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

Thursday, 28 July 2016


With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, an estimated 400,000 male and female servants left domestic service for the armed forces and various areas of wartime production, as well as clerical and support services. Maids suddenly had new opportunities to undertake war work offering higher pay and greater freedom – and they were eager to take advantage of these roles. The average wages of working women were often more than double what they could have expected before the war.

Women frequently worked in jobs previously been carried out by skilled or semi-skilled men. They found employment as land girls, nurses and bus conductresses; in shops, canteens and offices. From spring 1915, women also had the option of working in munitions factories, where they could earn over £2 (40 shillings) a week. These high wages were unheard of for women but the 'munitionettes' were still paid on average less than half what their male counterparts received.

By British official photographer : Nicholls, Horace (Photograph Q 30040 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17641099

The high rate of pay was because the work was extremely dangerous. Every day, munitionettes worked with hazardous chemicals such as  trinitrotoluene (TNT) without protection; it was the nitric acid in TNT which caused some women's skin to turn yellow. They were nicknamed 'canary girls'. Another daily hazard was the very real risk of explosion. During the war, there were several incidents at factories which killed or maimed large numbers of munitions workers. The deadliest occurred in July 1918 at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire; 134 men and women were killed and 250 more were injured. Munitionettes risked their lives to contribute to the war effort and by June 1917, they produced around 80% of all munitions for the British army.

One servant who worked in a munitions factory was Victoria May Wood. Born in December 1897 in Gillingham, Kent, she was the seventh child of a Cornish couple. She enjoyed school and although she had a keen brain, she was never given the chance to sit for a scholarship. Like her sisters, Victoria left school at 14 and was sent to work as a daily maid in the homes of the local gentry.  She never spoke with any affection about her employers although their husbands were apparently a bit kinder. 

During the First World War, Victoria was required to do war work and she was sent to Woolwich to work on munitions in the Arsenal.  At first, she was housed in huts in Abbey Wood where she was frozen with the cold. Later, she lived in private digs in New Cross. The other girls were Cockneys and because of Victoria's more refined accent, she was dubbed 'The Duchess'.

Victoria met her future husband as a result of working in the munitions factory. One of the girls, Sally Jones, was looking for a girl to write to her brother who was serving at the front line in Belgium and Victoria volunteered. Despite the fact that munitions work could be detrimental to one's health, Victoria lived to the ripe old age of 87. (With thanks to Colin Jones for this information about his mother)

Victoria May Wood (holding the triangle) with other munitionettes at Woolwich Arsenal (with thanks to Colin Jones)

In her memoir Canary Girls and Stockpots, Edith Hall recalled the Canary Girls who lodged in her mother's house near Hayes in Middlesex. They worked at the munitions factory nearby and they came mostly from the East End of London. Edith remembered how the Canaries 'did long hours at work, six days a week' and they 'could not get home very often due to their long hours but they sent money home out of their very high wages'.

After the war, many women who had occupied men’s pre-war roles were expected to vacate their posts for returning servicemen, but having had a taste of independence, they were loath to return to the shackles of domestic service again. It became increasingly difficult for employers, except the very rich, to find and retain good servants.

Postcard inscribed ‘Maggie, our maid 1916’. Maggie is dressed for war work. (Author’s collection)

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Today, I'm delighted to be hosting a guest post by the wonderful Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. While domestic servants frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law, they were often victims too. Angela tells us the story of Manchester servant Sarah Jane Roberts and her unsolved murder. 

The Mystery of the Murdered Maid

At about 9 pm on 7 January 1880, Sergeant Lever rushed into Old Trafford police station to report a ‘dreadful murder’. He informed Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, that the event had taken place at the home of Richard Greenwood in Harpurhey, an industrial suburb in the northeast of Manchester. The superior officer travelled immediately to the house, where he discovered 19-year-old maid, Sarah Jane Roberts, lying in a pool of blood, with several ‘fearful’ wounds to the head. There were no signs of a struggle but her right forearm bore a mark, presumably from being raised in self-defence.

The householder, Mr Greenwood, had been absent from the house, when the crime was committed, and his wife had been in bed. Superintendent Bent made his way up to Mrs Greenwood’s bedroom where he found the elderly woman sitting by the fire wrapped in a blanket. She explained to the officer that she had been ‘dangerously ill’ and bed-ridden for some time, but that she had managed to get up that day.

After tea, at about 5.40 pm, Mr Greenwood, aged 70, had left the house after receiving a letter enquiring about the possibility of renting a piece of his land. He had arranged to meet the sender of the message in the Three Tuns public house nearby. Mrs Greenwood was left alone in the house with her maid, Sarah Jane. Both the women had been sitting by the fire when Sarah Jane rose from her seat to go downstairs to wash the tea things.

Market Street, Manchester
Whilst she was gone, Mrs Greenwood heard a knock at the door. She then heard the sound of two people’s footsteps passing through the hallway and into the kitchen. As she listened, the kitchen door slammed shut. Mrs Greenwood assumed that the visitor was a friend of the young woman’s. A few minutes later she heard a terrible scream. Thinking that the maid may have stepped too close to the fire and her clothes had caught light, the invalid ran downstairs, past the closed kitchen door and into the street, where she called for help.

Originally from Oswestry, Sarah Jane Roberts had been working for the Greenwoods for about a year. Mrs Greenwood could not speak more highly of her, praising the maid for her ‘steadiness, truthfulness, and attentiveness’. There was no obvious motive for her brutal murder, no clues at the scene and no weapon. Superintendent Bent launched an investigation ‘to unravel the mystery’.

'Laying and Lighting a Fire', Illustrated London News (1893)
The letter received by Richard Greenwood turned out to be a ruse and when he arrived at the public house, no one was there. By the time he had returned home, Sarah Jane Roberts had died. She hadn’t been killed instantly and when help had arrived, she had still been breathing faintly but she did not survive long.

The police issued handbills to other forces around the country, offering the substantial reward of £100, to anyone with information leading to an arrest. One line of inquiry pursued the possibility of a burglary, although nothing was stolen from the house. Another suggestion was that Sarah Jane might have been killed because she refused to submit to ‘undue familiarities’. There was no evidence of any romantic entanglement.

As Superintendent Bent and his colleagues continued their work, they were inundated with ideas from the general public, including ‘a great many ladies’ who offered to ‘throw light on the matter’ through dream analysis, spirit-rapping and séances. Mediums came forward saying that they had seen Sarah Jane and her attacker. When a copy of the mysterious letter was reproduced in the local newspapers, so-called handwriting specialists were keen to give their ‘expert’ opinions as to the perpetrator’s character. Superintendent Bent later commented: ‘I sometimes wished myself entirely outside of the country.’
'Maid of All Work' from Living London, 1900
Pressure mounted on the police and, in desperation, Superintendent Bent even agreed to have the victim’s eyes photographed in an attempt to catch her killer. The day before her funeral, the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880).

Throughout the course of the investigation, several individuals confessed to the crime, including a licensed pedlar from London, a labourer from Stockport and even a soldier stationed in Bombay, whose confession was made ‘in a drunken frolic’. Ten years later, 31-year-old John Williams was arrested in Chicago. He had been living with his parents in Harpurhey at the time of the murder and his confession turned out to be merely a ploy to gain free passage home.

Superintendent Bent remained convinced that he knew the identity of the killer, but he did not have sufficient evidence to gain a conviction. The murder of Sarah Jane Roberts remains a mystery to this day.

A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating post! Please get in touch if you know any more details about the Sarah Jane Roberts case or if you have any theories about the murderer...

Angela writes about Victorian crime and is the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword). You can find out more about her work at www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth