Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Girls of the Counter

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IT must be now some five-and-twenty years since a petticoated Wat Tyler of the kitchen, goaded at length past endurance, rose in open rebellion against the tyranny of "missuses." If not on account of a poll tax, the revolt was intimately associated with the occiput. Time out of mind the maids in the kitchen, young and old, had worn caps. Dating back to the days of our grandmothers, the said badge of servitude was no doubt hideous enough, but gradually, by almost imperceptible degrees, it so diminished in size hat, for all that it applied to its original purpose, it might as well have been worn on the breast or arm as on the head. It became, in fact, a mere little muslin muffin, adorned with scraps of smart riband. Infringement on the one side and toleration on the other having brought matters to this stage, a long period of peace and goodwill between maid and mistress might have ensued, but at that very time the American emigration movement set in with a strong tide, and hundreds of female domestic servants joined the throng that faced the perils of the broad Atlantic to participate in the splendid prosperity said to be universal on the other side.
    Of course it was the most restless and ambitious of our cooks, housemaids, and servants-of-all-work who thus took flight, and it seemed it would naturally follow that, with so much of the disturbing element withdrawn, harmony would be restored at home. But alas! those who so hoped, hoped in vain. The bold adventuresses found the States all that they had been led to expect, and they might have rested satisfied. But the 4,000 miles of salt water they had crossed served not even to dilute, let alone wash away, their animosity for the British matron. Before they had received their first quarter's pay they took a malicious delight in writing home to their enslaved sisters in England.
    [-20-] They painted their improved position in such rosy colours that it was no wonder they succeeded in their object.
    Amongst the liberal and enlightened people where they now had found a home, the very name of "servant" was unknown. They were called "assistants," or, at the worst, "helps." Money, regarded in the light of wages, might be had for the asking, and a girl there had as many dollars to spend as here she had shillings. Followers were not only allowed, they were regarded quite as a matter of course; and a mistress, when she discovered her help's young man in the kitchen, merely remarked civilly, "Please do so and so when you are at liberty, Jones," or "Robinson," or whatever the help's name might be-her real name, mind you. She - the help - might have it in full, or, conveniently abbreviated if she preferred it, but never, as in the old country, where the poor serfs of the basement had neither soul nor body to call their own, would a mistress presume to designate a new help Mary, or Jane, or Margaret, as the whim inclined her, just as one would dub a canine or a feline creature Ponto, or Tootsie, or Pincher. And, to crown all-or rather to uncrown all-that brand of female domestic slavery, the cap, was in America a thing unknown.
    So wrote those transatlantic stirrers up of strife, and, deluded and misled by such extravagant reports, our maids below stairs began to murmur louder than ever, and in many cases to insist on rights and privileges that, granted them, would have gone a long way towards reducing drawing-room and parlour and kitchen to one social level. How long since it is that "servantgalism" became a theme for popular jocularity, can be ascertained by turning to the older volumes of "Punch," but even ridicule was unequal to the task of readjusting the proper balance between mistress and servant; and ever since, in middle life at least, domestic servitude has not been taken kindly to. Why, it would be hard to say.
    In what respect is the life of an unfortunate drudge behind the counter of the linendraper to be preferred to that of even a servant- of-all-work in a house where the family is small, the food regular and plentiful, and the wages sufficient at all events to procure sound shoes and respectable attire? One has heard of the cobbler's dog who deserted a kind and indulgent master, because his pride prompted him to regard it as more respectable to serve a gentleman's bootmaker, who starved him within an inch of his life, and eventually hanged him; and it would almost seem that the spirit of the apocryphal beast in question still haunted the scene of its misguided existence, its diabolical mission being to bite young women and girls of the working class, and make them as rabid on the score of gentility as it was itself when in the flesh.
    Such was the gist of my reflections as I came away from a draper's shop in the neighbourhood of the Edgware Road, having in my pocket a recently purchased pair of woollen mittens. When I left home that morning I had no more idea of buying mittens than of taking train and going to Manchester. It was merely by way of excuse that I made the half-crown investment. It was a little past eight o'clock in the morning, and as I approached the draper's window it was nearly empty, save for two young ladies, who, having, in a manner of [-21-] speaking, got the shop out of bed by taking down the shutters, were dressing it. Expecting no one to come shopping so early as an hour after daybreak of a winter morning, the two young ladies in question had not as yet paid fastidious attention to their toilet. It may, therefore, be said that I had no business to stand and stare at them. But I must be permitted to plead in extenuation, in the first place, that I did not stand and stare. I merely sauntered past to and fro fora minute, with a glance in their direction that could have conveyed nothing, even had they perceived it, but pity and sympathy. In the second place, and as regards business, it was not mere idleness that actuated me, as will presently appear. Besides, the rime of frost that clung to the plate-glass panes was so thick that it was like looking at them through a gauze curtain; which, of course, made all the difference.
    They were not very beautiful to behold, poor things. They were apparently about nineteen years old, and their visages were of that pinched and cold aspect that denote the unbreakfasted The nose of one of them was red and inflamed; the other had chilblains on her fingers, and her throat was enveloped with a flannel bandage; and with puckered lips they both blew on their knuckles to give them a little warmth as they arranged the chilly show. In short, the two young ladies looked so disconsolate not to say downright miserable, and afforded so suggestive a peep into the inner life of "Girls of the Counter," that, having some such title in my mind for a paper to come under the general heading of "Toilers in London," I then, and despite the unseasonableness of the hour, crossed the draper's threshold, and ventured on a voyage of further discovery.
    It may have been that the exceptional severity of the weather had goaded them to a keener sense of their hardships; anyhow, after after an exchange of a few common place civilities, I found both young ladies not at all averse to talk of themselves and of their daily duties. They rose, they informed me, at seven in the morning, and were expected to be in the shop by half-past. It was the custom of that establishment, as in most others in the drapery business, to fold up and put away all the fancy goods overnight, and the first operation of the day was to dress the windows.
    "A nice, light little job," I ventured cruelly to remark, "and takes just long enough to give yon an appetite for your breakfast."
    "It might be so," ruefully sighed the young lady with the flannel round her neck, "if one didn't suffer from chapped hands and chilblains. I do. So do almost all the young ladies in this trade in the winter. It is a dreadfully cold job setting out the windows before breakfast, when one hasn't so much as seen a fire since she got up. We get breakfast about nine, and then there is half an hour to dress for the shop, and that, with half an hour for dinner and a quarter for tea, is all the time we get for ourselves until nine on all days but Saturdays, when it is eleven when we close, and twelve very often before we get out of the shop; and having sat down for no more than about an hour since breakfast, you can't think how terribly tired one feels."
    "You are speaking of Saturday, the busiest day of the week, of course."
    "I am speaking of all days; it makes no difference. It is the [-22-] strictest of all our shop rules, and, as far as I know, it is the same at all drapery establishments - 'no sitting down in business hours on any pretence whatever.' It is bad for the feet; bad enough when it only leads to corns on the soles of the feet, that in the evening feel like little stones in the shoes; but of course it is much worse when it leads to lameness, and having to go to the doctor, and perhaps to the hospital.
    "And what as to food and lodgings ?"
    "Plenty to eat, as a rule, and very fair play. I've been here four years. I gave a year and a half to learn the trade, and now I get £14 a year, and that is not mentioning 'spiffs.'"
    "And who is Spiffs?"
    " It is not a 'who' at all, it's a name we have for perquisites, commission on goods we can get rid of that are old-fashioned or soiled."
    "Then you don't complain of the work being hard - heavy I mean?"
    "Indeed, sir," replied the little woman with the chilblained hands  -" you are mistaken. It is very well where there are young men as young women employed, and you can ask them to reach down goods for you, but in shops where there only ladies and no man but the master you must lift and carry for yourself, and calico and rolls of linsey are no light matter to reach down off high shelves; and then there are overhead drawers filled with weighty goods and awkward to draw out and replace. Yes, sir, I should call it heavy work, but that might be borne if it wasn't for the many, many hours of standing-that and the draughts that are blowing in at the open doors. West-end establishments are able to keep their doors shut, but in neighbourhoods like this, and most of them are like it, the doors must be kept wide open, which means toothache and sore-throat, and all manner of disagreeables which you have to keep to yourself, as of course the customers like to see you looking pleasant."
    "How much liberty do we get, sir?"
    "Usually one evening a week, from seven till ten. As for Sunday, one can hardly call that a day of rest, since it is the only day one has to call her own, and she finds. herself with plenty to do in her room until dinner time, and perhaps beyond."
    After inquiry convinced me that what I have here repeated fairly represents the life of hardship and drudgery endured by thousands of young women engaged in the drapery and kindred businesses in London and the provinces. Of course there might be found many exceptions. In the West-End early closing is now the wholesome rule, and North and South, and East as well, there are establishments where it is not thought expedient to grind the bones of poor shop girls, for the sake of a little extra profit, almost as barbarously as Blunderbore, the ogre, ground the bones of Englishmen to make his bread; and the most surprising part of the whole business is that the cutting draper should find girls and young women ready to enter his service on such cruelly hard terms. My parting words with the young lady who served me with the woollen mittens were,-
    "If you will pardon me, I really should have thought that, all things considered, you would be more comfortable if you were engaged in some domestic capacity in a private house."
    She did not pardon me. She [-23-] was deeply and really offended, and coloured up to her forehead fringe as she replied severely,-
    "There is a menial in the establishment who waits on me, sir."
    I don't know as to the particular menial my young lady of the counter alluded to; but it required no very vivid imagination to picture many a maid in the kitchen, with her ample time to do her work in, and her leisurely meal hour, and her cosy evenings by the fire to read a book or ply her needle, and her frequent opportunities for cheerful chat with the tradesmen's young men, whose lot in life most be far more pleasant and healthful than that of the genteel young person of the counter, with her poor aching feet and her chilblains, her toothache and her bad colds from constant exposure to draughts, and her three hours off duty one evening a week, in which to seek amusement, provided she is willing to put off until Sunday the several hours' work demanded by her personal and private requirements.
    There are a score other trades besides that of the linendraper, at the shop counters of which females find employment, but there is one in particular concerning which, while I am on the subject, it may not be amiss to say a few words. It is a counter at which stranger company congregate than at any other - that of the publican. Taking the number of "bar" assistants roundly at 10,000, 6,000 of them probably are females, and again, of the number last mentioned, at least half are under twenty years old. Now, as regards most other counters at which the gentler sex are capable of presiding, but ordinary capacity is required, and practice will ensure proficiency. It is different, however, With the licensed victualler.
    The young lady he employs should be possessed of special advantages, personal, physical, and mental. What has become of the prize barmaid - the distinguished young lady at the last Barmaid Show (the very last it is to be hoped) - who outstripped all rivals and was declared by the appointed judges to be all that the most fastidious publican could desire? It is so long since that I cannot recollect the plan on which the competition was conducted. Was the matter decided by an aggregate of points scored by each fair striver in the various branches of the business? Did personal accomplishments and natural advantages count - so many points for the winning smile with which an order was taken, and so many more for the pleasant "Thank you" which accompanied the taking of money and the tendering of change? So many for wit and humour, and smartness at repartee, with an appreciative record for dexterity in snubbing cads and snobs ? The possession of all these valuable qualities, however, would, it is to be feared, go not very far towards securing the "blue riband," without they were accompanied with a rare display of business talent.
    The lucky young female who attained the head of the poll, must have shown herself mistress of the art of manipulating malt liquors, and beyond compare as a compounder of mixed liquids, warm or cold, and nimble in satisfying demands for "threes" and "fours" neat. Was it merely to earn a ten-pound note, or whatever the first prize consisted of, that the queen of barmaids thus made public exhibition of her ability to attract customers and enrich a money till, and, having achieved her object, did she then retire [-24-] to the comparative obscurity from which she had temporarily emerged? It may have been so, but it should not. Publicans are shrewd men, and here was an opportunity that the single and matrimonially eligible ones of the trade would scarcely let slip. To secure such a gem for a bar assistant would be an acquisition worth bidding high for, but, how immensely more advantageous to win her for a partner for life There were certain severely proper persons who did not scruple to express their opinions that the barmaid show, if not actually indecent, was coarse and vulgar; such a happy consummation as that above hinted at would have given the whole affair a smack of romance, and proved the practical utility of the show as well. I imagine the sensation that would have been created in licensed victualler circles, had there appeared appended to the report in the newspaper next morning some such paragraph as, "Shortly after the termination of the show, Miss ----, who had so successfully carried off first honours, might have been seen leaning on the arm of Mr. ----,Jun., as the pair perambulated the river promenade. It has been for some time spoken of in the trade, as not unlikely that the father of the gentleman alluded to, and who has for so many years held the licence of the 'Steak and Gridiron,' meditates retiring in his son's favour. It is whispered, though we cannot of course say with what amount of truth, that circumstances may arise out of Miss ----'s triumph to hasten the change hinted at."
    Soberly and seriously, however, it is not by means of barmaid shows, however decorously they may be conducted, that a social shortcoming may be set right. That some measure of reform is necessary, as regards the employment of young females in the bars of public-houses of a certain character, no one who has given the matter the consideration it deserves will venture to dispute. It would, of course, be doing a highly respectable body of tradesmen gross injustice to assert that barmaids one and all are to be pitied on account of the degradation to which they are condemned and the temptations and perils to which they are subjected.
    It may be safely conceded that the majority of publicans are men in whose well-conducted establishments the young women employés are as carefully considered as their own wives and daughters. There is no impropriety in employing women in the licensed victuallers' business under such circumstances. It is an advantage to the publican, since a female can be engaged at about half the wages a man would expect, and in the opinion of the great majority of bar frequenters, the presence of a bright and cheerful young woman, smart and neat handed, is much to be preferred to a server of the other sex. But it is no secret that there are in London and the provinces hundreds of public-houses at the bars of which none but men should be permitted to officiate. Places that are supported mainly by a class of customers that to put it mildly, are never other than rough and unruly, and reverse of choice in their manners and language.
    There are taverns, and they may be reckoned by the score in the metropolis alone, at the bars of which, from early evening until midnight, there crowd, and drink until they are drunk, wretches, women as well as men, of the worst neighbourhoods, and whose [-25-] familiar conversation is of a kind that a man would tingle with shame if his wife or daughter should by accident hear but a mere scrap of it. And at such places, barmaids - mere girls of 16 or 18 - are employed, waiting on them and mixing with them, save for the strip of counter that stands between. It is not as though such cases were isolated. It is a fact challenging contradiction that hundreds of poor girls are so misplaced. And let it be borne in mind that originally these bar assistants must come of respectable parents, and have a character that will stand the test of strict investigation. With his money at her mercy the publican had need be most particular on this score.
    But how is it possible, especially for a young female inexperienced in the ways of the world to be brought into constant contact with so much that is contaminating without results deplorable as they are irremediable ? It would be an act of mercy if the publican body would give this matter their charitable consideration. No community of tradesmen are more generous and benevolently disposed towards all connected with their craft, as their noble asylums for the helpless and destitute testify. Let them, then kindly consider if it is not possible to draw a line at the class of public house in the bar of which a young girl may fairly and in justice be employed.