Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 13 - Letters from Servants

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READERS will find that each of these letters embodies at least one grievance. We have chosen them out of a varied correspondence, which has come to us in most instances carefully sealed, with "Private" or "Personal" written on the envelope. The writers have all been visited, and our Commissioners can vouch for the truth of the statements. Two or three of the letters reached us through a Bible Christian, a young man who is now studying for the ministry, and who takes a great interest in servants. This young man began life in a butcher's shop. He used to rise at four o'clock every morning while he worked as a butcher, and study until he went to his duties at seven. He returned home at four in the afternoon, washed himself, and studied on until twelve at night. While he was in the butcher's establishment he became acquainted with many servants. He wrote to THE BRITISH [-152-] WEEKLY offering information, and when he came to London, a few weeks ago, from the Cumberland village where he preaches to the miners, he set to work among his former acquaintances, asking them to take this opportunity of stating their grievances in the columns of THE BRITISH WEEKLY. He found no difficulty in collecting the letters, but was obliged to promise that he would keep the names of the writers secret. Several things have struck us while perusing this correspondence: (1) The greatest objection servants have to domestic service is "loss of independence." (2) Sitting in dark London kitchens with large fires and constant gas makes servants feel their life a burden, and envy their masters and mistresses (3) "Dressing-time," or whatever else servants like to call it, should be extended, and during those hours they ought not to be interfered with under any pretence. (4) Fresh air and sunshine being necessary to health, servants should be allowed much more out-door exercise than they get at present. (5) Hotel servants ought to be recognised as respectable members of society, and not tabooed in private houses, as is the case at present.


DEAR COMMISSIONER, -- I came to London in 1874. A lady (?), who married from the neighbourhood of my [-153-] home, promised if I would go to London with her I should be treated as one of the family. That promise shared the same fate as the much-spoken-about pie-crust. I found I had come to a large tradesman's establishment. The household numbered twenty-nine, including the servants, which were four in number. Sixteen men slept in the house. As I had no friends in London, I had to make the best of it. Our hours were from six till ten, during which time we were always on the go. My duties were those of housemaid, for which I was paid the handsome sum of six pounds a year. I was forbidden to go out, although I was eighteen years of age. During the time I was always found fault with. I was once stopped on my way out by a person "dressed in a little brief authority," and asked whether an article I had on did not belong to my mistress. Masters and mistresses of the tradesman type forget that servants are human beings like themselves, and in fact have none of the true gentleman or lady about them. Servants might often ask, "Is thy servant a dog?" This state of things will not last for ever, and we servants are grateful to you and to Mr. Editor for your painstaking efforts.



MADAM,-Will you let an outraged father tell you his feelings about servants in tradesmen's houses? because if you do very likely many girls may be benefited. My daughter's former mistress (I took her away directly I knew, of course, and now she is in a respectable situation) is the wife of a man who keeps a shop. He leaves home early and comes back late, so his wife knows he will be away all day. Well, she used to take [-154-] my girl out with her after breakfast and stop at all the public-houses. Sometimes she could not walk home straight, and then she would send my girl after that to a public-house for spirits. Before her husband comes in she puts her head in a basin of cold water, and sometimes she says she feels faint, and there is such goings on for him not to smell the drink, which he seems not to have clone till I took my daughter away on account of his wife's habits. Then the mistress said it was all a lie, and wouldn't give her a character, though I proved my girl had been sent to the public-houses, which are no fit place for a young woman.



DEAR LADY,-This is my experience in a house near Lancaster Gate: I came from the country to London about three years ago, and my first situation as kitchen- maid was near Lancaster Gate, W. This was obtained by applying at a registry office in the vicinity. Twelve servants were kept, both sexes being equal in number. As may be imagined, I found a great change from the country. I soon found out the house was a very gay one. I was engaged by the housekeeper, to whom the mistress sent me. I soon found I had eleven mistresses and masters, and did not know which to please. When I left I was refused a good character because I did not obey the housemaid. My employers indulged in dinner-parties, lawn-tennis, billiards, etc. ; hence we had to work harder on Sunday than on week-days. The family used to go to horse-races, taking the men-servants with them, and coming home often "over the way." All the talk at table (among the servants) was about the racing, betting, [-155-] etc. sporting papers, books, etc., lying all around the room. I was called by the name of one of the favourite horses, "Bendigo." The betting usually took the form of sweepstakes. The cook, who came from the country a "nice, quiet girl," learnt betting here, and once got thirty shillings while I lived with her. She has since been married to a man who does nothing else but bet on races, games, matches, etc. Often we could not go out for weeks together. The mistress, as may be imagined, did not care anything about the morals of her servants. If the majority of the servants took a dislike to a girl she was doomed. Having now left, we may well pray, "From such mistresses, situations, and fellow-servants, good Lord, deliver us."



LADY COMMISSIONER,-YOU promised not to tell my name, and I write you these few lines remembering your promise, because I might never get another place if my mistress got ear I had been complaining. There is ten in family, and only two of us servants to do the ~vork. I had my knee bad this last six months, and often when I have been obliged to scrub my kitchen I've got up and down screaming, because my knee was so stiff, and the mistress said it was rheumatics. We had oilcloth over the kitchen-floor, and that draws in the water, the doctor says, for when the oilcloth was took up when he come to visit me we found three oilcloths, one on the top of another, and underneath pools of water in the holes of the bricks, what the doctor said the oilcloths had sucked in. My mistress was very much taken back by what the medical gentleman said about the oilcloths, [-156-] and she paid my cab, and she's been to see me once, so has my mother, who is a widow in poor circumstances. Now, dear lady, for God's sake don't tell any one my name, and if my mistress sees this letter in your paper, say it doesn't come from me, dear lady; and God bless you in your work for us poor servants.

Your obedient servant,
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MADAM,-I have been in London about nine years, during which time I have been in three different situations as housemaid. I may therefore be allowed to say a few words about servants and mistresses. I was in my first place two months. The reason I left was because I had to do the washing, which I was told I had not to do when I was engaged. That was "too much of a good thing. My second mistress and master were Catholics, and I lived with them five years. Sunday afternoon and evening were devoted to parties and card-playing. The work was very hard. The family number nine, and two servants had to do the work, including dinner-parties. There should not have been less than four. Wages were very low, especially considering the work we had to do. My only reason for leaving was that the work injured my health. I have been in my present place three years. The work is not so hard as in my last place, but it is bad enough. What is worse than the work is the whims of my mistress. I am a Dissenter, but am supposed to go to the Established Church as they do. I can scarcely ever get out for myself, but I must go whenever they choose to send me; if I am busy or ill it makes no difference. She is neither willing for me to go to see [-157-] my friends nor for them to come to see me. Many pounds are spent on parties, but if the servants have more butter than is thought proper there is a great fuss. All this comes of living beyond means, and trying to keep up appearances as if they were as well off as their neighbours. Servants are treated more as slaves than free persons. If my mistress knew I wrote this I should be discharged at once, so, madam, I trust you will keep my name secret.


P.S.-If one's brother comes on a visit he is reckoned as a burglar. -C.


DEAR COMMISSIONER,-Will you tell the servants to ask if a gas-stove is kept before they take a situation, for them stoves is the cruellest things in the winter? My mistress makes me turn off the gas after seven o'clock, and I sit shivering till prayer-time, when I go to bed with cold feet, and I cry sometimes becos I can't well help myself. There is no hot water, becos my mistress has a coal fire in the parlour what she boils a kettle on for the hot water when she goes to bed. Them gas- stoves is handy in the morning, but my mistress turns the gas off herself if I forget to do it after I've washed up, and them is the cruellest things for us poor servants.

Your dutiful
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DEAR MADAM,-I have been in my present place five years, and before then I was in another hotel three years, so I can speak for public service, which is very different to private service, and much better to my mind. [-158-] I had twenty-five rooms to do in the other place, but here I have only thirteen. I get 17 a year, which is the wages, I think, everywhere for chambermaids. Last year I made over 25 by "tips," and another girl got 30. I don't know how she did it, for she is in the back wing, but she is a bit flighty. I know chambermaids that make more than that, but our hotel is very select, and since I've been here only one girl has been turned away for being flighty. Our head waiter made 200 in quite a little time, and he told me he'd heard of a head waiter that had made 400 in one year, and that had refused the place of manager, because he could make more as he is by his waiting. Well, we are fifteen chambermaids, and we do the rooms between us. All our work is done by three in the afternoon, and then we dress, and we have tea at five, after which we light up, and then we've nothing to do but to mind our bells till we do the rooms at eight o'clock. We go to bed at ten, all but two of us, who is up till twelve. Our food is beautiful, because we have the leavings from the table- dote-lobster salad and all. We have great fun among us servants, and we bet on the steeple-races; that is, we did it once, but the manager got wind of it, and now we ye no betting among us women servants. I know the public service has a bad name, but that is because some hotels keep fast girls to bring gentlemen about the place, and in a select hotel like ours the housekeeper would send us away if we were flighty. The housekeeper is very strict, but she don't interfere when us leave work at three o'clock, and she gives us our days out as it comes convenient. I say, " Give a dog a bad name and hang him, and so it is with the public service.




MADAM,-My opinion is ladies have not enough work themselves, and that is why they like to call us servants lazy. My mistress does fancy needlework, and yet she can't let me have time to mend my own stockings. If I sit down a minute she rings the bell or calls out above the kitchen steps, and last week I caught her at a mean trick, for I was watching her over the banisters, and I saw her upset the visiting-cards on the hall-table on purpose. Then she rang the bell, and told me to go and put the cards straight. And again, she was angry with me because I opened the door to a visitor before she had time to settle herself on the drawing-room soffer, and she said the lady would think she didn't sit there, only in the parlour. I've no patience to write more.


DEAR LADY COMMISSIONER,-I would like to say a few words about two things, and one is dressing-time. Now I believe in all proper houses the servants have that time, but I know in small places the mistress hurries the servants up and down as if she was slave- driving. Every servant ought to have one or two hours to herself every day, besides the time she sits over her meals. Two hours to herself is all right, and that she ought to get to dress herself. Of course I mean she should mend her clothes and do all she has to do for herself in that time. I have lived under a housekeeper and under a mistress, and I liked the housekeeper best, for she did not worry me like my mistress. Then I would like to say a word about the holes some servants sleep in, even in grand houses. I would like you to see [-160-] some of them, but the mistresses might object. I didn't see any mention of this in "Mistresses versus Servants." I give my name, to be kept secret.


I slept in the kitchen in my two first places, and three in one bed in another situation, and when we stood on the bed we could touch the ceiling.


MADAM,-The Bible says we are not to serve with "eye-service, as men.pleasers," but I must say I would rather serve two masters than one mistress. My master and mistress have agreed to live separate, and since mistress went away we servants have had a proper life. She used to treat us like dirt, but master lets two of us go out a walk every afternoon, and we have a nice room upstairs to sit in. Ladies seem to think it's only themselves who want fresh air, and they let us poor servants live in dark holes not fit for dogs, let alone women. I've heard our coachman say his horses are better taken care of than us servants. That was before mistress went away. Now we have the same dinner as master, and we choose our own puddings. He ordered pigeon-pie one Sunday when he was going out for dinner, because he thought it would make a change for us servants. I say, "Long may he live, and may there be many like him."