C is for Charwoman

In the census of England and Wales of 1901, there were 111,841 women recorded as being a charwoman, of which 86, 463 were married or widowed. Every single Census Enumerator’s Book studied during the course of my research has charwomen listed, often in great number, and so it seems sensible to consider the role of the charwoman for the letter C in the alphabet.


The title, ‘Charwoman’ covers a fairly wide range of activities, but the vast majority were ‘cleaners’ – women going around cleaning other women’s houses. Some of the women they worked for would have been working-class too, but a significant number also cleaned for the middle-classes – the households that either couldn’t afford a full time maid of all work or live in housemaid, or were happy to rely on the cheaper charwomen. Some chars worked doing the cleaning or sometimes even the washing in commercial buildings, however, by the end of the nineteenth-century we see the title, ‘office cleaner’ coming into usage, thereby providing, at least a partial, delineation between domestic and commercial chars.


Again, as with B, there are a great deal of occupations beginning with C, some of which also were very popular jobs; Cigar Making for example provided an occupation for a great number of women in most of the London enumeration districts, if not the rural ones, others like Cat Meat Vendor were, understandably, less well populated, but still more so than the single cornet maker seen in a district in Camberwell – here is the list of occupations beginning with C for the same Bethnal Green enumeration district as the Bs:

Cabinet Maker
Cabinet Polisher
Cane Spreader
Cap Front Maker
Cap Maker
Capsule Maker
Captain in Salvation Army
Carpet Bag Maker
Cart Minder in Market
Chair Caner
Chandler’s Shop
Church Servant
Cigar Box Paperer
Cigar Light Seller
Cigar Maker
Cigarette Maker
Coffee House Keeper
Collar Dresser
Collar Ironer
Collar Machinist
Collar Maker
Confectioner’s Assistant
Corsage Hand
Cotton Winder


None of these, however, come anywhere close to the numbers recorded as being Charwomen in each and every census. By the end of the nineteenth century charwomen had their own Union – the Association of Trained Charwomen and Domestic Workers, which was founded in 1898.  The Women’s Industrial Council was particularly worried about the conditions faced by those working as charwomen, primarily because they were unregulated in any way, their wages, even in comparison to our artificial flower makers, were argued by many (often incorrectly) to be pitiful, and there was absolutely no way to protect them from unscrupulous employers.


So why did women put themselves in this position?  All of the contemporary reports and surveys all suggest similar causes, some more charitably than others. Consider this report from the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1881:




The key phrase here appears to be: ‘just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of the charwoman a like refuge for another class.’ He (I presume this is a ‘he’) goes on to discuss whether a woman works her way down through the domestic service hierarchy, failing at all else, before landing at the bottom with a resounding crash, and resorting to charring to make a living.  It has to be said that this particular report is rather uncharitable, cruel even, suggesting that those that can will do anything rather than char, which may well have been the case, but charring is argued here to be more than that, charring is a sign of failure in life.


Clementina Black was far more charitable.  She discussed at great length (an entire section of the survey was dedicated to the issues surrounding charwomen) how women’s work was unvalued and carried little esteem because any occupation carried out by women would always revert to that of being a domestic drudge, whether in her own home, or someone else’s. To put it simply, Black argued that in every household at that time, where a woman was in residence, that woman would be involved in ‘working’ as a wife, a mother, a nurse and a homemaker, and that work would be unpaid.

‘In a commercial age, work which is unremunerated and a worker who is unpaid are alike of small value and little esteemed. But all women, or with exceptions so few as to be negligible, have been, or are, or will be engaged as unpaid workers in unpaid work, with the consequence that all work done by women and all wage-earning women are paid at a lower rate than would be the case if their work were not cheapened, and it is cheapened because either they will later engage in domestic work, so that they are not worth training for anything else; or they are, in fact, doing unpaid domestic work all the time, and to their employer their value in other work is therefore less; or they have been spending their life in domestic work and cannot therefore claim proficiency in the new industry they may be compelled to turn to.’[2]

She went on to point out how in other industries, agriculture for example, which she insisted used to be unpaid (serfdom? she doesn’t elaborate), organisation and legislation had changed things and she felt that domestic work would and should follow. However, domestic work was problematic in that, in her words, ‘charing, especially, is just the work that every woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile is able to perform.’[3] It was, therefore, unspecialised, and needed little training; girls having been brought up from a young age to know how to clean and carry out domestic chores, often working at home having left school, keeping house themselves, while their own mother went cleaning other people’s houses, until the next daughter left school, could take the place of the eldest, who would then go into service.


Black, however, claimed that the single greatest reason that women were driven to charring was that of the irregularity of MEN’S work, not that of the women’s. Over the course of nearly twenty years of constant research, the Women’s Industrial Council found that where men’s work was irregular, where their hours were seasonal or unreliable, for example dock workers, it was then that women took to charring. So, charring itself was, in a way, seasonal, in that in the times when men were likely to have more work there were fewer chars, and when the men were not working or their hours reduced, the numbers or charwomen increased hugely. This, in itself, led to greater problems and fed the issue of low pay – the market was drowned with charwoman all wanting to work at similar times – the basic concept of supply and demand keeping down wages.


It was not all bad though, charring in itself could be argued to have been an ideal (if low paid) option for working mothers. The hours were fewer, they were worked at the convenience (to a certain extent) of the woman herself, and she could dictate where and when she worked and for whom. Again, turning to Black:

‘Over and over again the women say that it is better than the trade they followed before marriage, which means that it is possible to earn as much, or more, with less expenditure of time; that one can regulate the amount of work one does in a week without losing the job; that the hours admit far more attention to one’s own housework and children than do those worked in any factory, and that you do get for yourself good food, and often something to bring home to the children as well.’[4]

That final phrase says a lot, good food for yourself, and often something to bring home to the children. This goes beyond money, it goes beyond cash for the rent – food, and good, decent food for yourself and the children would have been priceless for a woman working only because her husband was on short hours, or injured or sick.


There was also the issue of respectability. To us, the word ‘char’ might bring to mind a drudge in a dirty skirt and apron doing the very worst of the housework. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Of course some of them would fit the stereotype, but something that is brought up again and again is this idea of working to ‘oblige the lady’ – they are helping out, looking after the lady, thereby raising themselves, if even in their own head, to a higher level and keeping up with the Joness’. Still though, this wasn’t a job that very many women did unless they had to, and many had to. There were a few instances recorded of women charring to provide a higher income that they ‘needed’, but these were few and far between.


It is quite interesting to see the wages these women were earning. There hours were not as long as many other occupations, often only (only?!) nine or ten a day, but for that they would be paid on average 2/-, sometimes less. Still, however, this amounts to more in many cases than we have seen so far in artificial flower making and boot making if you average out the hours – it could certainly be said that charring was an extremely useful stopgap. It was something any woman could do, and most did daily anyway, that could be picked up and put down when needed, and which paid a relatively good wage. It is hardly surprising then that in the census we see them in pretty much every parish!


The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, January 21, 1881; pg. 4; Issue 4201. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 106.

[3] Black, p. 107.

[4] Black, p. 109.

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