Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry - Servants - Charwomen


    If there is one person more than another whose life is regularly passed in Nooks and Corners, it is the Charwoman's! Her sun, it may be said, rises in a cobweb, and sets in a cupboard. n
    She knows more of a house than the mistress herself, Its most inmost recesses are laid hare to her. Not a floor but what has disclosed its secrets - not a boudoir, not a consulting-room, not a family sanctuary, however private, but has made a clean breast to her, and felt all the better afterwards for the confession. This confidence, however, is never very well repaid, for it is seldom that the Charwoman gets wore than 1s. 6d. a day, with her beer, tea and sugar; or at the best 2s. a day and "to find herself."
    This ignominious expression, "to find herself,£ is, however, rather applicable to the Charwoman, for it is always a difficulty, when she is wanted, to how where to find her. Washerwomen, monthly-nurses, and ladies who do a little mangling, all have card,, but we never saw a piece of pasteboard yet that had the face to own to the profession of "a Charwoman." No brass plate, or painted board either, displaying that honourable title, flanked by a pleasing request to "ring the top bell" flashes upon our recollection.
    Be it modest, or a horror of the income-tax, or a healthy mixture of the two, we cannot tell, but there is decidedly a great difficulty in finding out the abode of the Charwoman. Like Echo, she is to be "heard of"  in the circle of a large neighbourhood, but no one can tell the precise spot where she dwells. The only chance is by enquiry of the milkwoman, or the butcher, or the baker, who enquires of his man, who says he'll ask his "good 'ooman," who he thinks knows a neighbour that can let MRS. GRIMES know that "she is wanted," - and it is only by this hunt-the-slipper fashion that MRS. GRIMES eventually turns up.
    But when MRS. GRIMES has once promised to come, she is sure to come. We never knew a Charwoman yet break her appointment. Nothing but her own death, we think, would make her do it. She rings the bell before the "milk," even before the "sweeps."
    Her social position is not to be envied much. She is the lowest trade of domestic - even lower than the maid of all work, to whom she officiates as a sort of maid of all work herself. Mistresses have but little love for her, for she is never called in but at the last extremity, and the house is never comfortable till she is out of it. Her reverses in the course of the day are endless, but she must bear every little turn of fortune will cool equanimity, even if it be the fate of her pail to he violently kicked down stairs by coming in contact with master's indignant boot.
    How "master" does hate her, to be sure! With the mistress it is simply an antipathy, only a genteel aversion; but if she were a bailiff, or a mad bull, or a fire in the house, there could not be a stronger desire on the part of "master" to have her instantly put out. He knows there is no comfort, no luncheon, no dinner, no answering the bell, as long as the Charwoman is pattering, steaming, scrubbing, slapping about, from one room into another. He hates the clatter of her pattens - for Charwomen are still shod with these detestable iron shoes - and woe to them if he finds them lying about the hall! The chances are that they part, never to meet again.
    She slaves, and yet never gives satisfaction. She is expected to do the work of six days in one. Let her come with daybreak, and leave close upon stroke of midnight, she can never do all the work that is required of her. She pleases no one. Even the servants take a pleasure in finding fault with her. She is disowned by the very person who has engaged her. No lady talks of "her Charwoman," any more that a gentleman breathes a  word about "his pawnbroker." The nearest admission that is ever made to the fact of her existence is that "MRS. GRIMES has come to assist." And yet her characteristics are so patent that none but a Countess, who had been confined all her life in a drawing-room, could possibly be deceived as to her appearance. The dirty mob-cap,-the battered bonnet, generally black, that perches on the top of it, - the soiled ribbons that, sun or rain, are never tied - the tucked-up gown, and bare arms, that are of an unpleasant redness all the way up to the sleeve - are so many witnesses making oath to her identity.
    The Charwoman. it must be confessed, is of a most forgiving disposition. Loaded, as she is, with the insults of the entire house, she is too willing to help anyone. She fetches the beer, - lays the cloth - washes the plates - toasts the muffins, .&c., and waits at table until the servants have their dinner or tea, before she touches a scrap herself. She addressee JEAMES, and the clerical-looking Butler, as "Sir;" and Cook and my Lady's-maid, are always spoken to as "Ma'am." And yet, strange to say, the Charwoman is, in ten cases out of a dozen, a decayed servant herself. She has generally saved a little money - married a speculative JOHNNY - soon lost all in the "green line," and become "the drab of a thing" that she in her proud prosperity snarled at and snubbed. (Moral (aside) "Be kind to your inferiors.")
    There are many more strange Nooks and Corners to be found in the character of the Charwoman, but we have not time to explore them just now, much less space to record the result of our discoveries. We must throw down, therefore, without comment, the following fugitive facts, which we cannot help catching as they buzz in our ears, and fly in our faces, with all the impudence of London blue-bottles.
    The Charwoman averages from 40 to 60. She has a remarkably good appetite, and can eat anything. She wears large pockets, which keep gradually swelling towards night-time, and has a penchant for snuff, which she carries in a screw of brown paper. Report declares that she smokes, but this habit is never allowed to interfere with her avocations, we have no right to enquire into the rumour.
    She has a large family, but they are rigidly forbidden the house she is "charing" at. The same law is enforced against her husband, but quite unnecessarily, as he has too much sense to show himself. It is supposed he has some post in a public Pillar, or Monument, or Light-house, or in the Police, for he is never seen from one year's end to another.
    There are many speculations as to the honesty of the Charwoman, but she is poor, and therefore we must not wonder at her being suspected. The "Ladies" down stairs, however, always lock up their tea-caddies, JEAMES counts his spoons, Cook hides her kitchen-stuff, and Missus makes a general clearance, whenever MRS. GRIMES comes to stop for a day. Whatever is missing, the Charwoman is sure to be the thief. Everything that is broken is without fail the handiwork of her fingers. The Charwoman is invariably the Cat for the week after her visit. 
    And for all her trials, labours, snubbings, and accusations, she has but one compensation, and that is a dish of tea. The Saucer is the Lethe in which she drowns all the cares of the day. Buttered toast, and tea! Give her plenty of butter, plenty of thick toast, and ponds of strong tea, and she is happier than any bride at a wedding feast. As she lifts the brimming saucer time after time, to her thirsty lips, she pours out the experiences of her profession. A fresh family is cut up with each new slice of toast - the scandal of the whole neighbourhood is stirred up, though not much sweetened, and handed round, for the tastes of her kitchen audience. For if there is an Inquisitor in an Englishwoman's home it is the Charwoman, for she has the entrée of every house, and, as you sit in the parlour, there she is accumulating evidence against you under your very feet. Ladies, both in the parlour and the pantry, should beware of this secret tribunal, which runs from parish to parish, and speaks of them, according as they behave to that universal outcast, that out-door drudge, that "general sweeping-machine" that hardest-worked servant of servants, the Charwoman.

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1850

see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here

see also Cassell's Household Guide - click here