Young, single and working class

Young, single and working class

Throughout the years 1850 to 1950, unmarried, working-class women (single and widowed) formed the largest proportion of the female workforce in Ipswich, as elsewhere.  Whether by convention or by regulation, once a woman was married she left work to run her home, and was expected tohave children and care for her family.  Particularly in times of high male unemployment, so it went, it was not thought right for a married woman to take a job that could go to a married man, or even a single girl.  

From the 1920s into the late 1940s (but sometimes even later), many employers, including the civil service, banks and local government, operated a formal marriage bar.  Their female workers were obliged to resign as soon as they got married, so many women, including teachers, nurses and doctors, lost their jobs in this way.  As Miss Duncan of Ipswich Borough Police put it:

‘When women joined, they often married a policeman but then you couldn't stay.  You couldn't be married and be a policewoman.’ 

Although some women objected, many women accepted this as perfectly right and natural.  Their role was in the home while the husband’s job was to provide for his family. 

‘You worked till you got married.  People would look down on you if you worked after.  It would mean your husband couldn’t keep you ... You expected to work till you were 21 or so, then be married and looking after your family and home.’ (Member of the Springfield Women’s Club remembering the late 1940s/1950s)   

Any perception that young, single women worked for ‘pin money’ is simply misleading.  In many working class households, daughters’ wages made an important contribution to the total family income.  In hard times, these young women could find it easier to get jobs than their fathers as they were paid less.  Many families relied on more than one wage-earner to make ends meet. 

The official school leaving age rose from 12 before 1921, then to 14 (in 1921) and eventually to 15 after 1947.  With  the average age at marriage being over 24 years for much of our period, young working-class women could expect be in the labour market for at least ten years, and work did dominate their daily lives.

War work


In the Second World War, Ransomes set up mini-factories in villages around Ipswich where women made small parts for ploughs and trucks.  (Ipswich Transport Museum)




Marriage regulations and conventions were relaxed during both World Wars as women workers were needed when the men went off to war.  And in peacetime, there was social pressure on married women to withdraw from work to make way for demobbed men returning to the labour market.  This short excerpt from letter to the Ipswich Evening Star expresses this disapproval and a genuine sense of unfairness:

‘I have recently been discharged from the Army, and came to Ipswich hoping to see a friend who was with me in the Army, but I find that he has to leave his job, though a married woman is still kept on .... (F. COOK, late Sgt., R.E. , Woodbridge Road, Ipswich. 20 January, 1920)

Which occupations were open to women? 

Domestic service, textile and garment making were the largest employers of women nationally and locally right up to the Second World War.   After the war, women did not return to domestic service.  New jobs in factories, shops and offices offered women shorter hours, higher wages and very different daily lives from those of women who had been in service.  By 1951 clerical work had become by far the largest sector – and seemed much more desirable than cleaning:

‘Office work was considered much posher than domestic service as a job.’ ((Member of the Springfield Women’s Club remembering the late 1940s/1950s)   

Other expanding occupations were in the professions (teaching, nursing, medicine, law and so on) which very, very slowly opened up to more middele-class women from the second half of nineteenth century.

Each of these sectors will be discussed in its local context in further articles on this website.

One of a kind

There were, of course, always a few local women with strikingly idiosyncratic jobs:

Daisy Dakin (1884-1942) who lived at 108 Bramford Road, Ipswich in her childhood, taught folk and morris dancing to British troops on the Western Front. (English Folk Dance and Song Society)







Flora Sandes (b.1876 – d. Ipswich 1956 ) was the only British woman known to have served as a front-line combat soldier in the Great War.  She reached the rank of major in the Serbian Army. (Mike Sandes)





Edith Cook (b. Ipswich 1878), professional balloonist, parachutist and pilot.  She died in Coventry in 1910 in a ballooning accident.


Needs must

Throughout the period, some married women in Ipswich did take up paid work when they could.  Even during the years when a formal  marriage bar operated, the lowest paid jobs tended to be exempt.  As elsewhere, married women in Ipswich who wanted or needed to work took what jobs they could find, not least to fit around the children and household duties.  As Kim Whymark said to me: 

‘Mum did a bit of everything.  She worked in cafes, a bakery, cleaning and in the Lucas CAV factory.  She turned her hand to most things - picking spuds and that.’ 

For all women at work, though, unequal pay and limited promotion prospects were the realities of life. 


Local newspapers

Ipswich in the Great War by Rachel Field, Pen & Sword, 2016

Young women, work and family in England 1918-1950 by Selina Todd, OUP, 2005

UK census data

There are difficulties relying on the national ten-yearly census as they generally under-reported women’s occupations.  For example, we know from Joseph Alderton’s memoir that his wife, Charlotte, variously ran a shop, took in lodgers, made waistcoats and worked a mangle to make end meet.  None of these activities were ever recorded in her census details.  Her occupation is given as ‘household duties’, whether due to reticence on the Aldertons’ part or because of the enumerator’s instructions. 

Moreover, the census uses different categories and age groups to report on occupational data over the century so comparisons across time are difficult. 

Suffolk Voices, Oral History Interviews, Suffolk County Council

This is a collection of taped oral history interviews (now on CDs).  They are roughly categorised by location and topic but often undated.  Some are available as transcripts from Ipswich Record Office.  You can order the CDs through the County Library. They are a useful but very frustrating resource.