John Ruskin's description in Fors Clavigera (1877) of two women iron workers creating nails to be used on the Birmingham railway reminds us that Victorian women engaged in many kinds of heavy work:
My host asked me if I would like to see "nailing." "Yes, truly." So he took me into a little cottage in which there were two women at work, — one about seventeen or eighteen, the other perhaps four and five and thirty; this last intelligent of feature as well could be; and both, gentle and kind, each with a hammer in right hand, pincers in left (heavier hammer poised over her anvil, and let fall at need by the touch of her foot on a treadle like that of a common grindstyone). Between them, a small forge, fed to constant brightness by the draught through the cottage, above whose roof the chimney rose: — in front of it, on a little ledge, the glowing lengths of cut iron rod, to be dealt with at speed. . . .
At a word, they laboured with ancient Vulcanian skill. . . . Four strokes with the hammer in hand: one ponderous and momentary blow ordered of the balanced mass by the touch of the foot; and the forged nail fell aside, finished on its proper heap; level-headed, wedge-pointed, a thousand lives soon to depend daily on its driven grip of iron.
So wrought they, — the English matron and maid; — so was it their darg to labour from morning to evening, — seven to seven by the furnace side, — the winds of summer fanning the blasts of it. The wages of the matron . . . were eight shillings a week; her husband, otherwise and variously employed, could make sixteen. Three shillings a week for rent and taxes, left, as I count, for the guerdon of their united labour, if constant, and its product providently saved, fifty-five pounds a year, on which they had to feed and clothe themselves and their six children' eight souls in their little Worcestershire ark. [Works, 29.173-74; quoted by Hilton, 358-59]
"In this way," as Hilton puts it, "a cultivated and compassionate mind met a poor family at the heart of the English Industrial revolution" (359). Note that Ruskin offrers his experience to the reader of Fors much as a travel writer or explorer reports experiences to an audience ignorant of such things. What, then, are the political implications of such "reporting"?
How do Ruskin's sympathetic remarks agree — or disagree — with his views of ironworkers elsewhere, his comments on women in Sesame and Lilies, and his view of labour in earlier works like The Seven Lamps of Architecture?
Hilton, Timothy. John Ruskin: The Later Years. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Ruskin, John. Works. "Library Edition." 39 vols. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.
Last modified 2000