Pawnbrokers, haberdashers and grocers – historical Irish women in business

Antonia Hart

Posted: 1 March, 2017

To launch our #LoveIrishResearch theme for March, ‘A Balancing Act – Research and Gender’, we are delighted to welcome guest blogger Antonia Hart. A postgraduate scholar in the Department of History at TCD, Antonia is working on her doctoral thesis on Irish Women in Business, 1850-1922.

A couple of years ago, I researched the history of a number of Dublin city centre businesses, through the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, for a new publication. As it happened, the businesses that ended up in the book’s final selection were almost all run by men. But I wanted to find out about the businesswomen I’d also come across, women whose presence had so surprised and gratified me. Women of the period worked, of course. They weren’t always stuck in the kitchen, drawing-room or pew, despite the obvious restrictions placed upon them by their position in the eyes of the law and financial institutions, or by the expectations of society and the church. They worked on farms, in domestic service, in industrial production. They took home sewing and lace-making, and they cleaned, sold sex, taught at schools, worked in shops, and from within religious orders they operated orphanages and laundries. But did they engage in entrepreneurial activities?

My quest to find Irishwomen who started and ran businesses is the backbone of my current PhD research. I am sifting through wills and bankruptcy records, through newspaper reports and advertising copy. And they seem to be there, as I had hoped. You could pick out case study after case study and find a compelling narrative in each. The Yeates sisters, Ada, Olive, and Amy, ran a legal stationery business in Dame Street, providing top-drawer secretarial services to a still male-only profession. Louisa Maxwell inherited the proprietorship of the twice-weekly Kilkenny Journal from her mother Mary Anne, who had herself owned it for over fifty years. Kathleen Daly gave up what she described as “one of the best dress warerooms in Limerick” in 1901 to go to America and marry Tom Clarke. Mary Anne Locke ran Locke’s Distillery, and did so exceptionally well, from 1868-1880. Annie McDermott, a clothing dealer working out of Smithfield market in the heart of Belfast, may have run a more humdrum business, but she showed remarkable commitment, longevity and commercial resourcefulness over her forty-six plus years of doing so, dealing with robberies, sacking a son too fond of drinking, managing stock, cash flow and a fall-off in trade. These women are just a few of the names I’ve plucked out of my collection thus far.

I could have named any of their peers who ran hotels, spirit grocers, tobacconists, china shops, chair manufactories, pawnbrokers, drapers, haberdashers, public houses and servants’ employment agencies. There are a few tall poppies, women who were unusually successful in male-dominated industries, managing distilleries, sawmills and shipping businesses. But, for me, the really interesting view is of more ordinary women like Annie McDermott, those numerous, lower-profile women who worked away at running small and medium-sized businesses over many years. These women weren’t necessarily looking to shake up the patriarchal society they lived in, they weren’t necessarily politicised, nor successful, nor ambitious. But they cleared gender-related hurdles just as they cleared commercial ones – because it was expedient to do so. They battled away in business every long working day to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families, and frequently employed family members too. By their quiet application they played their part in forging a better working world for us. Perhaps familiarising ourselves with these Irish businesswomen’s histories will rouse and sustain our own spirit of entrepreneurship. At the very least, the time has come to highlight their neglected stories and recognise them as part of our heritage.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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