‘We must make haste, for when we home are come, We find again our work has just begun’

Today we welcome a fellow writer for Pen & Sword, the lovely Dr Sara Read, a lecturer in English at Loughborough University and a contributing editor for earlymodernmedicine.com.

Sara has recently published a book entitled Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740. In this post she looks at the role of working class women, whose work never seemed to end, which fits in so well with our previous articles that have looked at the roles of those employed to work ‘below stairs’, the housemaid, the laundrymaid and the the cook.


In an article in the Guardian on 22 October 2014, Jessica Valenti commented on the recently announced gender gap figure to come from US research. The research found that women are apparently still doing significantly more housework and childcare than their partners.

However, the fact that this disparity of labour is now lessening would have been music to the ears of women like Mary Collier, a Georgian washer woman and labourer from Petersfield, Hampshire.

In 1739 a verse letter by her entitled ‘A Woman’s Labour: An Epistle to Mr Stephen Duck’ was published in London.

attributed to Christian Richter, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1740
Stephen Duck attributed to Christian Richter, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1740

The poem was a riposte to Duck’s 1730 poem ‘The Thresher’s Labour’ which claimed that men did the bulk of the hard work in labouring.

Mary Collier Epistle

Not only did Mary take issue with this but as the line in the title of this post suggests, Mary described how when she finished her working day she’d stagger home, babe in arms:  ‘Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too’ only to have to begin work all over again:

our House in order set;
Bacon and Dumpling in the Pot we boil,
Our Beds we make, our Swine we feed the while;
Then wait at Door to see you coming Home,
And set the Table out against you come:
Early next Morning we on you attend;
Our Children dress and feed, their Clothes we mend;
And in the Field our daily Task renew.

She described doing the housework and cooking the evening meal, then waiting for her husband to come home to his hot meal. He then took his supper and went off to a good night’s sleep while she was awakened regularly by the infant children.

Mary then described getting the children up, dressed and fed the next morning before going to work in the fields. Elsewhere in the poem she mentioned having the children with her in the fields helping: ‘Our Children that are able, bear a Share / In gleaning Corn, such is our frugal Care’.

Mary Collier was in the bottom tier of society as a manual labourer in the fields seasonally and also worked as a washer woman. She described how she had to walk to work though all weathers, hours before dawn, to the house where she was employed in the laundry of an upper class household:

But when from wind and weather we get in,
Briskly with courage we our work begin;

For several hours here we work and slave,
Before we can one glimpse of day-light have;
We labour hard before the morning’s past,
Because we fear the time runs on too fast.

The life described by Mary Collier is one of unrelenting work and exploitation. She ends her poem by comparing herself to a worker bee:

 SO the industrious Bees do hourly strive
To bring their Loads of Honey to the Hive ;
Their sordid Owners always reap the Gains,
And poorly recompense their Toil and Pains.

To read more about the daily lives of women of all ranks see Sara Read’s new popular history book: Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740 which is available directly from Pen & Sword or from Amazon as a hardback or Kindle

Pen and Sword Books

Amazon UK

US Kindle version






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