Using Negatives to Fill in the Gaps: Sources for Early Modern Women’s Work

This post comes from Amy Creighton, who is starting her second year as a PhD student at the University of York. Under the supervision of Dr. Mark Jenner, her research focuses on early modern women’s work and conceptions of skill, physical capacity and labour. In particular, she looks at London and York from c. 1660 to 1750. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and French from Seattle University and a Master’s degree in Early Modern History from the University of York. To contact Amy, get in touch on Twitter @amyecreighton

Amy Creighton (University of York)

Researching the gendered-nature of skill and labour in early modern England can often present difficulties in finding source that speak to the experiences of women. In order to better understand the nuances of attitudes towards women’s work, a number of different source-types must be examined using various perspectives. Evidence that details negative aspects of trades or instances of work gone wrong can be used to expand upon and complicate studies of women’s work. One such source is petitions for the dissolution of apprenticeship. Since the time of Adam Smith, debates have raged over how oppressive the apprenticeship system was in early modern times, but recent research has begun to explore the way in which apprentices had some control over their own paths. Patrick Wallis, for example, has shown how petitions of dissolution help uncover the expectations apprentices had of their masters and vice versa.[i] By applying such methods of source analysis to cases of female apprenticeship, I seek to reveal how women in particular formed self-constructed narratives within the economic sphere. The quarter session papers of the City of London and Middlesex hold numerous examples of women investing in their skillsets through petitions.[ii]

Historians have addressed the problem that young girls may have often been used for cheap labour rather than true apprentices. Although this was true in certain instances, the petitions provide examples of how women used the system to learn skills that could benefit the family economy or, sometimes, to help create an individual business. As such, when masters or mistresses failed to instruct and denied necessaries the courts provided opportunities to change the situation. Such cases demonstrate contemporary acknowledgement that women could expect to learn skills similar to the way in which men did, and families sought to prevent girls being taken advantage of as domestic servants or hard labourers.

‘Domestick Employment Washing’, Charles Spooner, c.1750s. Image courtesy of the British Museum.
The narratives of drudgery and hard labour within the petitions are indicative of what one did not want from their training. For example, Mary Smith signed an indenture in 1736 to ‘learn the art and skill of making women’s clothes’.[iii] However, in her petition she explained that ‘instead of working at her said trade [she] is constantly employed in some laborious works about the house, washing, scowering, cleaning of rooms & such like’, acts ‘by which…she wears out more clothes and apparel than her father can provide to her’. Such laborious tasks are in direct contrast to the ‘art and skill’ she had expected to learn and the wearing down of her clothes threatens her chances of future employment.

In 1692, George Perry petitioned on behalf of his daughter, claiming her master John Appleby and his wife ‘have put her to do all drudgery and not instructed her in the said art’, noting how the drudgery impeded her ability to actually do the trade of washing, and demonstrating the concept of difference between housework and craft.[iv] The language used to describe girls’ cases highlights the negative attributes of apprenticeship, revealing a fear that girls may be forced into housework or menial tasks — their crafted narratives enforced their right to learn a trade rather than menial tasks within an apprenticeship. This is demonstrative of how sources that underline negative aspects reveal expectations of reality, and in particular for my research, reveal aspects of women’s work. Although some of these findings may seem straightforward, it is nonetheless important to include them in our findings to add to the few female voices of labouring women existing for the early modern period.



[i] Patrick Wallis, ‘Labour, Law, and Training in Early Modern London: Apprenticeship and the City’s Institutions’. Journal of British Studies 51 (October, 2012): 793.

[ii] Middlesex Sessions, Session Papers [SM/PS], London Lives [LL] 1690-1800,,, version 1.1, 17 June 2012), London Metropolitan Archives [LMA].

[iii] SM/PS, October 1736, LL, LMSMPS503190077 (, version 1.1, 17 June 2012), LMA.

[iv] SM/PS, December 1692, LL, LMSMPS500240001 (, version 1.1, 17 June 2012), LMA.

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