The tailoresses of Rowhedge



Rowhedge was, and still is, a small village on the banks of the River Colne in Essex. It is a place where for generations the men worked as fishermen, while the women stayed at home, holding together a family, a home, and in many cases also working. That it became a focus for the Women’s Industrial Council’s study into married women’s work gives a rare and valuable insight into the lives and experiences of the women living there, women who, without that study, and the wonderful history of the village written by Margaret Leather, would have been consigned to anonymity in history, but through their story we can get a better insight into village life in the latter half of the 19th century.  This was not the slums of London, but these women too experienced the poor pay and relentless hardship that was ‘sweated labour’.

The Quay at Rowhedge

The Quay at Rowhedge



The women of Rowhedge

For the women of Rowhedge life was different in many ways from that of women in the neighbouring towns and villages.  As family life in village was almost entirely supported by the sea and the work of the fisherman, in the early years many were alone for the majority of the year, left to bring up the children, run their homes and pay their way while the men were away fishing around the coastal waters of the country and further afield.  According to the census returns in 1851, forty of the wives of the village were alone that night[1], their husbands at sea, and although records do not state how long these separations lasted it can be construed from general fishing records that it could have been for many months. Notable local author Margaret Leather, born and bred in the village, a daughter of a Captain stated that the fishermen’s work could take them to France, Scotland and even as far north as Norway.


The anxiety the women faced during these separations could be extreme. Most of the fishing was carried out during the winter months in terrible sea-going conditions, and there are many records of the pain and fear they endured. Typical is Margie Barnard who, ‘on one such winter’s night when a gale was raging… gathered her four children around her and told them to kneel with her and pray that their father would be kept safe at sea.’[2]  However, these were strong, some may say fearsome women. Benham (1981) describes them as ‘wretched women… sitting in the pubs beside the men to get a share of the money[3] after successful salvaging operations, but this seems to be at odds with the description of the women by other writers who actually knew them and spent time with them. Margaret Leather recalls her early memories of their ‘faithfulness, cleanliness and tidiness almost without exception.’[4] Clementina Black, the president and founder of the Women’s Industrial Council and Vice President of the Anti-Sweating League commissioned Maud Davies to visit the village in the early twentieth century to examine the women and their work and she reached the conclusion that: ‘The Rowhedge women are all that women should be. Full of vigorous health and spirits, they are equally ready for work and for play… These self sufficient women are apparently excellent wives and mothers’.[5]


Of the women who were recorded as not married in 1851, fourteen were widows, ranging in age from as young as 34 years up to Hannah Smith who was 84 years old[6]. Elizabeth Willett’s husband Joseph, a merchant and smack owner registered in White’s Directory of 1848[7], had died at the end of 1849, leaving her the smack and thus providing her and her two adult daughters with an income. Others were not so fortunate; of the widows recorded, six were on parish relief, the rest working charring or performing other menial tasks. It, however, in 1851 that the emergence of the trade that would become synonymous with the Rowhedge women first appears in the censuses, that of tailoring. Fifteen of the younger single women are recorded as tailoresses, setting a pattern that would follow through the next 70 years.


Colchester and the tailoring trade

Before examining the experiences of the Rowhedge women themselves and their work it is helpful to look at the centre of  tailoring operations – the town of Colchester.  With few exceptions the Rowhedge tailoresses in the years between 1850 and 1914 were all employed as outworkers by Colchester firms.  During the mid 1800’s Colchester’s clothing manufacturers boomed and expanded. Firms like Hyams, a local manufacturer, were soon joined by London-based companies such as Moses, ‘which in 1852 was employing Colchester women in their own homes on work cut out by London tailors’[8] and later by Hammonds, which by 1871 ‘had some 500 employees, some in the Stanwell Street factory and others at home in Colchester and nearby villages.’[9] By 1865, records show that over 2,500 women were employed in this manner, many in the rural villages surrounding the town, with a large proportion of the female population of Rowhedge involved, paid on piece rate. In this way the costs were kept low for the firms themselves, and work could be sent out as required, then returned for sale in London via the newly-built railway line which had opened in 1843.



Tailoring was a poorly paid profession and the conditions in which the women worked and the wages paid to them were an example of ‘sweating’ which was so common in all major towns in cities. The development of sewing machines in 1850 changed the manner of the work and the speed with which garments could be made, turning the acquisition of ready-made clothes into a reality for a large proportion of the population. What didn’t change however in any real sense were the wages paid out to the tailoresses themselves. There was also no change in the sexual division of labour within the industry. ‘Women were concentrated in the low paid work processes, mainly machining. Only one per cent of women were forewomen and they earned 19s a week (1901) whereas ten per cent of the men were foremen and they earned more than double that amount.[10]  Those earnings were based on factory work which was undertaken by many of the young, unmarried women and compared quite favourably with the maximum 4s 9d a week a learner could expect to earn based on a ten-hour day.  However,  these wages were not the norm for the women like those in the village who worked many hours on piece work for very little money.  Mrs Pat Green, a local Fabian woman, in 1912 told how:

‘wages paid to the seamstresses were abominable and the way in which they were obliged to live was fearful… They had to finish off a pair of men’s trousers for 1¾d and they had not only to fetch the work from the factory… but sometimes had it returned for being badly done. They were able to turn out about 12 pairs a day but had to find their own thread… they earned about 1/-2d a day or 5s a week assuming they worked an 8 hour day and 5 day week’.[16]


Family life

Turning to the reality of working life for the women, one is faced with a picture of hours of unrelenting toil and stress.  Home life in the Victorian period for working class women in the village was a round of hard work, frequent pregnancies and a seemingly never ending string of chores to do without the aid of the modern technology. Add in their husbands being away at sea for months at a time, and then up to ten hours a day sewing and preparing tailoring work and one can see that life for the women and girls of the village was hard, both emotionally and physically.


It might be supposed that working these kinds of hours would have been incompatible with pregnancy and motherhood, but this was not the case, as Mrs Pettitt recollects:  ‘Well, my mother had a lot of babies that I knew nothing about much. Every little while I’d come down and see a baby on the sideboard… and there would always be babies little coffins and she used to be laying in bed and she’d be putting these buttons on the trousers as she lay there.’[17] Even through pregnancy and childbirth, and the tragedy of still birth, the women still had to work – the rent and food still needed to be provided regardless of the their condition.


Paid work also had to be fitted in around the normal domestic duties. Time and again we’re told how these women were house proud, and Margaret Leather speaks of how the homes in the village were kept spotless. Even Maud Davies speaks of how, ‘the scrupulous cleanliness… and the perfect freshness of the Rowhedge homes is striking.[18]  This, however, could only be achieved by the tailoresses working late into the night:  ‘I used to put the baby to bed at night and I’d sit on my machine here and start at about 7 till 10. I used to do the finishing in the morning, in that hour in between working and looking after me family, you know.’[19]


The effect on the women physically is unrecorded in any great detail, although Davies does mention that some, ‘suffered from strained eyes and headache; it is true that the young girls look anaemic, but there is evidence that their health becomes worse rather than better if they go away to service.’[20]  She did go on to say, however, that generally speaking the health of the Rowhedge women was very good. These were a hardy bunch of women – united by the fact that many of their husbands were away much of the year – and bought up to work hard from children.


Due to the location of the village – a rural village facing the River Colne and backed by arable farms and healthland, the trade of tailoring was one of very few open to the women, the only other option according to the censuses being work in one of the few village shops or domestic service. Westover suggests that for many, ‘domestic service was favoured by the girl’s mothers because it was seen as more respectable than factory work. They also thought that it would prepare their daughters for married life.’[22]  However most of the girls followed their mothers into tailoring, starting as young girls helping out with ‘finishing’ before and after school, and then moving to working full time at fourteen in the home as part of a family workforce. The 1901 census shows that in the vast majority of cases where the mother was a tailoress, most or all of the daughters were too, (in some instances grown women in their late 30s are seen to have stayed on with their mother working as a team).  Looking, for example, at the Dyer family of Church Street in 1901, the “wife” (her husband was absent – most probably away at sea as he was recorded in earlier censues as a mariner) Mary Ann at 52 years and three daughters, Ellen, Grace and Evelyn ranging from 24 years down to 16 years were all working together in the same house as tailoressess.[23].  The amount of work four women all working full time would have been able to get through would have certainly increased the family budget significantly.  Mary Ann Dyer, having been a young mariner’s wife with several small children in 1881 and presumably living on a very tight budget, was now in the next stage of the financial lifecycle where life would have become more comfortable, that is until her daughters left home and married, and this was a pattern repeated again and again when researching the families of the village.

With Rowhedge being the focus of several studies it is possible to get a glimpse, not only of their work, but also into their homes and how they, themselves, saw their situation. Davies reported that: ‘The women re-paper their rooms every three years, regardless of the damp that may efface the freshness or peel the paper from the walls. The furniture is usually plain and simple. In one house visited, although there were both piano and harmonium, there was neither sofa nor easy chair.’[26]    She goes on to describe in detail the other possessions owned and the desire by unmarried women, although engaged, to wait until their homes were ready and they had sufficient funds to marry comfortably.  Her reports are full of interesting facts, but her most contentious statement was that the women worked for “pocket money” independently of their husband’s wages:

‘The independent income of the women brings them a degree of consideration both from others and from themselves that educes and develops their personality, and causes each woman to become an individual interesting to herself and to others, even as her husband or her son is. In the house the woman is mistress, the man, when at home, adapting himself to her and doing the housework that she may not be interrupted in her industry. With her own earnings she is able to buy what she wants, pretty clothes for the children or for herself, a bicycle, a piano, or whatsoever else may appeal to her as affording the recreation which she takes for granted as her due, and as part of the normal routine of her life.’[27]


Pin Money?

This statement has caused much debate[28]. When reading the words of the women themselves and other social reporters of the time it is difficult to see how Davies arrived at her conclusions. We have already seen examples of women working into the night and getting up early to fit in their domestic chores. Another woman speaks of her husband not allowing her to work long hours: ‘My husband wouldn’t let me work long hours. If he was here, in the evening time… he used to say: “Come on now, its time you left off…”’[29]

But the most explosive suggestion is that these women worked all hours of the day and night, through childbirth and sickness for a few shillings a week for no other reason than that they wanted some pin money![30]   It seems unlikely that there would there have been investigations by the Fabian society and the newly-founded unions into the sweatshop environment and incredibly low wages if this had been a matter of personal choice.

Belinda Westover put the question to several of her interviewees and got an amusingly strong response[31]:

‘Pocket money! That was pocket money! To fill the kids tummies. No-one worked on the tailoring at home unless it was to fulfil a need….. they had to! If the husband lost his job – no dole – no money coming in.

‘Yes, my mother did tailoring, ’Cos she had to keep us going. Dad didn’t earn very much…Mum used to do coats at home for the factories…. She used to work very hard for the little she got…. To make ends meet you see’

‘My mother did that bit of tailoring to feed us kids. She didn’t do it for a bit of pocket money, she did that to keep us.’[32]

It can be seen therefore that the women who were the subjects of Black’s report are themselves inclined to disagree with its findings.  Of course it cannot be denied that there may have been women in the village, those who were the wives and daughters of captains for instance, who may have worked a little to top up their ‘pocket money’.[33] But the piece rate was so low in this period that it would seem unlikely that enough money would be earned to buy a bicycle or pretty clothes unless one worked extremely long hours.  Westover certainly disagrees with Black: ‘Most of them… were wives of agricultural workers, sailors and casual workers whose wages were low and seasonal. Many of them were widows with no other source of income. In both cases their earnings were vitally necessary.[34]


Colchester Manufacturing Company

By the early 20th century things were beginning to change within the village.  For many years, factories had existed in Colchester, but with no transport and with the village being so insular, the young women stayed at home to work with their mothers. All that changed in 1910 with the opening in Dark Horse Lane of the Colchester Manufacturing Company factory.  The factory started in four cottages, but in 1914 these were pulled down and a proper factory built to accommodate the women working there.  Now the younger girls and unmarried women worked more often in the factory than at home and slowly the Rowhedge home-working tailoresses were consigned to the history books.

The tailoresses working in the new Dark Horse Lane factory

The tailoresses working in the new Dark Horse Lane factory in Rowhedge

The experiences of the tailoresses changed very little during the period covered.  In 1851 very few women were able to work due to the lack of available positions, but by 1901 20% of the properties were inhabited by one or more tailoress. The facility was now available for them to contribute to their family income and mothers and daughters working together were able to make a difference to their family finances. However, the suggestion that this was done for a bit of ‘pin money’ is verging on insulting to those women. Most worked because for much of the year they had little or no income, the seasonal nature of the fishing and yachting trade being a major cause of financial insecurity.   One cannot help but admire their strength, character and self-sufficiency; working many hours and bringing up their children while their husbands were absent.  They were, to quote Black, ‘all that women should be.’[35]

[1] Seventy wives in total are recorded on the 1851 census, meaning therefore that the husbands of almost 60% of those were absent. 38 of the wives noted are fisherman’s wives and one a ship’s carpenters wife.

[2] Ibid, p.116

[3] H Benham, Last Stronghold of Sail, (London, 1981), p.70

[4] M Leather, Saltwater Village, (Lavenham, 1977), p.115

[5] C Black ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), pp.248-249

[6] Owing to the time constraints of this study, I have been unable to find sufficient evidence to enable me to comment with any degree of certainty on the incidence of re-marriage of widows within the village.

[7] (14 February 2007)

By 1901, a greater variety of occupations had opened up to married women in various forms of shop keeping and service industries within the village. However it is the tailoring that rises most sharply with an enormous increase in married women seeking work within their own homes.

* In 1851 the choices open to single women were very limited, however by 1901 a wide range of occupations were on offer, tailoring however, (normally at home with their mothers) has by far the greatest sector of single female workers.


[8] A F J Brown, Colchester 1815-1914, (Colchester,1980),p.24

[9] Ibid, pg 24

[10] L Davidoff and B Westover, Eds, Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History and Women’s Work, (London, 1986), p.56.

[11] Ibid, p.54

[12] Ibid, p.67

[13] E Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited, (London, 2005), p.103

[14] Based on figures supplied in 1901 census, 23% of the married women in the village were working.  It is likely that far more were doing some form of paid employment

[15] It must also remembered that the definition of female employment in this period is problematic and liable to the interpretation and male pride of the husband

[16] B Westover, The Sexual Division of Labour in the Tailoring Industry 1860-1920, Unpublished PhD, University of Essex, 1985, p.102

It has not been possible to confirm who Mrs Green was addressing in this quote.

[17] Ibid, p.161

[18] C Black ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.243

[19] B Westover, The Sexual Division of Labour in the Tailoring Industry 1860-1920, Unpublished PhD, University of Essex, 1985, p.158

[20] C Black ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.242

[21] Appendix A pp.59-60

[22] L Davidoff and B Westover, eds, Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History and Women’s Work, (London, 1986), p.63

[23] Appendix B, 1901 Census, p.81

[24] Mary Dyer is listed as being married on the census return for 1901, so therefore it can be assumed that her husband Frederick, being described on the 1881 census as a mariner, is away at sea at this time.

[25] The study was carried out between 1909 and 1910 but the publication was delayed ‘due to many causes, the latest of which is the European War’. (Black, 1983)

[26] C Black ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.242

[27] Ibid, p.249

[28] Most notably in the research by Belinda Westover, (1985)

[29] L Davidoff and B Westover, eds, Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History and Women’s Work, (London, 1986), p.67

[30] It is difficult to see how Maud Davies came to this conclusion. However, her notes state that she visited a total of fifty tailoresses in Essex from a sample of three villages: West Mersea, Boxted and Rowhedge. Assuming therefore that she equally divided her sample between the villages she would have visited twenty-three properties in Rowhedge out of a total of seventy-one inhabited by tailoresses. Her description of the properties appears to relate only to the newly built area of the village where a proportionately high level of shipyard families resided, and not therefore to the poorer families, who were more likely to be forced to work to provide food, coal etc. It is arguable therefore, that her sample is not representative of the villagers and the experiences of the tailoresses as a whole.

[31] All of the women quoted were born between 1894 -1900. Therefore their comments relating to their childhood memories are contemporary to the study in 1910 by Maud Davies.

[32] L Davidoff and B Westover, eds, Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History and Women’s Work, (London, 1986),  pp.73-74

[33] In the 1901 census I can find no record of the wives of captains or other relatively wealthy villagers working as tailoresses. However, in the family of Captain James Simons both of his daughters are listed as tailoresses, whilst the daughter of Captain Harry Hilyard is also registered. In view of the reluctance, as discussed, of husbands to record their wives as working, it is possible that their wives are working also.

[34] Ibid, p.75

[35] C Black, ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.248

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