Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry - Servants - Housemaids / Maid-of-all-Work



BETTY, "first catch your fish" is a golden rule for a cook, and first catch your situation is a very necessary piece of advice to be given to servants in general. The choice of a mistress requires as much judgment as the choice of poultry ; and you should be careful not to pick out a very old bird in either case. The best market to go to in order to suit yourself is a servant's bazaar - as it is called - where mistresses are always on view for servants to select from. On being shown up to a lady, you should always act and talk as if you were hiring her, instead of wanting to be hired. You should examine her closely as to the company she keeps, and the number of her family; when, if there is any insuperable objection - such as the absence of a footman, a stipulation against perquisites, a total prohibition of a grease-pot, or a denial of the right of visit, by a refusal to allow followers - in either or all of these cases, it will be as well to tell "the lady" plainly that you must decline her situation. It is a good general rule to be the first to give a refusal, and, when you find you are not likely to suit the place, a bold assertion that the place will not suit you, prevents any compromise of your dignity. If you like the appearance and manner of the party requiring your assistance, but with some few concessions to be made, the best way to obtain them will be by declaring that you never heard of any "lady" requiring whatever it may be that you have set your face against. By laying a stress on the word "lady," you show your knowledge of the habits of the superior classes; and as the person hiring you will probably wish to imitate their ways, she will perhaps take your hint as to what a "lady" ought to do, and dispense with conditions, which, on your authority, are pronounced unlady-like. If a situation seems really desirable you should evince a willingness, and profess an ability, to do anything, and everything. If you get the place, and are ever called upon to fulfil your promises, it is easy to say you did not exactly understand you would be expected to do this, or that; and as people generally dislike changing, you will, most probably, be able to retain your place.
    When asked if yen are fond of children, you should not be content with saying simply "yes," but you should indulge in a sort of involuntary, "Bless their little hearts!" which has the double advantage of appearing to mean everything, while it really pledges you to nothing. Never stick out for followers, if they are objected to; though you may ask permission for a cousin to come and see you; and as you do not say which cousin, provided only one comes at a time, you may have half-a-dozen to visit you. Besides, if the worst comes to the worst, and you cannot do any better, there is always the police to fall back upon. By-the-way, as the police cannot be in every kitchen at once, it might answer the purpose of the female servants throughout London, to establish police sweeps, on the principle of the Derby lotteries, or the Art-Union. Each subscriber might draw a number, and if the number happened to be that of the policeman on duty, she would be entitled to him as a beau, during a specified period.
    Always stipulate for beer-money, and propose it less for your own advantage than as a measure of economy to your mistress, urging that when there is beer in the house it is very likely to get wasted. You will, of course, have the milk in your eye when proposing this arrangement.
    Tea and sugar must not be much insisted on, for they are now seldom given, but this does not prevent them from being very frequently taken.
    Having said thus much by way of preliminary advice, we commence our guides to service with


    ON arriving in your new place you get from the servant who is going away the character of your new mistress. She has already had yours, and you have a right to know hers, which, as it is given by a domestic, who is most probably discharged, will, of course, be a very bad one.
    When your predecessor has taken her departure, your mistress may, perhaps, come into the kitchen and tell you what you will have to do, or, at least, a part of it. She will show you the bells, and tell you which is the house bell, which the parlour bell, which the drawing-room bell, and which are the bells of the different bed-rooms; but she will not tell you how you are to answer them when they are all ringing at once, which may occasionally happen. As it will probably be late when you arrive, you will have to carry up the tray for supper, when you will be stared at, and scrutinised as the new servant, by the whole of the family. . Let us now look at your wardrobe. Two of each article will be enough, for if the washing is done once a week you have a change; but if only once in three weeks you must contrive to supply yourself with the smaller articles, such as stockings and pocket handkerchiefs, from the family stock of linen.
    As a maid of all work, you have the great advantage of being a good deal alone, and can therefore indulge in the pleasures of philosophy. You can light the fires, and think of HOBBES. Fasten the hall-door, and recollect some passage in LOCKE. Or broil the ham for breakfast while wrapped up in BACON.
You should rise early if you can, but if you cannot you must make up for it by hurrying over your work as quickly as possible. As warm water will be wanted up stairs, don't stop to light the kitchen fire, but throw on two or three bundles of wood, and set them all burning at once, when you will have some hot water immediately. Run into the parlour and open the shutters, light the fire, cut the bread and butter, clean the shoes, make the toast; and when this is on the table, devote any time you may have to spare to sweeping the carpet.
    Now the family having come down to breakfast you may light the kitchen fire, and then run up and make the beds. After which you may sit down to your own breakfast, having previously, of course, taken the opportunity of helping yourself to tea and sugar from the tea-caddy.
    You may now go up stairs, professedly to sweep the bedrooms, but really to look out of window, and if the street is a narrow one talk to the servant opposite. Besides, looking out of window saves time, for you are able to answer the fifty people who come to the door in the course of the morning with hair-brooms, apples, carpets and rugs, tapes and stay-laces.
    Being in a new place, you will be naturally curious to examine all the cupboards and drawers up-stairs, but do not be too inquisitive at first, for you will have other opportunities for a good rummage.
    You will now come down to cook the dinner; but, as this is another branch of service, we proceed to tell you how to lay the table. Lay the knives and forks, taking the latter from the plate-basket, where they will be kept, though they are probably only Britannia metal or German silver; nevertheless, call it "the plate, as it will gratify your mistress.
    If the family should be addicted to display, without means, you will have to set round doyleys and wine-glasses, with a decanter containing a remnant of British wine, which will not be touched, but will be brought on "for the look of the thing" every day after dinner. The time has now arrived for your own meal, and make the most of it. Secure all the tit-bits, and if you cannot manage to get through the whole of them at dinner, put away part of them for supper.
    About this time the afternoon's milk will arrive, and if you have beer- money you will take some of the milk out for your own use, taking care to fill up with warm water, so that you do not cheat your mistress of her quantity. You will be in the middle of washing up your dishes, when the family will want tea, and you will have just sat down to your own tea, when you will probably be asked to do some mending; The best way to put a stop to this is to turn sulky, do the work badly, or express the greatest surprise, declaring that all the time you have been out to service you never, &c., and would be glad to know who on earth, &c., &c., &c.
    You must not forget to cultivate your mind, and for this purpose you had better take in the "Penny Magazine," and if you read it through every week, your head at the end of the year will be full of volcanic rocks, the solar system, primary strata, electric eels, organic remains, and hints for preserving gooseberries.
    On washing days there will probably be a woman come to wash; and in the mutual confidence of the tub, you will probably become very friendly. You may, no doubt, be of great service to each other, you in giving her bits of this and that, while she may serve you by becoming the agent for the disposal of your kitchen-stuff.
    Do not fail a victim to low spirits, and, above all, avoid sentiment. A morbid-minded maid of all work, whose heart has been carried off in the butcher's tray, the milkman's can, or the baker's basket, is for ever lost. Never hang your affections on a policeman's staff. The force is proverbially fickle, and many a servant girl has pined with a hopeless passion for one who has moved in a superior station/.
     One of the most trying situations for a maid of all work, is in a house where there are lodgers. She will, very likely, have to take everything at once to everybody at once. She will be having the first floor and the two-pair back clamouring at the same time for the only tea-pot in the house, while the parlour will be calling angrily for his boots, which have been taken by mistake to the garret, who is writhing in intense agony for his highlows.
    But philosophy and the "Penny Magazine" will be a balance for all the annoyances which chequer the life of the MAID OF ALL WORK.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1845


"Well! did you ever now?" cries Jane;
    "No, never!" answers Mary:
And quick as bells their tongues run on
    The Gossips of the "Airey."
What is the topic? Never mind.
    This only we lay down-
Each whisper'd "He" a sweetheart means;
    Each whisper'd "It" a gown!

Illustrated London News, March 24, 1849

see also Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management - click here

There were numbers of maidservants from Windsor; going in twos or threes, without men, and quiet and stolid in behaviour. How do you know a maidservant, seeing her thus: Unless she he a lady's maid, you do know her at once, however smart she he. Her hands show work; and if gloved, you still see they are larger than a lady's: she has not the selfconscious selfrestraining dignity of a lady, nor the sprightly vanity of a milliner, nor the rude simplicity of a country girl living at home: her dress is less costly than a lady's, less tasteful than a milliner's; vet is an imitation of fashionable attire, which a country girl's is not, - or hardly is. Her face shows comfort and animal prosperity, and does not show any culture or high intelligence; and her walk and ways have no method, no reserve; and yet, being artless, they are pleasant to behold. . . . But how incongruous to see such a girl, wearing a quasiladylike dress that well became her had she known how to wear it, to see her all gauche and careless, lolling about awkwardly, rubbing her nose with her red and bony fingers! More culture, such a girl wants, or more rusticity.

Arthur Munby, Diary, 26 June, 1869

    The hardest worked class of women are domestic servants, especially in schools, hotels, and lodging-houses. It was a few years ago, no uncommon thing for a lodging-house maid to be at work from six in the morning till eleven ;t night, getting no rest except at meal times, and even to have these short intervals broken into by the lodger?s bell. No one who has habits of observation and has been often in lodgings, can have failed to remark the ceaseless activity of the unfortunate maids, and their worn and weary appearance. Some improvement in the condition of these poor wretches is now beginning to be made. Last summer the mistress of a lodging-house complained to me that it was now necessary for lodging-house keepers to allow their maids to go to bed at ten o?clock every night, and to give them an afternoon out every other Sunday, or no servant would stay.
    The cause of the improvement is not far to seek. It is simply that so many women and girls now engage in handicrafts or go into shops or factories, that what is called ?a scarcity? of servants has been produced which enables the servants to make some kind of terms for themselves with their employers. The scarcity merely means that a healthy, honest, intelligent girl - cannot now be compelled to work till her health breaks down for moderate wages. If a mistress requires an enormous amount of work she must give extra wages and get an extra strong servant, and if she will not give extra wages she must be contented with a moderate amount of work, such an amount as an average girl can do without injury to her constitution. Even now the work of an ordinary housemaid in a gentleman s family, though not more severe than is compatible with good health, is more severe than the work of a girl in a factory or shop. Let us compare the two:
    A housemaid is usually required to begin work soon after six o?clock a.m., and goes to bed soon after ten p.m. She has for rest, half-an-hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner, and half-an-hour each for tea and supper, in all two hours and a-half for meals, and in the afternoon she is generally required to do needlework for an hour and a-half, which may fairly be regarded as rest, giving altogether four hours? rest. This leaves twelve hours of actual work, longer by two hours than the day?s _ work of factory women, and longer than the usual day?s work of a shopwoman, though in some cases a shopwoman may work equally long. The housemaid?s work is besides of a more severe nature, she has to - carry coals and water, and to lift heavy weights in making beds, and emptying baths, etc., but the comparatively fresh air in which she does her work may fairly be set against the greater exertion. 
    On Saturday, the factory-hand works two hours less than usual. The housemaid, on the contrary, works harder. On Sunday, the factory-hand and the shopwoman both rest completely; the house maid only partially; and on Monday, in families where the washing is done at home, she is often required to rise at three or four in the morning to help the laundrymaid. It is therefore evident that even the maidservant who is fortunate enough to get a place as a housemaid in a gentleman?s family, works harder than a shopwoman or a factory-hand And it is well known that a housemaid?s work is considered lighter than that of a cook, kitchenmaid, scullerymaid, or dairymaid...

Jessie Boucherett, ?Legislative Restrictions on Woman?s Labour?, Englishwoman?s Review, 1873

see also Cassells Household Guide - click here

see also Toilers in London - click here