This week’s topic on ANZAncestryTime was “Women and Work”. In my opinion that’s almost a tautology, unless your ancestors were lucky enough to have been wealthy or aristocratic, which none of mine were.
In most cases, regardless of where they lived and what their marital status, our female ancestors worked hard either in the home, or in paid employment, or both. Women who were divorced or deserted or widowed with young children were often in dire straits especially if they had no family or close friends to support them. Even then, their relatives may also have been doing it tough and only able to offer minimal support.
Where a single woman lived often had an impact of her employment opportunities. Life in the city might offer more choices but perhaps in the cramped environment and regulated rules of a factory. My grandmother, Catherine McCorkindale worked as a dressmaker for what is now David Jones in Brisbane, but I suspect her working environment in Glasgow, pre-emigration, may have been rather more circumscribed.
Those living in more rural areas, may have had “household duties” or “domestic duties” but in reality they would have been helping with the heavy daily labour of the household chores, caring for other members of the family, cooking and cleaning as well as working on the farm, if that’s where they lived. If a landed estate was close by they may have gained employment in various levels of house service.
Realistically, it’s unlikely indeed that running a boarding house or inn would have occurred without their labour and input. My 3xgreat grandmother, Catherine Happ later Ulrich then Kunkel, came from multiple generations of inn-keepers in the Bavarian village of Dorfprozelten. Nominally, after the death of her parents, it may have been her husband(s) who were the innkeepers, but the inheritance came through Catherine. Mary Kent, nee Camp, almost certainly would have had responsibilities in her husband’s pub, the Anchor, in Sandon, Hertfordshire. Mary’s granddaughter Emily Melvin, nee Partridge, would have had similar roles in the family’s baking business in Ipswich and refreshment rooms in Charters Towers. It hadn’t really struck me before, how there’s a thread of food and hospitality running through my families. It makes a change from all the associations with the railways.
Similarly, George Kunkel may have stated his occupation in Ipswich at one stage as “boarding house keeper” but with other business to maintain it’s highly likely it was his wife, Mary O’Brien who took on much of the responsibility for the boarding house. Bridget Furlong McSharry role as a boarding house keeper seems to have coincided with the disappearance of her husband, James Sherry aka McSharry. Did he die or did he desert the family? Will we ever know?
Looking through many of my marriage certificates, the women’s occupations are unstated. Sometimes parish registers offer more information but not always. I’ve put together this table to help me see what their roles may have been. While her marriage certificate states “no occupation” Julia Gavin, later Kunkel, and her sister Mary, helped her mother with the cows on the family’s small farm based on news stories found on Trove. Later, as a married woman with many children, Julia would also be employed as a railway gatekeeper and her aunt was employed as a station mistress.
I thought I’d made a great discovery in a letter to the editor of The Brisbane Courier by Ellen Gavin of Toowoomba. Initially, I thought this was our Julia’s niece but a closer family member thinks it’s not. Either way, it offers a wonderful insight into the day-to-day life as a domestic servant in the early 20th Century. Ellen may have been happy with her lot but I can’t say I’d have been keen to take on that load daily. Ironically, as it happens, Julia’s niece Ellen was a shop assistant in Toowoomba in 1917, per the electoral rolls.
While the cover-all occupation of “domestic duties” implies it wasn’t too onerous, without today’s labour-saving devices it could be hard physical work. On top of that, with many children, they were busy with family duties. It didn’t stop them being engaged in volunteer activities in their communities, through church, interest, social groups or large family and neighbourhood events. Their energy and commitment as pioneers leaves me in awe.
This is a summary of the occupations of most of my direct women ancestors over the generations. Electoral rolls can be helpful in pinning down our relatives’ pre-marriage employment, as well as church registers, marriage certificates, news stories. Beyond that we need to read more widely to discover what their roles may have involved.
|Female Ancestor||Place of birth||Single||Single -after migration OR||Married – In Australia|
|After Marriage pre-mign|
|Mary CAMP/KENT||Sandon, ENG||innkeeper’s wife||domestic duties|
|Hannah KENT/PARTRIDGE||Sandon, ENG||innkeeper’s daughter||domestic duties|
|Isabella MORRISON/McCORKINDALE||Strachur, SCT||farmer’s daughter||n/a|
|Bridget FURLONG/McSHARRY||Tullamore, IRL||farmer’s daughter||n/a||boarding house keeper|
|Mary O’BRIEN/KUNKEL||Clare, IRL||farmer’s daughter||housemaid||boarding house keeper, farmer|
|Mary CALLAGHAN/McSHERRY||Courtown, IRL||servant||n/a||domestic duties|
|Julia GAVIN/KUNKEL||Dalby, QLD||“no occupation”||railway gatekeeper, domestic duties|
|Annie SIM/McCORKINDALE||Bothkennar, SCT||farmer’s daughter||domestic duties||domestic duties|
|Catherine McCORKINDALE/KUNKEL||Glasgow, SCT||dressmaker||dressmaker||domestic duties|
|Joan McSHERRY/KUNKEL||QLD||typist||domestic duties|
|Emily PARTRIDGE/MELVIN||Ipswich QLD||refreshment rooms, domestic duties|
|Laura MELVIN/McSHERRY||Ipswich QLD||shop assistant|
|Ellen MURPHY/GAVIN||Wicklow, IRL||unknown||domestic duties||farm support, domestic duties|
|Margaret GILLESPIE/MELVIN||North Shields, ENG||ships’ stewardess||domestic duties|
|Catherine HAPP/KUNKEL||Dorfprozelten BAY||innkeeper||innkeeper|
I’m very grateful to have the educational and employment opportunities I’ve had throughout my life. So many things have changed for my daughters in their working lives that have made some aspects easier, despite the high demands of work. But that’s a whole other topic in itself.
So, dear reader, how did your women ancestors fare in the world of work?