Pea Pickers, Fisher Girls and Market Women

08 June 2018

Gender and Sexuality

The Munby collection was bequeathed to Trinity College on the understanding that the deed boxes in which it was held were not to be opened until 1950. Shrouded in secrecy until that date researchers and scholars must have been elated to find the remarkable diaries of Arthur Joseph Munby contained inside. Those opening the boxes also found photograph albums, poetry and an additional set of diaries written by Munby’s wife Hannah Cullwick. This extraordinary collection featured in Gender: Identity and Social Change, is enhanced with Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology to enable full-text searching of the manuscript material. 

Photograph of Hannah Cullwick © Trinity College, Cambridge. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Victoria era called for decorousness and virtuousness and Arthur Munby was a leading example of a proper Victorian gentleman. He was well educated, worked as a solicitor, a barrister and a civil servant, taught Latin, and wrote and published poetry. He mixed in artistic and literary circles and several of his diary entries mention notable figures such as John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackery and Charles Dickens. Yet Munby’s true passion and fascination lay with the observation of working women. Munby’s diaries are laden with rich descriptions of the daily toil, lives and emotions of these women he was so engrossed with.

Diary of A J Munby: Volume 25 © Trinity College, Cambridge. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To see this document in the collection click the image. Available for free for 30 days. 

Munby travelled all over Britain and Europe so he could meet women from different working backgrounds. His diary entries detail meetings with milkwomen, prostitutes, farm labourers, pea pickers, fisher girls, market women and many more. Munby writes about their appearance, daily tasks, wages and the power and education of modern English women in comparison to men. Particular attention is paid to his maid Hannah Cullwick who eventually became his wife. Their relationship was kept mostly secret for over nineteen years with Munby and Hannah even marrying in private. He writes of her often, including details of her daily cleaning routine, her appearance and, sadly, her accounts of violent abuse at the hands of previous employees. Interestingly, upon marrying Munby, Hannah’s role of maid within the household would not change. 

One of my favourite parts of these extraordinary diaries are the beautiful sketches of working women drawn by Munby which helps bring his written accounts to life. The documents are a treasure trove, even including sketches of female acrobats.

Diary of A J Munby: Volume 8 © Trinity College, Cambridge. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To see this document in the collection click the image. Available for free for 30 days. 

Diary of A J Munby: 1869 © Trinity College, Cambridge. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This wonderful collection allows us to start understanding the lives of the hard working, brave and tenacious women in mid-century Victorian England. However one may view Munby and his fascination, the diaries are an invaluable source for scholars studying Victorian Britain, gender history and women’s studies. 

Gender: Identity and Social Change is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Sarah Hodgson

Sarah Hodgson

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections in the arts and humanities. I have had the pleasure of working on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and African American Communities.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.