‘The Victorian elites were essentially peeking through their fingers’
The highs and lows of ‘Dinner Hour’
By Thomas McGrath
Somewhere in the complex of factory buildings a whistle sounded, and the machinery gradually ground to a halt. The women welcomed this break and most of them were halfway through a 10-hour workday. They flooded in droves down narrow staircases and out into the streets. Clogs clattered over cobbles, bare feet trod damp paving flags. They linked arms and gossiped. This was their own time. This was their dinner hour.
Some of the women who settled themselves on a low wall outside Victoria Mill on Wallgate noticed a strange figure against an otherwise familiar background. “He’s ‘ere again,” whispered one to the other, gazing at the incongruous figure of a well-dressed man sketching them.
One of the women, egged on by the others, approached him and asked what he was doing. No doubt they were somewhat mystified when he revealed himself to be Eyre Crowe, an artist, and that he was going to paint them exactly as they were, outside the mill on their dinner hour. Crowe, who came from a family of journalists, thought that his social observation of working-class life, through the delicate medium of oil on canvas, would revolutionise art, culture, and the world beyond it.
But the reviews of Crowe’s richly detailed The Dinner Hour, Wigan fell flat when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. For some it was too grim, too industrial. One reviewer in The Athenaeum, stated “we think it a pity Mr Crowe wasted his time on such unattractive materials […] We admire Mr Crowe’s conscientiousness in painting such uninviting subjects as these, but we submit that he might often have used his time more wisely.” More contemporary critics and art historians have questioned whether Crowe romanticised the scene with its relatively soft smokeless skies and depictions of well-fed women.
For the past century The Dinner Hour has hung on the walls of Manchester’s City Art Gallery as a beacon of bygone times. Though depicting Wigan, it is reflective of any nineteenth-century town or city in the North, and for this the painting has been celebrated as a symbol synonymous with the industrial revolution. But I’m still left wondering, if Crowe failed to capture it, then what was life really like for these “unattractive” and “uninviting” women?
The fetishisation of the working classes
Crowe’s painting was produced in an era when the working classes, particularly working-class women, were the subject of much interest and fascination. Artwork depicting the labouring poor was not a new phenomenon and scenes of domestic servants and rural workers had been popular since the seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century industrial scenes began to be exhibited, such as Work (1865) by Ford Madox Brown, which showed the London rich and poor cheek-by-jowl as they went about their daily lives.
At the same time Arthur Munby, a solicitor who secretly married his maid and derived sexual gratification from her work, was photographing Wigan’s female colliery workers in their workwear. The pit-brown lasses were pictured in their trousers, and conversely, in their Sunday best crinolines, in an attempt to show that they could be feminine and respectable. The Victorian elites were essentially peeking through their fingers. They were aghast by the lack of femininity amongst these working-class women, but they also couldn’t get enough of it.
Crowe tapped into this vein. As well as The Dinner Hour, he also painted Spoilbank, a scene of Wigan’s female colliery workers. The backdrop of Crowe’s painting was Victoria Mill and only one building still remains. Plenty is known about the mill owner, Thomas Taylor, who literally left a legacy in bricks and mortar across Wigan town centre, including the reference library which is now the Museum of Wigan Life. In stark contrast to this, no names or details at all about the women depicted in the painting survive.
Yet a narrative is written in the imagery of the artwork, such as the metal canisters which most of the women hold. These contained a liquid lunch, likely tea or milk, or soup for the more fortunate ones. One woman leans against a lamppost throwing some food to a friend whilst underneath the shadowy figure of a woman cradles a small child. This is a subtle but stark reminder that many of these women were working mothers, though out of necessity rather than choice.
Famine, fear and fatigue: working conditions in the mill
Crowe, however, also clearly used his artistic licence. All the women are presented as being full of health and vitality, with little evidence of the weariness most would have experienced on their dinner hour, having started work at 5:30am. Most of the women in the foreground were wearing clogs, though in reality many women spent most of their time barefoot, to the extent that a charity made it their mission to offer some kind of footwear. In just half a day, 800 pairs of clogs were freely given to Wigan’s female population in the early 1860s.
Though these anomalies would not have been known by the London elites, they were picked up by correspondents closer to home. In their review of Crowe’s painting the Manchester Guardian noted one glaring omission was cotton dust. The women, apparently, looked “too clean without the adherent fluff” which floated through the hot, humid air like snowflakes and coated hair and clothing. Unfortunately, it also clogged the respiratory systems of mill workers leading to lifelong illnesses such as bronchitis, silicosis and byssinosis.
After studying the painting, the viewer’s eye is eventually drawn to one woman in the background. She stands with her hand on her hip and her other hand is raised to her head. To me, this woman holds the weight of the distress of countless female mill workers. She likely depicts how many spent their dinner hour; exhausted, hungry and stressed. Perhaps she was still temporarily deafened from the clattering machines, or she was recovering from a lucky near escape that could have ended with her arm being mangled or her fingers torn off.
Maybe she had overheard talk that there would be a strike at the mill for want of better pay, but she knew that any piecemeal outcomes would only be offered to, and benefit, male workers. In 1859, a female worker could expect to take home, on average, 8 shillings for a 60 hour work week. A man working the same hours, and occasionally doing the same role, could earn as much as 20 shillings.
This disparity of labour was reflected when these women and girls eventually trudged their way back home. There, they began their second jobs doing domestic duties. Those working-class families lucky enough to have all children aged 12 and over in employment would enjoy a more comfortable standard of life. Perhaps the mother could stay at home and mind their small, but pleasant ‘two-up, two-down.’ For households consisting of young families, single parents, or those facing illness, unemployment or old age, the options were bleak.
Much of the slum housing in Wigan was already over a century old by the 1870s. Landlords depleted their tenants’ wage packets but offered little in return. Houses were overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe. Floors were paved with loose bricks or stinking, wet compact earth. Walls and ceilings bulged with damp plaster and mould. It was not uncommon to find nine houses sharing just two outside loos. To try and balance their incomes and outgoings, many working-class families sublet rooms to lodgers. The poorest sublet beds. In a one-roomed slum in a mill town not far from Wigan, there was only one bed for seven people; a woman, her three children (one a girl of 16), the male lodger, and his two sons aged 16 and 17. This was just normal life.
Stuck on the endless treadmill of poverty, going to work was a break and escape for many women, no matter how exhausting it was. What happens when work is taken away? Our distressed character in the painting would have carried the trauma of living through the Cotton Famine a decade before Crowe visited Wigan. The American Civil War (1861-1865) had disrupted supplies of raw cotton from southern plantations to England and despite being over 3300 miles away, the North West was particularly hard hit.
The effects were devastating. Within a year, the cotton industry in Wigan was at a standstill. Only two of the 35 mills were operating full time, the rest were either operating on short time, or like Victoria Mill closed entirely. The workforces were laid off and around 7,000 of the 9,000 cotton workers in Wigan were claiming relief funds by the end of 1862. The shockwaves then rippled outwards. Collieries offered less shifts, as less coal was needed now the mills were closed. Shopkeepers in Wigan saw their incomes fall to one-sixth of what it had been in the 1850s. All spectrums of society were involved. Lord Lindsay, Wigan’s resident aristocrat at Haigh Hall, offered hundreds of unemployed men work laying out the grounds around his country estate. Lady Lindsay paid for schools to be set up for 2,000 unemployed girls, so they could learn other skills necessary to find employment as domestic servants.
Times were tough but undoubtedly the hardest hit were women. They still had homes to run and mouths to feed. When the money ran out, and the rent went unpaid, they resorted to pawning their clothes, bedding and furniture. Favoured items could be reclaimed if the tight budget allowed for it, but more often than not these items were lost forever. This was such a widespread practice, that Lord Lindsay offered £500 to the Cotton Famine Relief Fund specifically for the redemption of clothes and other goods from pawnbrokers.
Desperate times led to desperate measures and many women went out begging. This was a risky venture with little reward. If caught, a woman would be charged with being a “rogue and vagabond” and imprisoned for 21 days with hard labour. Catherine Donnelly, a 19-year-old mill worker, fell victim to the other dangers for those in her position. She was one of the 2,500 individuals let go when Victoria Mill closed in February 1862. Aged just 19 with no family and no friends it was only a matter of days before she had run out of food and money.
She set out to the outlying towns and villages around Wigan to beg. In Kit Green she was forcibly dragged into a pub by three men, who then locked her into a room, hit her across the face with a glass and one or more raped her. Catherine was reluctant to go to the police, but eventually the matter made it to the courts. For hours she was examined, questioned, and re-questioned in graphic detail by the all-male courtroom. Why was she begging? Was she sure she hadn’t had a drink? How loud had she screamed inside the pub? Two men were acquitted at the sessions in Wigan and the third, who was sent for trial at Liverpool Assizes court was also acquitted.
Would Catherine have been disappointed at the outcome of the trial? Given her hesitance to go to the police in the first place, it is unlikely. As an Irish, working-class woman she knew the odds were stacked against her. The male-dominated court system did little to support working-class women. Convictions for rape were rare in Victorian Britain, unless the attacker was caught in the act or there was an abnormality to the case. Carolyn Conley’s analysis of rape cases in the Kent courts between 1859-1880 is reflective of the pitfalls of the system, even though the figures are worryingly higher than modern conviction rates. The conviction rate of rape trials in Kent was just 40%, compared to 85% for other crimes. The fact these cases, and Catherine’s, made it to court in the first place was just as astonishing; in Kent just 21% of men accused of rape stood trial.
These were the perils working-class women and girls faced. They were not seen as survivors, or even as victims, instead they were viewed suspiciously as instigators. Women in Wigan were at least lucky that they did not live in certain port or barrack towns in Britain, as the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 allowed police to arrest any woman suspected of being a prostitute. These women were then submitted to an intrusive internal examination to check for venereal diseases. A teenage daughter could be sent by her mother to buy a loaf of bread and end up imprisoned in a lock hospital.
Catherine, like countless others, was left behind to pick up the fragments of her life. There’s no record of what happened to her next. She may have eventually returned to the mill, but considering she had no ties to Wigan, she may have moved to another town or city, to eke out her existence as just another mill girl.
Of course, Eyre Crowe wouldn’t have got this close to the subjects of his painting. If his aim was to paint a scene of social realism and to give people a glimpse of working conditions in the industrial north, he fulfilled it. But the reality of the lives of these women wasn’t exactly something that could have been conveyed in oil on canvas.
While the painting was considered un-picturesque in its own time, I’m always struck by how charmed I am, and no doubt how charmed I suspect most modern-day viewers are, by the rosy-cheeked women with their billowing aprons and postcard-pretty red brick buildings. It’s a strange sort of anemoia — the feeling of nostalgia for a time you’ve never lived in. But then I think of the world this painting embodied; the hardness of it, the constant graft, and the precarity. Suddenly I’m relieved again that the majority of these women’s lived realities have been consigned to the history books and to paintings hanging in art galleries.