Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


Although domestic service was considered the natural occupation for women and girls during the nineteenth century, that did not mean they were all natural servants. Some obviously had a better aptitude for the work than others, especially if they had been accustomed to helping with the housework at home. Even so, for young girls going to their first place, it could be very traumatic. Much was expected of them with little allowance made for their lack of experience.

Mrs Wrigley, a plate layer’s wife, was born in Cefn Mawr, Wales in 1858. In Life As We Have Known It edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, she recalled how she worked in service before her marriage. She was sent to her first proper place at the tender age of nine:

‘The doctor’s wife came to our house and said a lady and gentleman wanted a little nurse for their child to go back with them to Hazel Grove, near Stockport. My little bundle of clothes was packed up and I went in full glee with them.’

Mrs Wrigley’s joy was short-lived. ‘Instead of being a nurse I had to be a servant-of-all-work, having to get up at six in the morning, turn a room out and get it ready for breakfast. My biggest trouble was I could not light the fire, and my master was very cross and would tell me to stand away, and give me a good box on my ears.’

Being away from home made the experience even harder: ‘I fretted very much for my home. Humble as it was, it was home. Not able to read or write, I could not let my parents know, until a kind old lady in the village wrote to my parents to fetch me home from the hardships I endured. I had no wages at this place, only a few clothes.’

'Laying and Lighting a Fire: Housewifery Lessons under the London School Board', The Illustrated London News, 4 March 1893

Lighting fires seems to have been particularly problematic as most employers simply expected their servants to know how to do it without being shown.

In many ways, girls who had been workhouse inmates were better educated in industrial training than those who had lived at home. This aspect of life in the workhouse had always been considered essential to help young inmates break out of the poverty trap and be able to earn themselves a living. The training was not always of a high quality, however.

In the late 1880s in the Bedminster Union, such a large number of girls were returned to the workhouse from domestic service on account of their 'defective industrial training' that drastic changes were made. In 1897, the master wrote:

'I am unable to compare the state of things in our school now with that of twelve years ago, or with that of other institutions. The girls were declared by Mr Longe, at a recent inspection, to 'have lost all pauper traces'. They certainly look bright and cheerful. The schoolmistress takes great interest in them; the industrial trainer teaches them to work, to cut out and make clothes. I do not see how in so large an institution much more could be done to prepare them for domestic service. So far as I know, none return to the workhouse who have been trained in the school.'

Other workhouse unions had addressed the problem much earlier. In 1880, the guardians at Shepton Mallet had provided a separate cooking kitchen to teach the elder girls. It was separate from the adults and the matron took superintendence of it. The master wrote: "We have two girls in each day. They come in early, clean the kitchener, light the fire, and prepare our own breakfast, wash up, prepare vegetables for dinner, and take part in cooking the same. One reason for starting this is that when girls go out to service, they are frequently called stupid because they are unacquainted with the names and uses of kitchen articles, whereas it is simply ignorance from not having used them.'

A report about children under the Poor Law (1897) stated that 'few mistresses are found with the necessary patience to train young girls in practical work, however good the character of the latter may be'. Young servants were always at the mercy of their employer and were often treated unkindly as a result.

'Making a Bed: Housewifery Lessons under the London School Board', The Illustrated London News, 4 March 1893

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