If you’ve got ancestors from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, the chances are at least one of your foremothers was a domestic servant.
Even after the Industrial Revolution, in fact until the First World War, more women worked in domestic service than in any other job. It was often the only kind of employment open to poor young girls. And, as well as the obvious help with running a household, having one or more servants was a sign of social rank. They were a visible signal that you had money, like a flash car or exotic holiday might be today.
|La Cuoca, Guiseppe Cresci, after 1712|
In the houses of the wealthy (think Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs), positions ranged from the prestigious housekeeper or lady’s maid down to the despised scullery or laundry maid. Spending your time with your hands in water seemed to be especially looked down on.
But to stop this post turning into a mini-ebook, I’m going to look at the servant any household with enough cash to hire the most basic domestic help would employ – the maid of all work – in the period between the start of the eighteenth century, when servant girls poured into London and women outnumbered men as a result, to the middle of the nineteenth century.
She was a young girl, maybe only 12 or 13 years old, away from home for probably the first time. Town employers preferred country girls as they were thought stronger and more moral. This wasn’t necessarily so. My own 3xgreat grandmother, Sarah Marshall, was a country ‘family servant’, and she was transported to Australia for theft.
In her 16-hour working day the maid-of-all-work did all the jobs needed to run a house, with some help from her mistress or the daughters of the house if she was lucky. When she got up at six o’clock the first thing she did was rake out last night’s cinders and ashes and light the kitchen fire or stove. No fire? No warmth, no hot water, no cooking. (Thank goodness for electricity and gas!)
She put a kettle on to boil. This wasn’t only for tea or coffee, but warm water for washing, too. Then she cleaned the grate and hearth and lit the fire in the room the family was going to have breakfast in. After sweeping the carpet and dusting the furniture, she laid the table. Before the family came down, she swept and dusted the staircase and hall. She scrubbed the soot from her hands and face and put on a clean apron, ready to cook and serve the meal.
While they were eating she grabbed a bite to eat for herself in the kitchen, then rushed upstairs to strip and air the beds, empty the chamber pots into the slop bucket and give the rooms a quick dust and tidy. Then it was time to clear the breakfast things and wash up, clean the kitchen and wait for her mistress to give her instructions for the day. Are you tired yet, just reading this? The work’s hardly begun.
|The Scullery Maid, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, c1736|
If the family had dinner (the main meal) in the early afternoon, our skivvy spent the morning shopping, preparing the food and cooking it. If they ate fashionably late, in the early evening, she did her other household jobs before preparing lunch.
Every room needed to be swept and dusted daily, but thoroughly cleaned once a week. This involved taking rugs and carpets outside to beat them, changing the bedlinen and scrubbing, rinsing and drying the floors. A good mistress lent a hand with the cooking on very busy days, and usually dusted the precious knick-knacks in the drawing room herself.
And then there was washday. I’ve written about this most hated of days here, but to give you an idea, it would take the whole day to wash, rinse, wring and hang up the household linens and clothes by hand and it was probably more than one overworked teenager could manage by herself. The mistress might hire help for the day, or send the laundry out to a washerwoman or laundry.
You’ll have noticed how much dusting, sweeping and washing the maid of all work did. There was one main reason for this – the ash, and even more the greasy soot, from the coal fires. So the thing which the skivvy needed to do so much of her work was the thing which caused a lot of her work, too. And if the house was in a city or large town, more dust and smut would fly in every time she opened the door or windows – also given a weekly once-over.
|Sleeping [drunk?] Kitchen Maid, Clara Peeters, 1765|
In quieter moments or in the evening she cleaned the silver or plate and the lamps, polished shoes, mended the linen and perhaps even did a little sewing for herself after the last meal of the day had been cooked, served, cleared away and washed up after. Then, once the family had gone to bed, she made sure the fires were safe, checked the windows were shut, locked the door and at last headed to the attic or, more likely, kitchen, where she had a bedroll or, if she was lucky, a small bed. It was 10 or 11 o’clock. First up, last to bed and precious little rest in between; that was the life of a maid of all work.
Of course, there were perks. She got the tea leaves after the family had used them, to make her own brew or to sell. She had bed and board and often clothes (these were the days before maids wore those black and white uniforms). She got a half day off a week, and perhaps a whole day once a month. No walking out with the handsome baker’s boy or butcher’s son, though; she wasn’t allowed sweethearts. Though that didn’t stop many a master or his son from trying his luck with the maid.
No wonder Mrs Beeton wrote: ‘The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration; her life is a solitary one, and, in some places, her work is never done.’
This post is written to mark Women's History Month, which takes place every March.
Household Work, or, The Duties of Female Servants (1850, and online). Terrifying
Inside the Smart Home, Richard Harper (2003, and online). Page 65 is especially interesting
The Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton (1969, and online). From page 1001 on
All images via Wikimedia Commons - click on the captions for full details.