Today, a parable about social equity. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Victorian England had a
strong economy, and her booming industries demanded
labor. Poor women and children were a rich source.
So women shoveled coal, made bricks and forged
iron. They sold their backbreaking labor for a few
shillings a week.
Poor women were completely separate from the
English life we read about. Not even Dickens told
the worst of it. The social system so separated
them from the lettered upper class that a gentleman
wasn't even supposed to speak to a poor woman.
Arthur Munby, an important member of the
Ecclesiastical Commissions in London, was
fascinated by working women. He was drawn to them.
He tracked them, sketched them, wrote about them,
and collected their photos. His work left us a rich
So we're able to look through his eyes. What we see
are strong, handsome, functional women --
straightforward women who made a peculiar mockery
of Victorian manners and affectation. No wonder
Munby was attracted. They really are striking.
Now the plot thickens. In 1874 a London tabloid
told about women working in the mines. It painted a
terrible picture. Women worked as bare-chested
beasts of burden pulling coal carts deep in the
shafts. The pit brow girls wore trousers like men.
That was even worse. The magazine called for
Munby was appalled. He'd struck up friendships with
those women. He knew and liked them. He wrote to a
select Committee of Parliament recommending that
they be allowed to continue. They needed and
enjoyed their work. Although he didn't say it, he
clearly felt they were an endangered species under
Munby was especially attracted to a working woman
named Hannah Cullwick. She was a "maid-of-all-work"
in his own household. That meant she did any dirty
job in a large house. It was back-breaking labor.
Hannah was a tall, well-built woman.
In 1873, Munby and Hannah married. But he had to
keep the marriage secret. It would've ruined him
socially. So at home, she stayed the servant. When
they traveled abroad, she was his well-dressed
Victorian lady. He carried matched pairs of photos
of Hannah. She's dressed as a servant on one side
and as a fine lady on the other. Another pair shows
her as a bonnetted fashion plate and as a
lamp-blacked, half-naked chimney sweep.
It's no surprise that they grew distant in the last
30 years of such a marriage. After all, Munby was
as damaged by that paralyzing social order as
Hannah was. He wrote poetry about the innate
equality of rich and poor women. But, in the end,
tyranny degrades master and slave alike. And we
wonder: Did either one have any way out of the
terrible net they were both caught in?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds