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Down the mine at 89: Working life of elderly Victorians revealed

Family History
2 September 2014

Analysis of historic census records reveals the majority of over-65s in Victorian England worked full-time

  • Victorian census reveals farmers, miners, servants and cleaners in their eighties or nineties
  • More than half (57 per cent) of people had to work beyond the age of 65 compared to just 10 per cent today
  • Records also show how so-called ‘NEETs’ were virtually nonexistent in 1891

Working beyond the state pension age may be a concern for many today, but new research shows just how much harder the Victorian over-65s had it, with many working as miners, servants and cleaners into their 80s and 90s.

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The findings, from family history website Ancestry, were revealed through a study of the millions of records in the 1891 Census, which lists the names, ages and occupations of everyone in Britain’s workforce at the time, highlighting historic trends in employment.

Measured against today’s statistics, the census data shows that the number of elderly people working has decreased sharply since the end of the 19th century, with only 10 per cent of over-65s today still working compared to 57 per cent in 1891.

And while today many elderly workers are generally given less physically demanding work to do, in 1891 men such as Robert Barr from Kilbarchan, Scotland, were still mining for coal at the age of 89. Other examples include James Andrews and Francis Appleby, who are listed as agricultural labourers aged 90, and men like John Stevens, 82, from Dorset, and Robert Miller, 90, from Nottingham, a carpenter and general labourer respectively.

John Stevens and other older workers on the 1891 Census.
John Stevens and other older workers on the 1891 Census.

Similarly, the Census reveals many examples of women working into old age, with common occupations including servants, laundresses, and cleaners, such as Priscilla Abbott from Plympton who still worked as a domestic helper at the age of 85.

When separated to reflect gender, the employment rates from 1891 show the different prospects for men and women at the time. Whilst 33 per cent [i] of women over 65 worked in Victorian England, for men the number was much higher, with 88 per cent of all men still working.

Currently the Government is pushing back the age of retirement for those currently working from 65 to 70, largely due to increased life expectancy and living costs.

In the Victorian era, however, the concept of ‘retirement’ didn’t exist, and a lack of state pension or welfare funds meant that elderly people had no support unless they had financial help from relatives. For most working-class people, the only options were work or the workhouse, which forced many people into continued employment no matter how old they were.

Thankfully, attitudes slowly began to change around the turn of the 20th century, and legislation such as the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911 became the first steps towards Government protection of the economically vulnerable by giving those aged 65 financial support if they suffered ill health.

As well as showing huge numbers of elderly workers, the research also highlighted the virtual nonexistent youth unemployment in 1891, with almost every young person not in education involved in some kind of work: 82 per cent [iii] of 16/17-year-olds were employed in 1891 (compared to 22 per cent today), and 79 per cent of 18-24-year-olds had jobs (compared to around 60 per cent today).

Ancestry Senior Content Manager Miriam Silverman comments: “We may be facing a ‘retirement crisis’ today but it is nothing compared to what Victorian workers experienced, with this research providing a shocking picture of the struggles elderly people faced in their day to day lives.”

“It’s thanks to the millions of historic census records on Ancestry that we are able to uncover important social trends such as this. Many of us today will have ancestors who worked well into old age, so now is the perfect time to go online and discover what they did during their ‘golden years’.”

[i] According to an audit of 1007 records on Ancestry from 1891 Census, 57 per cent of those listed as over 65 were employed. According to ONS, the employment rate for those over 65 is 10.1 per cent (published 11 June 2014).

[ii] According to the audit (see footnote 1), 88 per cent of men over the age of 65 were employed, compared to 33 per cent of women

[iii] The audit showed that 82 per cent of 16-17 year olds and 79 per cent of 18-24 year olds were employed full time in 1891.



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