John Tosh
A Man's Place

Whether in trade or in one of the professions, middle-class men usually conducted their business and domestic life under the same roof, with no clear division between the two. In a town like Colchester, for example, traders, manufacturers and professionals lived in what one historian has called 'the business household', where the divide between working and domestic arrangements was minimal. Customers were seen, and deals struck, in the front parlour; apprentices slept in the upper storeys, sometimes alongside bedrooms converted into workshops; goods were stored in the basement and cellars. The pattern in the countryside was similar. The farm was managed from the farmhouse; the commercial side of the business was conducted in the parlour; a whole range of agricultural produce was finished or processed in the farmhouse; servants lived under the farmer's roof and ate at his table. The contrast between mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century must not be exaggerated, and variations of region and occupation need to be borne in mind. Nevertheless the dominant tendency is unmistakable. From being a site of productive work, the household was increasingly becoming a refuge from it.

The pattern of labour use is perhaps the most striking indication of the fusion of domestic and business worlds in pre-Victorian society. Masculine self-respect certainly demanded that a man provide for his family, and great shame was attached to one who 'failed'. But the requirement to provide did not carry the same exclusive connotations as the more modem notion of the breadwinner. In the eighteenth century men of the middle rank did not usually carry the burden of earning single-handed, nor did they think that they should. The typical bourgeois household comprised man and wife, children, and a range of subordinate non-kin, including apprentices, labourers and servants. The line between domestic work and business or professional work was blurred. Women were involved in production for the market, just as men took some interest in domestic matters. Women who contributed no labour to the household business, like wealthy leisured wives, attracted censure precisely because they were a deviation from the norm. The bourgeois wife often acted as her husband's junior partner in his business—working alongside him at the shop counter, for example, or during harvest time. The contemporary term which best summed up the wife's economic role was 'help-meet'. Often she had sole responsibility for some crucial aspect of the business, like the accounts book in a merchant concern, or the dairy and the poultry yard in a farm, or manufacturing workshop. Widows sometimes took over their husbands' businesses, and it is clear that many were well qualified to do so through having shared so much of the work in a conjugal partnership. Children formed part of the family pool of labour too. They were at the beck and call of both father and mother to run errands and perform sometimes monotonous tasks. As for apprentices, they were attracted by the prospect of learning a trade, but there was usually nothing in their contracts to prevent them being set to housework, particularly when they were placed under the day-to-day care of the mistress.

This type of working household had characterized the middling sort for some two or three hundred years. It was still widespread at the close of the eighteenth century, and it features very widely in the childhood memories of middle-class people who grew to maturity in the early years of Queen Victoria. John Heaton of Leeds recalled how he had been brought up in family accommodation adjacent to his father's bookshop, with a storage room for secondhand books and servants' quarters above. Edward Benson, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, had begun life in a house within the chemical works managed by his father. Neither Heaton nor Benson idealized their childhood circumstances, but more sentimentalized memories appealed to a widespread sense of loss. In the 1880s Charlotte Sturge recalled how, early in the century, her father had bought a tannery on the edge of Coggeshall in Essex. It came with an adjoining 'good, old-fashioned, red-brick house' covered in climbing roses, and a kitchen garden which produced superb fruit. Father had time to teach his sons to swim and his daughters to ride, as well as pursue his business as a tanner. That vision of the home as the site of work, nurture and leisure in a semi-rural setting recurs again and again in novels of the period, like George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman (1856). Victorian nostalgia was fed by many social and cultural changes, but none was more poignant for them than the transformation in the nature of home from a hub of integrated activities, to a place of refuge. They expressed their ambivalence about up-to-date notions of family propriety and comfort by idealizing the domestic past.

Sentimentalized family histories and novels made the transformation seem more abrupt than it really was. The key change, on which so much else depended, was the shift in the focus of women's lives from the family economy to the private domestic sphere. Historians have come up with sharply varying accounts—mainly because of the wide variation between town and country, between regions, and between occupations. During the eighteenth century there seems to have been a growing tendency for wives of the middling sort to withdraw from the business activities of the household when affluence allowed them to do so. But the mid-Victorians were broadly correct in believing that their own lifetimes had witnessed a vital stage in the story. Taking the middle class as a whole, the pace of change was particularly pronounced during the first half of the nineteenth century—the period of most intensive industrialization in Britain.

However, this does not mean that the separation of work from home can be attributed directly to 'the factory'. Most middle-class men worked in occupations which had nothing to do with factories, and those who did were often in no hurry to move away from them. When Isaac Holden began looking for his own mill in 1845, he turned down a promising one at Shipley because his wife objected to the mill-house. (In Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South Manchester cotton master John Thornton also lives with his mother in the mill-house.) In fact first-generation manufacturing entrepreneurs often lived on site because they valued on-the-spot supervision of their businesses before everything else; it was the second generation which shunned the mill-house and lived in style elsewhere. The trend in favour of a separation of home and work was driven less by the factory than by the pace of economic growth in the towns generally. As more and more businesses were concentrated in the urban centres, noise, smell and other forms of pollution increased. The heart of a manufacturing town became less attractive as a place to live. Commercial land values increased at the same time,' thus encouraging the sale of the remaining residential properties. In Bradford, for example, only 7 per cent of bourgeois householders lived in the town centre by 1851; most of them were to be found in quasi-suburban residential districts.' On grounds of both amenity and economy, middle-class men preferred to maintain a residence away from their place of work.

Away from one's place of work might mean no more than leasing a terraced house in a square or crescent adjacent to the commercial district, as in London's ever-expanding West End. But during the decades immediately before and after Victoria's accession, it often meant a secluded semi-rural neighbourhood. In Manchester the out-of-town villa was already fashionable among the commercial classes by the l83os. Edgbaston in Birmingham, laid out in the 1820s, was another early example. This was the suburb proper, but to begin with the pleasures of seclusion were limited mainly to people who were sufficiently affluent to keep a carriage. The real change came with the transport revolution of the early Victorian period. Railways out of the main cities were rapidly developed from the 1840s. By the 1850s the horse-drawn omnibus was responding flexibly to the commuter market, to be joined by the horse-drawn tram in the 1860s. It was these innovations which largely determined the pace and direction of suburban growth. The bus and the tram extended the social scope of the suburb to include not only the middle class but the upper reaches of the working class too. Speculative builders threw up properties within the range of every level of middle-class income: the villa for the successful businessman or lawyer, the semi-detached (an invention of the 1790s) for the large shopkeeper or accountant, the terraced house for the clerk or schoolteacher.

Yet the separation of work from home was far from total. Its effects were most noticeable in the commercial classes, with manufacturing not far behind. But in some occupations the nature of the work allowed for much greater continuity. This was clearest in the case of the clergy who conducted church business from their homes, prepared their sermons and received their parishioners there. Doctors saw patients and made up prescriptions in their own homes. Lawyers continued for some time to combine home and office. Writers and 'men of letters' also worked at home, often heavily reliant on the unacknowledged secretarial assistance of a wife or a daughter. At the other end of the social scale were those on the margins of the middle class who might dearly wish to move away from their place of work but could not afford to do so. This was especially true of shopkeepers who depended heavily on unpaid family labour during working hours. It is worth bearing in mind that, as late as 1851, middle-class families who lived away from the workplace were still outnumbered by those who lived over the shop or immediately adjacent to their work premises. But even here the domestic atmosphere was enhanced by a careful distinction between rooms identified by function. The office or surgery was likely to be set apart from the rest of the household; the ideal position for a clergyman's study was just inside the front door, so that visitors could be admitted without disturbing the rest of the household. Thomas Carlyle reinforced his professional identity as 'man of letters' by having a soundproof study constructed at the top of the house. The same careful attention to the cordoning off of domestic space was to be seen in the countryside. There was a spate of farmhouse rebuilding, as farmers put pressure on their landlords to build better appointed residences with a dignified approach which did not pass through the farmyard. The separation of work from home may have been a more protracted and tortuous process than is often allowed, but the long-term trend is clear. Advice books may not be reliable as a mirror of behaviour, but it is nevertheless significant that during this period most of them took it as read that the men in the households they were addressing were out at work for most of the day.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.