Carolyn Steedman on the Everyday Life of the English Working Class
In this interview with historian and author Professor Carolyn Steedman, we find out how she came to write about working-class living and loving, and getting and spending, through the eyes of a stockingmaker and a magistrate.
An Everyday Life of the English Working Class concerns two men, Joseph Woolley, a stockingmaker and Sir Gervase Clinton, a magistrate. Using Woolley’s voluminous diaries and Clifton’s magistrate records, Carolyn Steedman gives us a unique and fascinating account of working-class living and loving, and getting and spending. Here, Professor Steedman opens up about her research in an exclusive author interview:
The diaries of Joseph Woolley (c.1744-1815), which provide much of the basis of your thought-provoking account, have only been in the public domain since 1992, yet very little attention has been given to them by historians. What drew you to his writing? Why him and why only now?
Not so much falling, as being pushed; not so much being drawn to Joseph Woolley’s writing, as stumbling over it.
I was in Nottinghamshire Archives checking some final details for my last book Labours Lost (2009) (something I tell my PhD students never to put themselves in the position of having to do) when I did something that I always tell my students to do: whilst you’re killing time waiting for your documents to arrive, have a look through the card catalogue at the `Diaries’ section. You never know what you’ll find.
I found the diaries of a framework knitter from the very same village as the magistrate whose justicing notebooks I was waiting for. Of course I had to look at them! At first I searched for references to Sir Gervase Clifton (quite a lot of those), but was soon caught up in his compelling account of life, love, and labour in early nineteenth century Nottinghamshire. I knew what my next project had to be. His is a truly unique account, but it was deposited in Nottinghamshire in the 1990s, when the interest in working-class life provoked by Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) was on the wane. The diaries are known to historians of the knitwear and hosiery manufacture, but as one of them remarks, there’s not an awful lot in them about the work of stocking making. And they are … a bit indelicate, you could say.
Woolley wrote (among many other things) about the sexual life of his friends and neighbours, in graphic detail. Not really what serious twentieth-century labour historians of the Luddite era were looking for in their historical subjects!
Joseph Woolley’s private diaries and accounts total nearly 100,000 words, what motivated him to document his daily experiences in such a way?
Not sure that `motivation’ is the best way to think about working people writing in the past. Opportunity and above all spare cash prompted them to write. I think that Joseph Woolley must always have kept accounts (you needed to, working in a putting out system in the stocking trade), so he had the notebooks in which to write. His father was parish clerk, and the interminable detailing of births and deaths, and churchings of women that thread through the diary are probably Joseph helping his dad out, making the notes that father Samuel would later copy into the parish books. So he wrote for highly practical purposes, and he had the material means in front of him. His writing took off from those material, practical circumstances. And he enjoyed it. Obviously, I think. No one who spends ten pages describing a fine night of ale-house trashing and pub-yard fighting, isn’t enjoying putting it down on the page.
Leaving aside Joseph Woolley the diarist, what do you think of Joseph Woolley the man, the husband, the stockingmaker, the drinking companion?
Never a husband! That’s the point of my chapter ‘Sex and the Single Man’. Our assumption about life and labour in the working-class past is very much bound up with the idea of the family wage and the male breadwinner.
Joseph Woolley can help restore the ‘never-married man’ to the historical record. There were a lot of them (and never-married women) in turn of the century England. As for what I think of him … well: we’ve read the same books and could talk about those; but I would never have looked forward to meeting him in the Clifton alehouse c.1804, mainly because of the wild behaviour of his friends, men and women.
The second subject of An Everyday Life of the English Working Class is Sir Gervase Clifton (1744 – 1815), Bart of Clifton Hall, Clifton, near Nottinghamshire. What do his notebooks reveal about how the British Justice system worked at a local level and it’s meaning to working-class people? Is this reflected in Woolley’s writing?
Woolley was highly aware of the law, how it worked, at a national and a local level. He was familiar with legal vocabulary. His friends and companions, men and women, are written about in the same way: the law frames the way they see the world, and their sense of what is fair and unfair. He describes many incidents taking place in Sir Gervase’s justicing room, some of which the magistrate didn’t himself record.
My next (rather small project) is find out something about the three `lawyer’s letters’ he mentions in the diaries. Local people (servants and a framework knitter) paid a local attorney to write a letter claiming their wages, or to someone who had offended them. They could afford to do this.
Was it because they’d worked out that the formal legal system wasn’t going to be any use to them on this occasion? Or because magistrate Clifton was away, and another justice was hard to find/ I’ve found this kind of letter mentioned in other parts of the country, paid for by working women as well as men.
The diaries of Woolley, personal and revelatory in their nature, contrast greatly with the notebooks of Clifton dealing with magistrate business but are there common themes that bind them together?
Our assumption about life and labour in the working-class past is very much bound up with the idea of the family wage and the male breadwinner.
The way in which—to this reader at least—the voices of the past spring from their pages. Both of them transcribed verbatim what working people said to each other, or what they said they had said. The difference is that Sir Gervase transcribed the words of deponents and witnesses as they stood before him (rather like, a bit earlier, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield laid out the words of witnesses like a play script in his King’s Bench papers). There is an absolutely compelling immediacy about them. Woolley on the other hand, remembered the stories he’d been told, and the outrageous things he’d witnessed or heard tell, usually at the end of the working week, or quiet times of the stocking-making year. But both kinds of writing preserve the immediacy of speech, idioms, turns of phrase, which would otherwise be lost.
Both of these accounts allow unprecedented access to ordinary, everyday, working-class life. What do they reveal about the reading, drinking and sexual practices of the working class in early industrial England?
I think I’ve said a lot about this above. What surprised me most (though I shouldn’t have been surprised) was the way in which Woolley took it completely for granted that women smoked and drank, and got very drunk, and initiated sexual activity. His accounts of women who suffered abuse at the hands of their (drunken) partners and husbands were deeply empathetic.
You challenge many traditional assumptions about the English working-class man and his understanding of his place in society. What led you to pursue these arguments?
I have thought hard about this question. I think it was because I grew up (or became a historian) in an era (the 1960s) when a social-history mission was to rescue the unconsidered and ignored from the indifference of the present. Somehow, the working-people who were restored to the historical record, were written as upright, somewhat one-dimensional and pious precursors of better future. I wanted Joseph Woolley to be who he was—though of course, I can’t help writing him to the shape of my own desires and experiences. We all write about the past in our own present.
Have you got any recommendations for further reading?
If you haven’t read E. P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963, Victor Gollancz Ltd), then you must! At exactly the same time as you find Selina Todd’s recent History Workshop article on why he’s so very difficult to read. But as she says, none of us would be anywhere at all without that book.
Emma Griffin’s Liberty’s Dawn A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013, Yale University Press) is a wonderful book that allows working people in the past to be as complex and contradictory as you and me.
Have you got plans for more books in this area?
No. My next book is going to be called Poetry for Historians—something about the writing of history.
Can you describe your book in three words?
Can I have five words? Sex and the single man.
Carolyn Steedman is the author of An Everyday Life of the English Working Class (2013). She is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. Her recent publications include Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (2007) and Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (2009).