Women and Island Life over 100 years ago

aysta66In the next few posts, during August I am going to address issues regarding women in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was a period of great change, a contrast you will see if you read my two novels ‘Riduna‘ and ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home.’

Riduna is set in the mid to late 19th Century and on the island of Riduna (Alderney) the role of single women was certainly to work in service or in the important tourist industry. They would be maids in the various larger homes or boarding houses or waitresses or cleaning staff in the few hotels. Travelling was important to the Victorians of means and destinations like Alderney provided a desired break from everyday life at home. (Nothing changes)

On Alderney the majority of children went to school, although the girls would have focussed on reading, writing and needlework. Only a few would have enjoyed a wider curriculum. It is interesting to me that my Great Grandmother, living on Alderney at the time, was literate, whereas her husband, a Guernseyman could barely sign his own name at the time of their marriage. By 16 year, all the girls would be employed to provide a meagre income to contribute to household expenses until they were married. Then they would have to give up work, unless they continued in the family business, whether in a shop such as a bakers or an inn or boarding house.

Added to the life of the islanders the population was swelled by various migrating groups which had an impact on the social dynamics of late 19th Century Alderney. Firstly there were professionals from mainland Britain….for example doctors and teachers who would bring their families with them and to a certain extent a different set of values. Aspirations of the daughter of an island doctor would differ from that of an island girl. A female teacher would have been a spinster with a vocation. What happened if she  was tempted to marry? How would the islanders react. Her attitude to the dilemma would be more considered and rational than that of a young island girl, but it would none the less give a conflict of emotion.

The other unsettling dimension to life on Alderney at that time was caused by the workers on the various Forts and defences on the islands. These included migrants from the UK, Ireland and even Italy; those moving to wherever there was work to make a living for their family, who would travel with them. Thus communities around the Crabby Bay area swelled and to a certain extent kept to themselves. Often they would educate their children at home and have their own churches. Mix between these groups and islanders was not always encouraged.

The other migrant workers of influence were the military. Wouldn’t the dashing red-coated soldiers turn the heads of many simple island girls? Wouldn’t their presence cause a stiffening of attitude from the island elders as they wished to protect the virtue of their young people?

The other major factor was the island itself. In a big city there is a certain amount of anonymity but on an island gossip abounds. One persons private business is known by the whole island within a very short time. Life on an island can be idyllic but it also can be claustrophobic, so much so that some dreamt of the wider world. Yet again there is a divide of the sexes here, because opportunities to leave the island were far more available for young men than girls, unless they married a visitor.

If you’d like to read more about these conflicts, my first novel ‘Riduna’ gives you a flavour of island life at that time. All these issues gave colour to the underlying storyline, adding a community dimension to the lives of the main characters Harriet and Edward.



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Filed under Alderney, Channel Islands, Historical Fiction, History of Alderney, Riduna

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