Down the Mine at 89: “Retirement” Age in Victorian England

Posted by Paul Rawlins on September 2, 2014 in Family History

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 80s or 90s
  • More than half (57 percent) of people had to work beyond the age of 65 compared to just 10 percent today
  • Records also show how so-called “NEETs” were virtually nonexistent in 1891

There’s been plenty of talk about raising the Social Security age in the U.S., and working beyond the state pension age is on the mind of many Brits as well, but new research shows just how much harder the Victorian over-65s had it. Forget long hours as a greeter or flipping burgers; plenty of them were working as miners, servants, and cleaners into their 80s and 90s.

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The findings, from family history website, 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 percent of over-65s today still working compared to 57 percent in 1891.[i]

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 percent of women over 65 worked in Victorian England, for men the number was much higher, with 88 percent of all men still working.[ii]

Currently, governments in both the UK and the U.S. are looking to push back the age of retirement for those currently working beyond 65, largely due to increased life expectancy and living costs.

In the Victorian era however, the concept of “retirement” didn’t exist for many, 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.

Attitudes slowly began to change around the turn of the 20th century. In England 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. The United States saw Social Security go into effect in 1937.

But there was a plus side—sort of. 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 percent of 16/17 year olds were employed in 1891 (compared to 22 per cent today), and 79 percent of 18-24 year olds had jobs (compared to around 60 per cent today).[iii]

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[i] According to an audit of 1007 records on 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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