In researching smock frocks, I have been reading newspaper articles which detail ordinary people’s lives in a way that often gets lost in other historical evidence. One such article from 1879, detailed the life of an “ordinary” mother in Gloucestershire. It was recounted by Lady Stradbroke, whose subjective portrayal was of a respectable woman whom she knew personally. According to the account, the woman lived well and long, and was an example to the more feckless. Perhaps slightly patronising coming from a member of the elite but Lady Stradbroke’s aim however, was to get her peers to donate ready-made clothes to such women, as ‘the overworked mother has hardly time to mend and darn, and bake, and wash, and nurse the baby, much less to make clothes for herself and husband and children’.
Lady Stradbroke then detailed the un-named woman’s life: she had married at eighteen, her husband about the same age being an agricultural labourer with wages of 15 shillings a week. She also worked in the fields from 8 till 6 earning 10 pence a day. She brought up nine children and made and mended all their clothing. She got up at 5am and on washing days at 4am and was in bed between 9 and 10pm. At harvest time she got up at 2am and with the children went gleaning at daybreak. This was scouring the field for any of the crop that had been missed in harvesting and gathering that up for personal use.
On Saturdays, her work in the fields finished at 1pm, so she would walk to Bristol, three miles away, carrying a basket of clothes for her neighbour who was a laundress. She would do any shopping needed, which she called ‘marketing’, presumably buying at a market rather than in the modern sense of the word in reference to promotion, and carry home her flour and purchases. Saturday evening was spent baking, making a pair of trousers or smock frock, washing and ironing clothing for Sunday, and other jobs often until midnight. She would then attend church on Sundays.
Presumably from a local charity, she received a loaf of bread and material for a shirt on the 30th January each year. Her children began to work with her ‘almost as soon as they could toddle’ and grew up respectful, as also her grandchildren, ‘with a great capacity for work’.
This account was thus looking back at a working life during the course of the nineteenth century, as the implication is that the woman was dead when the article was written in 1879. It is interesting that ready-made clothes, clothing that is made up as we would buy it today, was seen as a boon to such working women by this elite lady, saving time and effort, whereas other contemporary commentators railed against it for being of poor quality, literally shoddy (the recycled rags of old clothes) and also by the end of the century, too fashionable rather than respectable, respectability always something the working class should aim for in the eyes of their self-appointed superiors. There was also much consternation about the workers who made such clothing often for a pittance, the production of which increased after the sewing machine became more common place in the 1860s.
How true this account was is open to interpretation as it seems unlikely that Lady Stradbroke would know much detail, especially looking back in time. But the generalities of rural existence, certainly as presented in the 1870s, make it interesting with the focus on idioms and the everyday routines of a hard life.