"Looking after the Babes" - Class, Gender and the Nature of Scientific Improvement - a case study of the Aylesbury Duck Industry 1820-1920

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


The key element of this research will be to investigate the notion of scientific improvement and progression, and how this is perceived and defined by gender and class. The Aylesbury Duck Industry will be used as a case study to explore these ideas in depth.

This industry had a brief empire; rising and falling within a hundred years. Women played a key role within the industry, but their contribution remains hidden. This research will explore that hidden role and what impact it had on the women themselves and the course of the industry.

The Aylesbury Duck Industry was exclusive to the Vale of Aylesbury and has not previously been investigated. Originating in the rural towns of Buckinghamshire it could be described as the agricultural equivalent of the domestic "putting-out" system of the proto-industrial revolution. It was an industry of agricultural labourers, cottagers and farmers with distinct social and economic divisions of labour; the ducklings were raised by the labourers while separate duck breeders provided the eggs.

During the agricultural depression the industry displayed the classic characteristics of a successful alternative agriculture. The important economic and entrepreneurial contribution of women was largely hidden during the peak production years, instead the focus was on their nurturing and family instincts and how these could be utilised in improving the general morals of the rural population and middle-class urban women.

This research will provide a unique perspective into the development of the use of gender to define and direct both the course of the industry and its subsequent historical and economic analysis.
The Aylesbury Duck Industry will frame the exploration of the apparent contradictory relationship between women's work and technological progress. Within the industry there was a lack of investment and education in scientific methods of poultry-rearing and technological changes such as refrigeration and incubators. This research will investigate if this lack of scientific progression by the industry was perpetuated and encouraged from the desire to maintain women's domestic status.

I will examine the concept of scientific progress and advancement within agriculture to establish how it was defined in gender terms. As the production became more developed was this expressed in masculine terms as skilled work suitable for men? A resultant push of women into more domestic roles until the industry started to show signs of decline may find a parallel with the progress and identity of the Danish Dairy Industry.

My proposed research has much relevance to society today with the continued lack of women in science and how they are portrayed in the media.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2096209 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 22/12/2022 Linda Henderson