chapter
INTRODUCTION
Pages 2

The dramatic effects upon the structure of the working-class family resulting from the pressures of industrialization and urbanization are well known. Rather less well known until recently have been the tensions making for conflict between family members which were intensified by the changes. The breakdown of village culture, the replacement of seasonal work-disciplines by those of the factory or workshop, the rise of wage-labour and the ideal of the male breadwinner’s ‘family wage’ capable of supporting a dependent family, together with new religious and secular controls over behaviour, all placed enormous stress on family relationships in a domestic setting that was, relatively, more isolated. From the beginning the male breadwinning ideal was threatened by the cheaper, unskilled labour of women and children, which provoked persistent fears of the undermining of men’s natural family authority.1 But achievement of the ideal family form of male breadwinner and dependent, home-making wife, partly modelled upon the increasingly pervasive middle-class prescription, was no guarantee of domestic felicity. Economic marginality, pressures from large numbers of children (and larger numbers of births) and separate, homosocial cultures of husbands and wives provided fertile ground for sexual antagonism. The familiar burdens for women of household budgeting on inadequate income, which so often resulted in self-deprivation, was very likely to stimulate resentment, whether or not it was expressed overtly. Less familiar conflict could arise from uneven access to vital skills like literacy, which until later in the nineteenth century was rarely achieved by more than one family member, and, in those districts where this was more likely to be the wife, resentments stemming from implied threats to male authority might be aggravated.2 Only at the end of our period did some evidence of the decline in the birth-rate begin to emerge among the working class,3 but it is likely that issues arising from contested control of sexuality and reproduction had provided an additional domestic battleground for much longer, which may well have been deepened by pressures of urban crowding and poverty.