Megan Henesy


Newby, Jennifer. Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800-1939

 Pen and Sword Books, 2011

Through this book, Jennifer Newby introduces the reader to the ‘invisible’ but active women who contributed to society throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, recording the actions and lives of those ‘often poorly represented in the archives’ through extensive research, complemented with, as Newby puts it, ‘a bit of creativity and luck’.

As the title suggests, Jennifer Newby’s book is a broad exploration of women’s social history in Britain, considering not only the occupational opportunities available to women in the period of 1800-1939, but also what they could expect in relation to leisure, accommodation, health and life expectancy in general.  Her study uses a combination of sources, including statistical evidence from censuses, surveys and documentation found in various national and local archives, as well as personal accounts and experiences sourced from diaries, letters between friends, and memoirs such as Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. This combination of ‘the drier facts of birth, marriage and death’ and women’s personal experiences, which as Newby herself notes can be ‘incredibly poignant’, allows for a discursive text which is factual and informative while also being an interesting and captivating read.

Women’s Lives has a dual purpose.  Firstly, it documents Newby’s own research in the subject, and secondly it acts as a textbook or guide for those doing their own research, whether it be academic researchers or simply those trying to compile or ‘flesh out’ a family tree.  Each chapter is categorized through occupation and/or social standing, beginning with the typical occupations of working class women, such as domestic service and factory work, and continuing with the careers and expectations of middle class and then aristocratic women.  The chapters are broken into smaller sections through repetitive subheadings including ‘What did they do?’ and ‘How did they live?’, allowing for a uniform approach to the presentation of the various  lifestyles of the time.  Each chapter concludes with a ‘how to’ guide listing archives that are relevant to the study of that area of research.  Newby lists obvious sources of information, such as the National Archives, but also encourages the creative use of sources, such as looking for job advertisements in local papers of the time for an indication of roles available, wages one could anticipate, and expectations of the employer.

At the end of the book there is an extensive bibliography, listing sources including periodicals and parliamentary reports which would help any budding historian add depth to their research.  The sheer number of first-hand accounts used by Newby calls for further reading, so as an introduction to this area of research Women’s Lives is an inspiring read.

One aspect of the book which I feel is lacking is an explanation of certain terms, phrases and legislation which are referred to throughout.  The reliance on established knowledge of subjects, such as The Poor Law, outdoor relief and the workhouse system, means that a reader who has a superficial understanding of what these aspects of Victorian society were would have to go elsewhere for a definition or explanation.  As other aspects of law and criminal sentencing are dealt with more thoroughly by Newby (for example the presentation of a case study of the criminal transportation ship HMS Rajah), it would have seemed logical to include either a brief description of terminology in the text, or through a glossary at the end of the book which could be referred to by the reader.  Equally, the already useful ‘Timeline of Key Events in Women’s Social History’ at the end of the book could have been elaborated further with annotations describing the events listed.

The faults noted are, however, simply me nit-picking, as overall I found Women’s Lives to be a very interesting book.  It is informative without being dull, and easily inspires the reader to annoy friends with the reading of excerpts and facts that seem alien to us today, such as the account of Mary Wicks being sentenced to fifteen years in a penal colony for simply ‘counterfeiting a shilling’.  Depressing facts that are common knowledge, such as how working class people suffered with injury and illness due to the expense of doctors, medication, and the lack of sick pay, are juxtaposed with inspiring stories, like an account of how colleagues at a Nottingham lace warehouse would collect money for girls who were ill and had no friends or family, and ‘give up their own work in turns to attend her day and night’.

Overall, Women’s Lives is an invaluable research tool and a well compiled collection of historical accounts.  It would make a suitable read for not only the student or early career researcher, but also the casual reader interested in learning more about the topic of women’s social history.  As I have noted, some aspects discussed by Newby may benefit from superficial research by the non-expert, but for most aspects it is nothing that a quick internet search can’t help with!  This book inspires further reading in the area, and the extensive bibliography provides a mine of information for those wishing to do so.


Megan Henesy  is a PhD student at the University of Southampton studying English Literature, and she has previously completed a BA degree in Fine Art at The Arts Institute Bournemouth, and a Masters in Classical Studies through The Open University.  Her main area of research is contemporary women’s writing, in particular the work of Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith.