According to John Burnett, Victorian craftsman, who stood at the apex of the hierarchy of labor, possessed

certain characteristics which marked him off clearly from the rest. Most importantly, he possessed a degree of skill — a combination of manual dexterity and acquired knowledge — which gave him command over his materials and tools and a high degree of control over the quality of the finished product. This skill almost always entitled him to higher wages and to more regular employment than the unskilled worker, and released him from the drudgery of fetching and carrying, preparatory and rough work, to concentrate on the more exacting, and more creative, tasks. Historically, the craftsman's wage was approximately double that of the labourer, and although this differential probably narrowed somewhat during the nineteenth century the gap remained very wide: for engineering labourers in large provincial towns the weekly wage in 1867 was 15s. or 16s. while that of skilled men was 30s. Socially and culturally, the gaps were even wider. Most skilled workers, well before the days of compulsory schooling, had received some elementary education.

From this point in the late twentieth century, one cannot help observing the gender divide that informed Victorian conceptions of skilled work and craftsmanship, since as Burnett points out, female servants, who were generally never considered skilled workers, nonetheless produced what, to us, seem effects of manual skill. For example, "a great deal of clothing, including men's shirts and underwear, was made by servants who were expected to spend their spare time in sewing." Was it that these skills were so widespread as to seem unremarkable, or that, since most female servants entered service so young, that they were considered to have served a female version of an apprenticeship?


John Burnett. The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Last modified December 2001