No historical research work is easy. At some point, most historians find themselves combing through archival sources in a search for that needle in a haystack, the reference that will shed new light on their topic and prove their point emphatically. With that said, some topics are harder to research than others, and, over the last few decades, numerous historians have shown how true this is for the history of women’s work with Jane Whittle being the most recent and perhaps the most comprehensive example. Locating a topic such as this which early modern people had limited interest in recording (and in fact, even a reason to ignore completely thanks to the patriarchal norms of the day) requires unorthodox approaches and clever work-arounds. Searching for information that appears in passing, reconstructing careers from descriptions and so on all serve to remind us that these are, in fact, topics on which research can be done and there is great value in doing so.

When it comes to water, we face a similar problem. As David Gentilcore, the historian who has worked on water the most in recent years has succinctly pointed out, ‘The difficulty for the historian is water’s very banality, making reference to it rather rare’.[i] Early Modern people were not prone to recording information about their trips to the well, about water carrying or about drinking water when, to them, this was one of the most unremarkable parts of daily life. Much like women’s work, information on water is not easy to come by in the archival record, but in contrast to the numerous pioneering studies that have attempted to access women, the problems of studying it have instead resulted in water receiving far more limited attention by historians.

Women collecting water. Johannes Siberechts, The ford (1670). Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Public Domain.

The topic of early modern women’s water work, therefore, represents perhaps one of the more difficult subjects a historian could choose to research, and it is due to this fact that I wish to reflect here on the archival situation I faced when I began this project. This piece hopes to demonstrate (briefly) some of the advantages but also the pitfalls of research in a digital age, of what can be achieved in this area with perseverance, and overall to demonstrate that topics that are hard to research are still worth our time, and in the case of this particular subject, I believe are very useful in exploring freedom and labour as I discussed in my conference paper.

In the last two years, digital humanities and online research materials have been more important than ever. The research conducted for my paper took place during Covid, and as such these resources were vital for me when access to archives was impossible. However, while this availability did provide an opportunity where one would otherwise not have existed, there were also new and quite unusual limitations placed upon this research. The types of sources that are digitally available for example, are quite specific. Vast numbers of court records are accessible through services like Old Bailey Online and Petitions through British History Online but other record types like coroners reports or churchwardens accounts remained physically sealed in their respective archives. As such, my paper was forced to make use of far more court records than it likely would have if conducted at another time.

When exploring a topic which leaves as small a historical footprint as this, these digitised sources do provide a huge advantage in the form of a digital key word search. The term ‘water’ on Old Bailey online for example will provide 10,991 results, and in each result the position of the word is highlighted in the body of the text. While this is still a huge number of records, it can be pared down with other restrictions like date, and the knowledge that every record examined containing at least some reference to water is a massive boon when compared to archival work in which the content of a record is unknown before reading it. As such, rather than reading several hundred archival records before finding one that even mentions water, I was instead able to read several hundred records that I knew water would be present in, and then pick out the ones that involved women and water work. The haystack was made significantly smaller, even if the needle remained elusive.

That is not to say these databases provided plain sailing across the board. In the case of the Old Bailey for example, the advertisements attached to the proceedings records proved particularly troublesome when, in 1689, an advert emerged for a ‘most excellent Gargarism or Mouth water’.[ii] This advert then appeared on seemingly every Ordinary’s account for the next 10 years or so, meaning there were hundreds of records of no interest to the project that were a result of a wooly search term in the form of ‘water’. Digital term searches provide us with a huge advantage but can also further muddy the available source record.

With time and perseverance however, a source base did emerge. On this topic, I was inspired by those historians like Jane Whittle who have attempted to locate women’s labour in the background and in passing references. Here too, references to water, and particularly women with water, were often only passing. The primary takeaway from this entire project would be that the study of topics such as these is very much possible but requires the will to search through a huge volume of data to find the few brief glimpses of the topic we want to explore. It is also exceedingly valuable. As I highlighted in my paper, by searching for water rather than for women’s work, I stumbled upon aspects of the daily life surrounding these tasks that are not the focus of those looking to find ‘work’ specifically. As a vital part of everyday life, water provides an access point through which a broader social study can be conducted where the interactions with neighbours shine just as brightly as the work itself. The desire to study a topic like ‘work’ is an important one, but we should remember that these tasks were framed for contemporaries by the rest of their lives. To explore ‘freedom and labour’ I feel that the ubiquity of substances like water can offer us insight into those lives more generally. Working on water may be like searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is a search I believe is more than worth joining. 

Daniel Gettings is a second year PhD student at the University of Warwick supervised by Beat Kümin. His thesis is entitled, ‘Sustaining Body and Soul: The early modern English and their water, 1550 – 1750’. He completed his BA in History and his MA in Early Modern History at the University of Warwick in 2019 and 2020 respectively. His research interests include water, popular religious belief and everyday life in early modern England.

[i] David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe: Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450 – 1800 (Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2015) pg. 160.

[ii] Old Bailey Proceedings advertisements, 16th May 1689, a16890516-1 <> accessed 15th July 2022.