the bottom of the terrace (which ended in a high wall), with the pathway to the railway (now closed) marked by rendered wall on left

 My historical and archaeological research of this street focuses upon the row of small terrace of houses on the north-western side of the road (hereafter reference to the street or terrace will be with regard to these houses, rather than the semi-detached properties that were later built on the bank to the south-eastern side of the road; I have heard of little mixing between their occupants, and the terrace tenants).

Photos of the terrace, taken in 2005. (Original C19 buildings demolished and replaced by the red brick buildings in the centre of the photo and below, centre right)

The terraced houses were described as ‘Almshouses’, designated as accommodation for ‘poor people’ (which I’ll discuss further below). Tenants paid a low rent for these properties to a local housing charity that by the mid 20th century held numerous properties within several streets in the town. The Trust continues its work today, but has since sold some of the older properties.


Looking from midway down terrace, towards the junction, from which the first photo was taken

On coming home from the maternity wing of the local hospital in 1967, I began my life in a house located roughly in the middle of this street. I was the sixth and last generation to live in the Terrace, until the houses were demolished by the Local Authority during ‘urban improvement’ in the early 1970s; I am told by a family member that this was due to the houses being categorised as ‘unfit for human habitation’.

The site of the first house of the terrace (which was located in the same position as the modern white gate). Note the prison wall at the back (where the silver car is parked), and prison tower beyond this

My mother had also previously lived in two other houses on the street, as had my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and great-great-great-grandmother; my uncle, aunt and cousins also lived in one house, and a great aunt in another. The first family member moved here in the 1870s, having previously living quite near; between that time and demolition, my direct ancestors (through the female line) had therefore occupied the street for around a century, usually with extended family members in the same street, and / or often nearby.

South Street: Turn-key's house (white building, centre right)

Adjacent street, occupied by grandparents until 1990s

My mother’s close family had moved into a house in the adjacent street in the 1950s, when she and her brother reached an age at which it was considered no longer appropriate that they should share a bedroom – as was (and still is) common practice. My maternal grandparents (both now deceased) continued to live in this adjacent street (also owned by the charity) until the mid – late 1980s, then moved into sheltered housing at the bottom of the street, until being moved to the outskirts of the area in the 1990s. I therefore continued to visit the area after I had left the street, (with the exception of a relatively short time living on the outskirts of the town immediately after leaving) my family continuing to live in close proximity. My paternal family lived (and some members continue to live) a short distance away. With my own small family, I continued to live nearby (my son going to the same school that my ancestors and I had attended); after several years in another town (approx. 12 miles away) I moved to an area within a half-hour walk away.

The exterior

In the front garden in the early 1920s: ‘gran’ma’ with little sister (Copyright restrictions apply: All rights reserved. Image will be removed on request of interested parties)

This street (primarily of ‘two-up-two-down’, i.e. four-room,  houses) was constructed in the mid 19th century; the houses were brick-built, and although 1920s photos show bare bricks, by the 1930s, the external walls of the houses had been rendered. The houses had front gardens (usually separated from the next by a small fence or privet hedge), and every few houses an ‘entry’ provided access to a small rear yard, each group of houses separated by a low wall. The back yards incorporated a small brick-built white-washed coal-house / wash-house, and WC (facing the WC of the neighbouring property). The rear yard wall against which these outbuildings were built (forming the side walls of WCs, and rear wall of the wash-house) was formed by the perimeter wall of what had been the County Gaol, but what had been since 1933 a greyhound stadium. (I’ll be looking into the extent to which the prison provided employment for local residents; but family history and a quick look at the census data suggests that the nearby railway was more significant economically. The effects of both prison and stadium upon the local population also interest me, knowing that large crowds would gather outside the prison when hangings took place, and with my own memories of noisy, crowded, floodlit and litter-strewn Wednesday and Saturday race nights.)

The front door opened onto a small (and from what I remember, quite dark) room, measuring c. 8′-10′ x 10′ (all the measurements are for now only approximate), with a fireplace (many with tiled surrounds installed 30s – 50s – most being fitted post-war), and door leading to the kitchen.

The kitchen measured c. 6-8′ x 8′, and had one door leading to the stairs, and one leading to the back yard. Each had a ‘Belfast’ sink and cold tap, beneath a rear window overlooking the yard; by the 60s, most had a small hot water ‘geyser’ on the wall nearby. The kitchens were originally equipped with a cast iron cooking range, although enamelled ranges replaced many of these between the 1930s & 50s, and by the end of the 60s (in some cases before this time), many had gas cookers.

Before or after grandparent’s wedding, 1938. Outside the house of my grandmother, her sister, and her mother. Ethel is likely to be either the woman wearing white gloves, or the woman to her left (Copyright restrictions apply: All rights reserved. Image will be removed on request of interested parties)

This room was just large enough for a small table; there was a cupboard (which was usually used as a ‘pantry’) beneath the stairs that led off the kitchen, through a door located beside the back door. When in use, the tin bath was placed on the floor in front of the range. (I have a memories of one family member taking a bath in front of the fire in their house in this terrace).

At the top of the stairs was a small landing (the size of the width of the doors and their frames). One door led to a bedroom above the kitchen; this had a small cupboard in the space above the stairs, and a window overlooking the yard & gaol / greyhound stadium. Another door opened onto the bedroom above the front room, which had a window overlooking the front garden. The entries between each group of four or five houses would provide about 1 yd. extra space to the bedrooms above.

Front garden, most likely Easter, 1970-71 (apologies for poor quality. Copyright restrictions apply: All rights reserved. Image will be removed on request of interested parties)

Housing ‘for the poor’: living in an almshouse

The charity owned this and adjoining rows, to provide residencies for ‘poor’ people; but not indiscriminately so: tenants were to be deserving and respectable – at least ostensibly. Although intended for the elderly, my family history demonstrates that inter-generational and -familial occupation was possible; I need to carry out more research to determine the extents to which this was common. (I have yet to determine the exact date when this charity took charge of – or constructed – these buildings; 19th century reports suggest that they were in possession of the land in the 1820s.) Extracts from a report, dating to 1970 by the charity (which was until recently available online) read:


33. Saving for existing almspeople and pensioners – Appointments of almspeople under this Scheme and application of income under the last preceding clause hereof shall be made without prejudice to the interests of the existing alrnspeople and pensioners of the Charity.

34. Almshouses – The almshouses belonging to the Charity and the property heretofore occupied therewith and the almshouses to be erected as aforesaid shall be appropriated and used for the residence of almspeople in conformity with the provisions of this Scheme.

35. Qualifications of almspeople –

(1) The almspeople shall be poor persons of not less than 60 years of age who have resided in the area of benefit for not less than five years next preceding the time of appointment.

(2) If on the occasion of a vacancy there are no applicants qualified as aforesaid suitable for appointment the Trustees may appoint a person otherwise qualified as aforesaid who has resided in the County Borough of Derby for not less than five years next preceding the time of appointment to be an almsperson of the Charity.

37. Notice of vacancy. –

No appointment of an almsperson shall be made by the Trustees until a sufficient notice of an existing vacancy specifying the qualifications required from candidates has been published by advertisement or otherwise so as to give due publicity to the intended appointment but it shall not be necessary to publish a notice if a vacancy occurs within twelve calendar months after the last notice of a vacancy has been published. Notices may be according to the form annexed hereto,

38.  Applications. –

All applications for appointment shall be made in writing to the Trustees or their clerk in such manner as the Trustees direct. Before appointing any applicant to be an almsperson the Trustees shall require him or her to attend in person unless he or she is physically disabled or the Trustees are of opinion that special circumstances render this unnecessary. Every applicant must be prepared with sufficient testimonials and other evidence of his or her qualification for appointment.

39. Selection of almspeople. – Almspeople shall be selected only after full investigation of the character and circumstances of the applicants.

40. Appointments of almspeople. – Every appointment of an almsperson shall be made by the Trustees at a special meeting.

… 42. Absence from almshouses-

The Trustees shall require that any almsperson who desires to be absent from the almshouses for a period of more than 24 hours shall notify the matron or the clerk of the Trustees and that any almsperson who desires to be absent for more than seven days at any one time or for more than 28 days in any one year shall obtain the prior consent of the Trustees.

43. Rooms not to be let. –

No almsperson shall be permitted to let or part with the possession of the room or rooms allotted to him or her or except with the special permission of the Trustees to suffer any person to share the occupation of the same or of any part thereof. …


47. Relief in need. –

(1) The Trustees shall apply income of the Charity applicable under the head of relief in need in relieving either generally or individually persons resident in the area of benefit who are in conditions of need, hardship or distress by making grants of money or providing or paying for items, services or facilities (including apprenticeship premiums) calculated to reduce the need, hardship or distress of such persons.

(2) The Trustees may pay for such items, services or facilities by way of donations or subscriptions to institutions or organisations which provide or which undertake in return to provide such items, services or facilities. …

51 . Charity not to relieve public funds. – The funds or , income of the Charity shall not be applied in relief of rates, taxes or other public funds. …

FORM OF NOTICE. …Notice is given that a vacancy exists for an almsperson of this Charity: Poor persons of not less, than 60 years of age who have resided in the area…as in 1547, for not less than five years next preceding the time of appointment are eligible- for appointment. In default of suitable applicants qualified as aforesaid, persons otherwise qualified who have resided elsewhere in the County Borough…for not less than five years next preceding the time of appointment, may be appointed. – Application for appointment must be made in writing to at on or before the 19 . Every applicant must state his or her name, address, age and occupation and must be prepared to produce sufficient testimonials and other evidence of his or her qualification for appointment and unless physically disabled to attend in person.

These rules perhaps seem a little controlling, although in practice they don’t seem to have been applied with much force: at this date, I lived there with my mother (her name appears in this document – at the time she was aged 26. Next to her name, in the ‘gross yearly income’ column – i.e. from rent – is £52.65).

Background: demographic information from family history and census [1] 



Relation to head of family

Condition as to marriage

Age last birthday

Profession or occupation

Where born


4 Joseph  T. Head M 42 Lamplighter Derby
Emma E. T. Wife M 42 Do.
Catherine Do. Dau M 7 Paper bag maker Do.
Aleda H. Do. Dau M 16 Paper bag maker Do
Edwin Jeffries Nephew M 7 Iron Moulder Do.
Charlotte S. Aunt 70 Scholar Do.

1871 Census record (above): the first census recording occupation of the terrace by the family (containing misinformation regarding the marital state of the daughters; Aleda may be Harriet, who seems to change her name at times). Note rule 43 above, regarding the prohibition of lodgers (although it is possible that permission had been gained)



Relation to head of family

Condition as to marriage

Age last birthday

Profession or occupation

Where born


4 Joseph  T. Head M 49 Lamplighter Derby
Emma E. T. Wife M 58 Do.
Edwin Jeffries Lodger M 17 Iron Moulder Do.
Jane A Saunders [?] Do. 10 Scholar Staffordshire, Walsall
5 Joseph M. Head M 28 Railway Porter Northants. Peterborough
Harriet  A.  do. Wife M 24 Derby
Margaret E. do. Dau S 5 Scholar Do.
Fanny Parker Lodger M 40 [?] Charwoman Do.
Ada Do. Do. S 9 Scholar Do.

1881 Census record (above) of the houses occupied by the family



Relation to head of family

Condition as to marriage

Age last birthday

Profession or occupation

Where born


4 Joseph T. Head M 37 Lamplighter Derby
Emma do. Wife M 57 Do.
Jane A. Dau M 20 Do.
Alfred do. Son-in-law M 21 Hairdresser Do.
Oscar do. Grandson S 7 wks Do.
5 Joseph M. Head M 39 Railway Porter Derby
Margaret do. Head M 35 Northants. Peterborough
Ethel do. Dau S 7    Scholar Ethel do.
Harriet do. Dau S 16 Brush maker Derbys. Derby

1891 Census record (above) of the houses occupied by the family. Harriet and Margaret are mistakenly recorded



Relation to head of family

Condition as to marriage

Age last birthday

Profession or occupation

Where born


4 Emma T. Head Wid. 72 Derbys. Derby
Oscar A. Adopted son S 10 Do. Do.
Joseph Morley Boarder Widr. 65 Living on own means Do. Do.
5 Joseph M. Head M. 49 Railway Lampman (lighter) Northants. Peterborough
Harriet do. Wife M. 45 Derbys. Derby
Margaret do. Daur. S. 25 Brushmaker Do. Do.
Ethel do. Daur. S. 17 Cotton Seamer Hosr. Do. Do.

1901 Census record (above) of the houses occupied by the family. Harriet is daughter of Emma & Ethel’s mother; Oscar is grandson to Emma



Relation to head of family

Condition as to marriage

Age last birthday

Profession or occupation

Where born


5 Joseph M. Head M 59 Railway Porter Peterborough
Ethel do. Dau S 27 Domestic Servant Do.
Jane A. Boarder Widow 40 Domestic Servant Walsall

1911 Census record of the houses occupied by the family. Jane (who had had 4 children, only 2 of whom had survived, 1 of whom was the Oscar recorded in the previous census) is the daughter of Emma & Joseph T. (& is therefore Ethel’s aunt); she may also be the Jane Saunders recorded in the 1881 Census. 

As I will begin with the background of my great-grandmother (Ethel: born 1883, d. 1941). The census indicates that she worked as a cotton seamer (perhaps for a nearby hosiery factory – there were several mills in the parish, one photographed here – although the machines seem to have produced seamless stockings, and it is noted that a small number of people continued home working into the 20th century). However, considering that she was in another Census return described as a brush-maker, it is possible that this census is confusing the work of Ethel and her sister.

Left: probably my grandmother (b. 1913) & right: her sister, in the garden of the terraced house (although this may be of my great aunt, and her younger sister, who died, aged 8) (Copyright restrictions apply: All rights reserved. Image will be removed on request of interested parties)

Ethel married March 1913 (to a railway worker, several years her junior) and had 3 children – one of whom (born in the 20s) died in an RTA, aged 8. Her husband abandoned her when the children were small, forcing her to bring them up alone: she is listed in one local trade directory as ‘char woman’, but I’m informed by my mother that she also had an income from being an accomplished seamstress (also her mother’s trade – reputedly working for the adjacent prison), taking on dress-making work for Harrods, and also reputedly creating window displays for the store, making artificial flowers. Either Ethel or her mother went to art school – unusual for women from this background at the time. My grandmother told me that her mother’s middle name (Alvina) was given to remember the ‘foreign’ nurse who had cared for a factory-owning antecedent (see below) on his deathbed. (I’m finding it quite tricky to find any evidence for these beliefs; I could conjecture that this could be explained by possible indicators of illegitimacy within earlier generations that I’ve encountered in the records.)

I am informed that Ethel regularly scrubbed the steps of her more affluent elder sister, who seemed to have had a better life, living nearby in a larger house, trading antiques. According to my grandmother, there was some small capital in the family, deriving from links to a local mill owner’s family, although I have yet to find any indication of this in the census or other records. At this stage, as noted above, I can only speculate (from the census and other data that I have so far seen) over the possibility that birth out of wedlock may have prevented inheritance (perhaps more than once). BMD records clearly demonstrate the birth of my grandmother only 4 months after her mother’s marriage.

Ethel lived in comparative deprivation, and had a relatively young death; this was reputedly as a result of kidney disease (which seems to be related to her hard life), although I’m also informed that she met her end dramatically, by falling downstairs (as she had limited visibility?) and either breaking her neck, or bleeding to death.

Grave of Emma, Joseph, Harriet, and Joseph in nearby ‘joint-stock’ cemetery; have yet to track down Ethel’s grave, which is likely to be in the municipal cemetery, several miles away from the Terrace

Material remains: heirlooms and ‘special things’ from the Terrace

Lace, reputedly from the wedding dress of a family member who lived in the Terrace during the late 19th century

With regard to material culture associated with domestic life in the Terrace, I retain only a few artefacts, including a fragment of lace that my grandmother said was from ‘a hundred year old wedding dress’ (which I believe was that of my great-great-grandmother Harriet), that – if I’m remembering correctly – my grandmother carried on her own wedding day (as did I), as ‘something old’. This came in a box from the time of my grandparent’s wedding (1938), which had held a piece of wedding cake. They were given to me by my grandmother on my marriage in the late 80s.

I am told that my great grandmother had some ‘fine’ antique furniture; however, many (most?) were sadly destroyed in the 1930s floods, as recorded in the Derby Evening Telegraph, dated Monday 23 May, 1932.

Special Issue: 1932 floods (Copyright restrictions apply: All rights reserved. Image will be removed on request of interested parties)

The column to the left of the front page is headed Human Stories of Derby’s Great Flood. The second section mentions the damage done to the terrace.

(Image will be removed on request of interested parties. I will explain why I initially redacted this image in a future post)

Nevertheless, some artefacts were clearly undamaged or salvaged. This late Victorian – Edwardian mahogany mirror and drawer first is what my grandmother informed me was one of the few remaining objects from her mother’s collection. (In my many house moves, this has sadly deteriorated over the years). I also own (and still use) a side table from my grandparent’s house in the adjacent street, which I believe also came from the Terrace.

Heirloom from the Terrace

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and the seamstress at home in the early 20th century 

Bearing in mind my great-grandmother’s history, the RTP‘s mention of home-working for women (particularly for seamstresses) is of particular interest and relevance. This extract is from the 2005 OUP edn., p. 325:

“At first they had employed her exclusively on the cheapest kind of blouses-those that were paid for at the rate of two shillings a dozen, but they did not give her many of that sort now. She did the work so neatly that they kept her busy on the better qualities, which did not pay her so well, because although she was paid more per dozen, there was a great deal more work in them than in the cheaper kinds. Once she had a very special one to make, for which she was paid six shillings; but it took her four and a half days–working early and late–to do it. The lady who bought this blouse was told that it came from Paris, and paid three guineas for it. But of course Mrs Linden knew nothing of that, and even if she had known, it would have made no difference to her.

Most of the money she earned went to pay the rent, and sometimes there was only two or three shillings left to buy food for all of them: sometimes not even so much, because although she had Plenty of Work she was not always able to do it. There were times when the strain of working the machine was unendurable: her shoulders ached, her arms became cramped, and her eyes pained so that it was impossible to continue. Then for a change she would leave the sewing and do some housework.”

The descriptions of this character’s work at home (a young widowed woman with a small young family) is consequently interesting with regard to the experiences of my grandmother & great grandmother, and their conditions, and vice verse.

The author of RTP, Tressell (Noonan), states that he draws upon fact for his novel; it is suggested that he used both his own experiences, those of others, and dramatised data obtained from a variety of sources. Therefore, this extract may well reflect the conditions, but far from certainly records the actual experiences of a known family or individual. It at least highlights the perceptions held by some of life for the seamstress just before the First World War – a few years before my great-grandmother’s marriage, and birth of my grandmother. It might be argued that the popularity of novel was in part due to its realistic portrayal of life for poor families at this time. However, beyond the inherent problems in using fictional accounts when exploring life in the past, there are additional difficulties when comparing such texts with family histories. I am in the process of writing something more considered on this topic, so for now I shall limit the discussion to the specifics of considering (in brief) the similarities and differences between the narrative provided within RTP, and the family history to which I have been exposed.

Family life in the Terrace: memory and (hi)story

Comparisons of family history and literary representations highlight the complexities (and sometimes seemingly contradictory nature) of social categorisations, and portrayals of socio-economic circumstances, when intended for a wide audience (the public), and when shared through inter-generational contact amongst a restricted group of people (the family). Although ostensibly very different sources for representing life within ‘poor’ households in the past, both accounts are similar in a number of ways, being liable to incorporate misinterpretation and lack of understanding, imaginative rendering, and emphasis (or exclusion) of particular ‘truths’ for entertainment purposes, and to suit particular personal, social, and political agendas. Though not comparing ‘like with like’, the points of convergence and divergence are interesting in themselves.

RTP portrays a particular geographical, temporal, and social context, whereas the family histories I have received (primarily from my grandmother,  prior to death in 2001; more recently enhanced by stories from my mother) cover a much longer period (late 19th century – 1960s). Despite this breadth of time, my family narrative focuses principally upon life within the Terrace; I am intrigued as to the extents to which demolition of these houses may have influenced their prominence within my own and my family history (as significant to myself and my mother, in particular); I shall return to this theme when continuing my writing on this topic. Interaction with family members (influenced both by economic circumstances and the configuration of social relationships) will of course have substantially influenced my memories of these stories. Living with a lone-parent from a baby, with a mother working, and close relationships with an extended family nearby, unsurprisingly affected inter-familial, and inter-generational contact, providing opportunities for the telling and reception of family stories. In my memory I spent much of my time as a small child with my grandmother, and remember ‘helping’ her with tasks such as mangling – though I’m sure that my recall is selective on this point; and I ‘remember’ spending ‘most’ of my ‘leisure’ time with my my grandfather – to whom I was very close – though again my memory is surely filtering the past to correspond with this perceived ‘fatherly’ relationship.

Narratives relating to the Terrace have inevitably involved the consideration and expression of contrasts between the conditions experienced by previous generations, and  those experienced by myself (and later my son), at various points in my own life. Stories incorporate(d) many light-hearted and humorous tales (such as Harriet’s monkey, helping her to hang out the washing), and recollections of happy events (such as the very frequently repeated story of my grandparents honeymoon), but I am left with some general impressions similar to those provoked by RTP, which, irrespective of the evident social, political and economic changes that took place between publication of the book, and my own lifetime, appear in some ways to have transcended generational change. (That conditions had improved over time was not often openly discussed, but was often realised through descriptions of environment; on occasion I would encounter unfamiliar or alien terms or practices, which would give rise to questions, and usually clarification by the narrator.) However, on reflection, differences between my grandmother’s cultural world, and that of her forebears, or those of her more comfortably-off contemporaries when younger, would often form the basis of her stories, such as the ‘aunt’ who, encased in black lace, would cause a stir when visiting the street in a grand carriage – I think the same aunt who was reputedly a governess, and courted by a man (a later uncle??) who went over ‘the’ weir in a barrel…

Pages from mid 19th century rent book, passed on to me as ‘evidence’ of family narratives

These stories that involve brushes with ‘wealth’, and claimed connections with notable forebears (such as industrialist John Lombe, and later factory owner Lamb – similarity of names and professions perhaps conflating the two within family legend) have formed a tantalising elements of family history (I might conjecture, bolstering notions of ‘respectability’, and perhaps providing moments of hope during particularly difficult times). There were material elements to family mythologies: opportunities to point out my ‘great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’ were taken when passing the statue of (the bachelor) Lombe on the old Boots building (corner of East Street and St Peter’s Street); the few pages of a mid 19th century rent book (which I still posses) were given to me as ‘proof’ of links with mill connections (left).

But what is perhaps most apparent from examining the material remains alongside family stories in later life (further informed in discussing the stories with surviving family members) is the realisation that situations of poverty and comfort were liable to fluctuate over time – something that is present within texts such as RTP, but which requires the examination of circumstances over longer periods of time to gain more realistic insight.

(Re-)considering the narratives in biographical terms – and the stories of family history have rarely been told in such a cohesive manner, whilst taking a closer look at the varying strands of evidence, is enlightening, particularly when stepping back to consider the emphasis placed on particular events and situations. According to family (hi)stories, my great-grandmother’s work as a seamstress was a cut above (no pun intended) that of the usual home-worker, working for what was to ‘people like us’ the ultimate brand name: Harrods (I’m unsure of the extent to which they were aware of other prestigious stores, such as Fortnum & Masons etc.). I have not yet sought confirmation of her employment by the shop (or more likely by one of its agents), and do not know how she obtained this work, or how much she was paid. I suspect that it is not safe to assume that her pay was significantly higher that that of the typical ‘sweated’ employee, merely because / if her work was sold through a store with a reputation of serving wealthy clientèle. There are perhaps parallels with Tressell’s fictional character, who produces garments for a pittance, which are ultimately sold at a hefty price. But a significant difference between the experiences of my female forebears, and those of the characters within RTP is occupation of a house with reduced rent, and the extent to which these particular circumstances may have enabled a better standard of living is an issue that I intend to investigate further.

Studio photograph of my grandmother, wearing a velvet dress, taken in the late 1910s – early 1920s (on a postcard bearing the name of the Pollard Graham studio, Friar Gate, Derby – not far from the Terrace; very similar to an example dating to 1920)

The material evidence also suggests (occasional?) times when my grandmother was able to experience more comfortable surroundings. To a large extent, this may have be enabled by the practice of ‘farming’ (elder?) girls to more well-off extended family members; there are indications of similar practices in my grandfather’s family; and this is evident within oral history and memoirs, such as Elsie Goodhead’s ‘West End Story‘, who, four years younger than my grandmother, lived a few minutes walk away). She appears to have benefited from spending much time with her maternal aunt, which gave her an interest in (and access to) better clothes, and a social life – my grandmother often recalled her enjoyment of dancing as a young woman (which, along with allotments, was abhorred by my otherwise generally amenable grandfather). As a young woman (in her mid teens?) she also acted as a paid companion to ‘a lady’ who lived in a nearby, more salubrious, area (a virtually treeless ‘grove’ of mostly semi-detached houses – very close to my current home). As with contact with her aunt and cousin (with whom she remained close in later life), this provided opportunities for hand-me-downs, and a taste of a ‘better’ way of life. An alternative (or additional) possibility might be the purchase of clothing ‘on tick’ – a practice my grandmother made use of as an adult.

A curious source is the studio photo of her as a child, in which she is wearing a velvet dress. I initially interpreted this in the light of her relationship with her aunt, assuming that such apparel was indicative, if not of wealth, at least not of poverty. Had my grandmother borrowed these clothes, or were they given as ‘hand-me-downs’ by the relatively wealthy aunt? I have since encountered stories of purchase and temporary ownership of such ‘fine’ clothing (borrowed or pre- ‘pop-shop) – including the testimony of  Elsie Goodhead, who recalled her momentary pleasure at ‘owning’ new clothes (for Whitsun), before their rapid pawning.

RTP provides another parallel. We read that the son of the (poor) main character was made a velvet suit by his mother, from an old dress of her own. Ethel’s and her mother’s skills as seamstresses (and employment of the former in making what would have been expensive clothes, using fine materials) might provide an alternative explanation for the clothes within this photo – particularly when considering the other ‘respectable’ clothing in the photos of the children above.


These comparisons emphasise the flexible and changing meaning and social significance of objects (in this case, fabrics), and the selective nature of family history, suggesting that we should take care to look beyond the particular context under examination. To attempt to do so archaeologically surely indicates the necessity of multi-scalar analysis. Social networks are clearly very relevant when attempting to understand life (whether of the ‘lower classes’, or of those belonging to ‘higher’ socio-economic groups). Moments of ‘good luck’ (e.g. the receipt of small inheritances or gifts, or winnings from gambling), or recognition of achievement (e.g. school prizes – an example from my grandfather’s life being the suit he won at school as a prize in a calligraphy competition), might also cloud the picture.

Our assumptions might also be challenged when carrying out fine-grain research. Frequently encountering ‘living on own means’ within census returns of even the poorest areas requires us to reassess the way we envisage economic networks (and the role of familial relationships). The census also demonstrates that not every one had large families at the time – a common assumption; whilst it is acknowledged that ‘family planning’ was only in its infancy (again, no pun intended) during the early 20th century, family histories may demonstrate the existence of other circumstances to the nuclear family (and the widow – a common trope of social reformist literature) – as today.

We can also use family histories to consider the influence of wider social structures upon local circumstances. It might be argued that the reason for my great-grandmother’s failed married is self-evident – given the social context and its moral codes. However, only conversation with current extended family members might reveal the role of romance – or other factors – that may have also or instead influenced her matrimony. I have yet to find the reasons for her relatively late marriage; but accounts of the period (such as Paul Thompson’s 1992 The Edwardians. The remaking of British society, p. 31, 33) indicate that marriages during this period were, on average, much later than before or after; nevertheless, 29 seems particularly late.

One thing that is clear from an examination of surviving artefacts in conjunction with family history and texts (including literature – such as the RTP – and journalism – such as the books of Ada Chesterton: see earlier posts) is that the inhabitants of almshouses were not often the destitute with no other recourse, but were more frequently those with access to at least a few shillings a week to pay rent (however meagre in comparison to the rents commanded by private landlords). The almshouse occupant seems to have led a comparatively stable life, compared to many (comparisons can perhaps be made to those occupying local authority housing, although rents in this sector were commonly higher than those of almshouses).

It may seem to be stating the obvious to make these points, but they highlight the need to investigate general and widespread social structures and institutional practices alongside the specific and local, so that we might explore – as fully as possible – seemingly ‘out of place’ objects and behaviour. Though we might rarely be certain of the causes of apparent contradictions within historical records, these moments of contrast (that can coexist with and become integrated within ‘normal’ life over a long period of time) enable us to gain a more nuanced understanding of the past. In particular, they hold the potential to consider attempts at transforming social circumstances and identities (such as ‘class’), and to question (supposedly?) aspirational practices.


On revisiting this post it feels decidedly unfinished. As mentioned at the top of this post, I shall return to some of the issues and information outlined above in developing an academic article in greater detail and depth; and will post a link to whatever comes out of this work.


[1] Names have been withheld, for the privacy of surviving members of the family