A typical search result for 'Victorian Lady' on Google Images

If Victorian working women are represented at all in today’s culture, it is usually an image of poor women working in factories or mills, struggling to make ends meet. (For example, the recent Channel 4 historical drama The Mill.) As Author Wanda Neff says ‘The mill women have come to stand, in popular opinion, for the Victorian working woman.’ [i] The experiences of upper and middle class women who worked to give themselves financial independence or women who dedicated their lives to philanthropy outside the home, have not been as widely portrayed.

This may be due to the fact that ‘the average wage that the working class woman could command was below subsistence level and occupations for middle class women, primarily those of governess, teacher, shop-assistant, nurse, office clerk and civil servant, were few and poorly paid.’ [ii]

Despite this, I’d like to focus on the relatively hidden away lives of two kinds of women who did manage to work in 19th century Britain: Prison Matrons and Lady Visitors to the prisons. These professions allowed women the ability to have a career, and in the case of prison matrons, the chance to have financial independence in a society that expected women to strictly inhabit the domestic sphere and be dependent on their husbands or fathers.


The image of the ideal Victorian woman was constantly reinforced in the culture of the time, such as Coventry Patmore’s poem ‘The Angel in the House’ published in 1854, which described the ideal woman in the Victorian age: overall, she would be ‘willing to be dependent on men and submissive to them, and she would have preference for a life restricted to the confines of the home. She would be innocent, pure, gentle and self-sacrificing.’ [iii]

The image that Patmore creates is in complete contrast to the depiction of the prison matrons in Affinity. In the novel, these women are portrayed as very hardworking and almost as prisoners themselves; ‘their hours are as long as the hours of scullery-maids. They are given rooms in the prison in which to rest, but are often too exhausted from their day patrolling the wards to do anything in their leisure time but fall upon their beds and sleep.’ [iv]

The memoir Female life in a prison, by a prison matron, also discusses the strain of working such a demanding job, stating that ‘when, as it sometimes happens in the summertime, six or seven matrons are sick or absent on leave, the excitement and hard work of the remaining officers are pitiable to witness. Double duty and little chance of enjoying fresh air, constitute an existence that no white slave need envy.’ [v]

This suggests that the job of prison matron offered little reward apart from a small financial gain, although this would not have been on par with male wardens. It is also clear that female prison matrons were not considered ‘professionals’ in the sense that they would be today.

A 19th century Prison Matron in her uniform

After doing this research I began to wonder why this job appealed to women at all, unless out of absolute necessity. It soon became clear however, that some women working at the prison became almost as institutionalized as their prisoners. This passage in Affinity describes a matron’s response when asked why she remained a matron so long:

‘When I asked Miss Craven would the work ever be so hard to drive her to another occupation, she looked bitter. “I should like to know,” she said, “what else I am fit for after working eleven years at Millbank!” She will be walking the wards, she supposes, until she drops down dead.’ [vi]

The despair in this statement is echoed in the words of another matron in Affinity, who had 21 years working in gaol ‘which was a longer sentence that most convicts serve.’ [vii] The narrator ofAffinity goes to suppose that ‘all the matron’s lives… must be very miserable. They are kept as close to the goal, almost, as if they were inmates themselves.’ [viii]

I have struggled to find official facts and statistics about prison matrons in the Victorian age, such as the actual hours they worked and what their background were. They appear to be a very obscure part of society, something that was kept in the shadows because it did not conform to the feminine ideal. However, there was something that they did command uniquely in the prisons, and which they would never have received elsewhere: power and respect.

The idea that a Victorian woman could be a working woman with power in the sphere she worked in is one that seems absolutely alien to our impression of Victorian life, but it’s true. For the female prisoners they supervised, the matrons held all of the cards; ‘it is singular the little respect and awe that are shown for the schoolmistresses and the power that is possessed by the matron over the prisoners.’ [ix]

In Female Life in Prison, by a Prison Matron, one of the male wardens comments that ‘‘“How you ladies manage to live in such a constant state of excitement is a puzzle to us on the men’s side…it must be a hard time for all of you.” [x]. Remarks of respect like these must have seemed very out of place for the time, and it’s clear from the novel that the matrons were viewed with distaste and suspicion by most people, and that they were patronized by many members of society who felt that it was unnatural for women to work such a demanding job and who doubted their capability to perform such tasks.

Millbank prison: the setting for Affinity

The narrator of Affinity herself describes how she felt unnerved by a matron’s authority; ‘perhaps it was only the association of the chain of keys- which still swung and sometimes tumbled unmusically together, on the chain of her belt, but her voice seemed to be tainted with steel.’ [xi]

Another passage in the novel highlights the way that prison matrons were received by the public, and men in particular, by stating; ‘he said “police matrons… are a horrible breed, born to tyranny, born with the chains already swinging around their hips. Their mothers gave them iron keys to suck on to make their teeth come.”’ [xii]

This villianisation of the prison matrons is to be expected, as the matrons stood in such contrast to their meek and mild counterparts in the outside world: ‘women as workers did not harmonize with the philosophy of the Victorians. Women ought to marry, women were potential mothers.’ [xiii]

For myself though, I think the way prison matrons were viewed is very fascinating as it strongly resembles the argument that is still on-going today: can woman have it all? Is it right to dedicate your life to your profession instead of having and bringing up children? It seems the Victorians thought not. It is interesting that we think of as a modern debate appears to have been just as important in the 19th century.

So the first type of 19th century women I have discussed were hardworking women, who supported themselves but were largely isolated and ostracized from polite society and viewed as unskilled laborers instead of being given recognition for their work. But what about Lady Visitors to the prisons? Lady Visitors were middle class and upper class women who visited prisons out of charity in order to provide friendship, advice, religious and moral guidance to prisoners. They would also assist the prisoners with their schooling, and were sometimes better educated than the schoolmistresses employed to teach in the prisons.

Lady visitors were a help to the prisons as they provided the matrons with some relief and the prisoners with some stimulation away from their mundane and routine chores, as Robinson states; ‘Those lady visitors, who are kind and patient without being patronizing, exert a salutary influence over the women; and as a general rule, the prisoners are respectful and even grateful for the interest evinced in them.’ [xii]

affinity bookLady Visitors are also discussed positively in Affinity; as a warden at the prison describes the calming influence lady visitors had on the prisoners; ‘let a lady go to them… let them know only that she has left her comfortable life solely to visit them… and they will grow meek, softened and subdued.’ [xiv] This suggests that the Lady Visitors encouraged the prisoners to conform to the female stereotype that was admired in society, perhaps in order to better find employment when they left the prison and to fit in in the community.

However, Lady Visitors were often imposed upon by prison rules, which got stricter throughout the 19th century and their wish to treat the prisoners as individuals went against the principles of the prison that were based on uniformity. Although The Association of Lady Visitors was founded in 1901, their recommendations were not allowed to be published in the annual report of the Police Commission, thus diminishing their power. It is important to note however, that women had been working in this vocation for many years before an official association was created. From the early 19th century, Elizabeth Fry began her work as a Lady Visitor in prisons, attempting to reform prisoners through ‘kindness and strictness’; something is she now idolized for. In modern times, Fry is universally recognized as one of the leading public female philanthropists in history.

At the end of the ‘memoir Female life in a prison, by a prison matron (incidentally written by a Victorian man), the author describes 19th century prisons as if they were other worlds, separate from the rest of society: ‘In some senses it may be said that all the world is a prison. All the worlds’ elements, good and bad… are all as common to this dark little sphere as to the world without. In this little world is more of life’s discord than harmony- a world in its in entirety, with all its troubles, ambitions and responsibilities.’ [xv]

Lady Visitor and Prison Reformer Elizabeth Fry

And I think that for Victorian working women, the entire world truly was a prison, and in an ironic twist an actual female prison  was one of the only places they could be themselves. It gave them the chance to govern their own little ‘society’, and to the great surprise, I imagine, of most Victorian eyes, they actually did very well indeed.


Jade Barber is currently a 2nd year student studying English and Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores. 


[i] Neff, W. Victorian working women – An historical and literary study of women in British industries and professions 1832-1850. Oxfordshire: Routledge,, 2006. p.20

[ii] Lyndon-Shanley, M. Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1989.

[iii] Gorham, D. The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal. London: Routledge, 2012.

[iv] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013. p. 24

[v] F.W, Robinson. Female Life in Prison, by a Prison Matron. London: Hunt and Blatchett Publishers, 1862. p.3

[vi] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013. p.61

[vii] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013. p. 28

[viii] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013. p.61

[ix] F.W, Robinson. Female Life in Prison, by a Prison Matron. London: Hunt and Blatchett Publishers, 1862. p. 71

[x] F.W, Robinson. Female Life in Prison, by a Prison Matron. London: Hunt and Blatchett Publishers. p.4

[xi] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013 p.29

[xii] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013. p.60

[xiii] Neff, W. Victorian working women – An historical and literary study of women in British industries and professions 1832-1850. Oxfordshire: Routledge,, 2006 p. 14

[xiv] Waters, S. Affinity. London:Hachette Digital, 2013.p.24

[xv] F.W, Robinson. Female Life in Prison, by a Prison Matron. London: Hunt and Blatchett Publishers, 1862. p.298