Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 19 - Barmaids

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THE girls who serve behind the bars of  restaurants and buffets, also behind the bars of theatres, hotels, and railway stations, consider themselves a step above ordinary barmaids namely, the girls who serve in public-houses.
    They are all young ladies of course, but the former are designated "the young ladies at the bar," while the latter are "young ladies in the public line of business."
    A very telling little pamphlet, under the title of "Called to the Bar," was published some time ago by Miss Beale. This deals with first-class barmaids, and especially with those engaged in the Metropolitan Railway bars, or the "subterranean hotels," as Miss Beale calls them. Of all barmaids these girls are most to be pitied. Draughts, bad atmosphere, and sulphurous smoke give them sore throats and heart complaints. Not a few of them stand from seventy-six to [-206-] eighty-six hours in the week, or about eleven hours a day. They work in shifts, coming on early in the morning, and working with stated intervals until midnight. One Sunday in the month is considered ample time for recreation. Yet the girls prefer this life to domestic service. They think it more "genteel" to be a barmaid than a servant.
    They are seldom allowed to sit down, and they say if they might only have sliding seats to draw back from the bar-rather high, so that they could rest without appearing to sit-they would be less often on the doctor's books. But their employers, with a few exceptions, will not hear of this.
    Some of the Metropolitan Railway bars are upstairs; for instance, the one at High Street, Kensington; but not a few are on the underground platform-small, dark places, without ventilation, full of smoke, reeking with alcohol. Let readers think what it means to stand ten, eleven hours in such places day after day, with no rest except on Sunday; to sleep in rooms below the streets. which must be lighted all the twenty-four hours with gas, and which never get a ray of daylight. But the girls say they would rather sleep four or six in such rooms, and two in a bed, than take the last train to [-207-] another station, for sometimes they miss the train, and then they must walk home-or run, for they are afraid to go slowly through the empty streets at midnight.
    Things are not managed much better at some of the largest London stations. At one terminus twenty-two barmaids are employed, with salaries of 8s. a week. The manageress receives 17s. 6d., and the sub-manageress 10s. a week. Each girl is allowed to consume 10d. a day in spirits, or 5s.10d. a week. This money must be spent in drink, not food ; but if the girl is a teetotaler she is allowed ginger-beer or lemonade. The manageress, or her assistant, serves the 10d. allowances, and the girls are not supposed to help themselves. Nevertheless, they do it.
    It is impossible for any manageress, be she (as the girls say) "ever so much of a cat," to watch all that goes on at the bar of a large station. So the girls cheat the customers if they dare not cheat their employers ; and many an innocent customer swallows "waste" while the barmaid drinks his order for spirits. "Waste" is whatever is left in the glasses. This is, by order of the employers, put into the glass measures behind the bar. Each measure has a colour white for brandy, blue for gin, green for whisky, and red for rum. The " waste" is [-208-] kept in the measures and served to the customers, for, as the girls say, "We wouldn't touch that muck." So the customers swallow "waste" and the girls drink their orders for spirits.
    Barmaids have other ways of getting more than their legitimate ten-pennyworth; but they dare not water the spirits, for if they did, it would certainly be found out. One excuse for this conduct is that their food is very bad. The meat they receive is generally tough, and the butter rancid, to say nothing of stale vegetables and bread. Their work is exhausting, and their little close sitting-rooms behind the bar or beneath the station are not likely to increase their appetites.
    Most of them spend half of their money on stout, which is sustaining, and not a few take stout for lunch and for dinner. Some prefer a glass of ale for lunch, a glass of wine in the afternoon, and a glass of spirits when they have done work. The manageress takes gin and bitters, and other "nips," to help her on through the long hours of business.
    Board and lodging are provided by the employers. At the terminus we are now speaking about the girls live quite a mile away from their work, and as they must wash up before they go home, it is often midnight before they [-209-] reach their beds. Some of them complain bitterly of the long walk in winter when the ground is covered with snow, and others say they would not mind so much if the "hangers-on" did not follow them.
    These "hangers-on" are the men who use bars as their clubs, who remain in them two or three hours, drinking. Some of them are "horsey" individuals; not a few are flash mobs-men, who go there to discuss business. These girls could, if they would, tell many secrets ; but the bar has its code of honour, and they seldom peach. There is only one sin men never condone in women, and that is peaching.
    Board and lodging, 5s. 10d. a week for spirits, and  8s. for extras, may seem ample to those readers who forget how well barmaids are supposed to dress, and their heavy bills for washing and breakages. The average weekly bill for a first-class barmaid's breakages is from 1s. 6d. to 2s. She not only has to pay for her own breakages, but for those of customers. In some places there is a regular breakage fund, and a certain amount is deducted from each girl's wages to put into it. This is very hard on the girls, for late at night, when customers get intoxicated, many things are broken. They dare snot complain of their customers.
    [-210-] Not long ago three or four young men watched the manageress out of a railway bar, and then went in to have "a lark." They upset the bottles of water, put the napkins in the claret cup, and did other mischief. One of the barmaids ventured to remonstrate. They then complained to her employer that they had not been treated with sufficient courtesy; and the following day all of the girls were discharged at a moment's notice. Barmaids are obliged to put up with a great deal, for if they call in a policeman they are generally bound to charge some one, and this brings disgrace on the business. So they wink at many things, and try to keep their customers in good humour, merely making a few slight objections when a man jumps across the bar to give them a kiss, or wishes to act as an amateur hairdresser. Among barmaids there are of course many fast girls, as there are everywhere else; but all who know them well are aware that a large number of them are quiet, modest women, who work hard, who neither flirt nor drink.
    But they must make themselves agreeable, or they are dismissed, and sometimes at a moment's notice. Many managers will only have girls who flirt. Again and again we have heard of girls turned away because they arc too steady; and of others who are dismissed because managers think [-211-] it well to exhibit new faces. "Men get tired of always seeing the same women at the bar," and managers wish to please their customers.
    Fifteen to sixteen years of service count in some places for nothing if custom begins to fall off. First, the sub-manageress is removed, then a hint is given to the young ladies. The girls try to look smart; they laugh and chaff, then become reckless. No character is given when they are turned away; and they say to themselves:
    "Who will give employment to a discharged barmaid ?"
    It is not the same everywhere, but in the greater number of places fast girls are preferred, and no questions are asked about what they do when away from the bar - where they get their smart clothes and jewellery. Drinking is the fatal sin of barmaids. They are surrounded by temptations; their hours are long, and their food is bad. It is difficult for them to resist spirits.
    "We are most of us half-seas over when we go to bed," said a barmaid who lives in a well-known restaurant. She and her companions have rooms at the top of the house, under the superintendence of an ex-barmaid. The managers sleep on the same landing. In most cases the girls return at night from restaurants, buffets, and theatres to depots ; but in some cases they live [-212-] on the premises. The age of admittance used to be eighteen, but now it is lower. The distinction made with regard to morality is that "kept" girls are shunned by their more respectable companions. The latter marry men of their own station, or start in the public line of business, while "kept " girls become common prostitutes.
    The "kept" girls take tips ; but the others rarely accept presents, unless they are Christmas-boxes given to all, not to one in particular. We cannot mention names here, but there are several employers we should like to recommend on account of the care they take about accommodation and food for their young ladies. Their name is not legion, and as yet they do not seem to realise that girls cannot work ten and twelve hours a day without breaking down. At several of the large London stations barmaids are allowed to sit when at leisure; they receive a month's notice if turned away, and live in the hotels ; but as a rule, employers do not seem to have any conscience about barmaids. The public ignore them altogether, if we except the hangers-on, who pester them with inane compliments, and the fast men, who decoy them to their ruin.
    An attempt has been made by the Young Women's Christian Association to help barmaids, and Miss Gough, the secretary of the Restaurant [-213-] Branch, is in communication with many of them. Morley Rooms, 14, John Street, Bedford Row, W.C., has been opened as a centre for those bar- maids who care to use it; and we give an account of a barmaids' "at home" there, witnessed by a Commissioner.
    But the Young Women's Christian Association cannot attack the evils from which these girls are suffering-namely, long hours, bad accommodation, low wages, and an excessive allowance of spirits.
    The Society is afraid to interfere between employees and employers, because they are dependent on the latter to a great extent, and feel, if the doors were closed upon them, they could not do the work they are doing at present. They are evangelists, not economists. However, they feel much sympathy for the workers-in fact, one of them actually said the other day:     "The present state of things is almost enough to make one a Socialist."
    The Young Women's Christian Association only touches the fringe of the class at the bar. Our Commissioner says that when she arrived at Morley Rooms she found about thirty neatly-dressed young women playing at "coach," and Miss Gough looking on with great satisfaction.
    The drawing-rooms they were in had beauti-[-214-]fully decorated doors, the work of Mrs. Watts, the wife of the artist. Other ladies had helped to decorate the place, and the rooms were full of pictures, books, and games. One young woman was playing a piano, and the rest were romping in a dignified fashion. The next game was unique. Some newspapers were fastened inside an open doorway, and two holes having been cut large enough to show a pair of eyes, one of the company went behind the newspapers, and the others tried to guess whose eyes were exhibited.
    Then some little musicians arrived, and the girls listened to an amateur concert. Downstairs were tables covered with fruit and cakes, tea and coffee, ready for the girls who came pouring in from their work. Miss Gough was in request everywhere; every one wanted to have a word with the hostess.
    Morley Rooms, 14, John Street, Bedford Row, W.C., are open to members and friends of the Restaurant Branch of the Young Women's Christian Association for conversation, reading, music, and rest; members and non-members can also be accommodated with lodging and board at moderate prices.