Women and Work


DOMESTIC SERVICE QUESTION. (1915, November 27). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 11.

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.

A postcard of Das Goldene Fass mid-20thC. Kindly provided to me by Georg Veh, local historian.
Das Goldene Fass before its demolition for a bank in the 1960s. Image kindly provided by Georg Veh.

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.

The (Old) Anchor on Roe Green, Sandon, Herts in 2010. © Pauleen Cass

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?


8 thoughts on “Women and Work

  1. What a great idea your table is Pauleen. It makes the occupations of your female ancestors very clear. The newspaper article is a great insight. How lucky we are to have born in modern times. I’m sure I couldn’t have coped with their workload

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  2. Love the newspaper article and her concern for the mother’s who needed help more. One very organised lady that’s for sure. Love your chart too! I haven’t studied mine in great detail but I know many were charwomen in their later years while many younger ones were domestic servants, one was a stewardess on a ship, others were governesses, dressmakers, milliners and school teachers. In 1842 my 2 x Great grandmother, the wife of a surgeon, petitioned for a licence for a model school as she “found it necessary, in order to overcome the first difficulties of settlement, to aid her husband in his endeavours to provide a comfortable home”.My great grandmother used to walk from their farm at Stonehenge to Glen Innes (10 miles) to do laundry. I think she used to collect it and then return it. I don’t think they had much leisure time unless they were wealthy enough to have servants, certainly not as much as we do with our mechanical servants even if we do paid work as well.

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    1. An interesting spread of jobs Lyn. Fancy walking 10 miles to and from x 2 to do someone else’s laundry. And you’d think a surgeon’s wife would have had fewer worries about money. Like you I’m glad for my life today.

      Liked by 1 person

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