Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - The Maid of All-Work

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MY first difficulty was to decide as to the best means of getting hold of, with the object of interviewing qualified informants to supply me with material for the present paper. The proverbial three courses were open to me. I might partake myself to the genteeler parts of Camden Town or Peckham, and boldly knocking, haphazard, at private doors, politely inquire of the master or mistress whether there was a maid of all-work on the premises, and, if so, might I be permitted to engage her for half-an-hour or so in private conversation. Straightforwardness and honesty of purpose recommended this plan, but my experience of the world and its ways foreshadowed failure if I tried it.
    The first question a mistress would naturally ask me would be,-
    "What, pray, may be the purpose of your singular application?"
    To which candour would insist on my replying,-
    "The purpose of my application, madam, is to ascertain from your Mary Jane, or whatever her name may happen to be, how she likes her present situation, how you treat her, feed her, lodge her, and so on. How she likes you and how you like her, together with an account of your domestic peculiarities and any eccentricities in servant management."
    The chances, if I so frankly declared myself; would be a summary dismissal, with an angry intimation, perhaps, that it was lucky for me that the master [-27-] of the house was not at home. I might waylay all working maids as they fetched the beer at supper time, but a windy street corner is not exactly the best place for a lengthy and confidential gossip, and, besides, what right have I to encourage servants to loiter on their errands?
    Again, it would be possible, with the exercise of a little patience and ingenuity, to ascertain when was the Sunday out of a few of the objects of my solicitude, and, in an affable and promiscuous way, scrape acquaintance with them, and, in the course of pleasant conversation, incite them to make revelations respecting their habits and customs, their haunts and houses. The obvious danger attaching to this last suggested course of procedure, however, caused it to be abandoned almost as soon as conceived. It is doubtless in maid-of-all-work natures, as in all others, to jump at erroneous conclusions, and misconstrue words of ordinary civility; and there are big brothers in humble life as in the more elevated grades of existence. Then occurred to me the brilliant idea - why not visit some well-frequented registry office for servants, where dozens of all manner of maids are daily in waiting? This was the very thing, of course.
    The registry-office of my selection was in the neigh hour- hood of the Tottenham Court Road, and judging by the number of applicants in waiting, there is no longer substantial ground for the well-worn complaint that capable female domestics are unobtainable "for love or money." The system upon which the business of the establishment appeared to be conducted was very simple. On payment of a small fee servants of a grade superior to maids-of-all-work had their names, where they last lived, and for how long, together with the wages they required, entered in a book of reference, and this was always in readiness for the inspection of employers. The humbler representative of kitchen industry, however, was more liberally treated. She was at liberty to "enter herself" without payment, and, moreover, enjoyed with her more ambitious sisters the privilege of a seat in a large anteroom, to which those who required servants had access on payment of half-a-crown, and were at liberty to pick and choose from amongst them the most likely-looking.
    An expenditure of the eighth part of a pound, therefore, entitled me to admission to the orderly and well conducted apartment where, not to mention nursemaids, cooks, and housemaids, "upper" and "lower," seventeen maids of all-work "sat all of a row," like the three jolly butcher-boys of nursery lore.
    "I don't care how hard I work," remarked the first maid I beckoned aside, "but I want a place where I'm treated as though I was made of the same flesh and blood as my fellow creatures. I left my last place because I wasn't. Three months I was there; eight of 'em in family, with the washing done at home, and nine pounds a year. Up at six every morning, with the master's and three boys' boots to clean and a whole lot of steps to whiten and the breakfast to get ready before eight; and then, drudge, drudge, scrubbing and getting the dinner ready, going errands, washing up, and getting tea and all that; so that it was never earlier than about seven that I could get my apron off and make myself a bit tidy, with perhaps the gals - the young missuses - sweet-hearts coming in the evening, or master bringing home a friend to [-28-] supper, so that I thought myself lucky to get to bed by half-past eleven, that tired that I've felt like passing the night on the attic stairs rather than go up 'em. But I shouldn't ha' minded the work if it hadn't been for the stuck-up ways of Miss Ellen and her sister. They opened my eyes as to the sort they was the first day I was there. I don't say as I'm over partickler; but what I say is that if there is anything a person has got a right to it is the name that their godfathers and godmothers gave them in their baptism. It's their birthright, and you won't catch me a-selling mine for nobody's mess of porridge. Well, and so the first day I went there Miss Ellen began a 'Susaning' me all over the place:
    "'This is how we like so-and-so done, Susan. This is how we wish t'other, Susan.'
    "So at last I says, 'Scuse me, Miss, but the name of Susan don't apply to me. My name is Hadelaide - Hadelaide 'Obson, Miss, if you ain't got no objections.'
    "So she turned it off with a sort of titter, and she says- "That's unfortunate, Hadelaide is my sister's name. Can't you do with Susan? or there's half-a-dozen others you can choose from-Jane, Polly, Ann, Betsey.'
    "Only that the parcels delivery had left my boxes not ten minutes before, I'd have had my bonnet on in a jiffy and left at a minute's notice. Just as though I was a creature from the 'sylum for 'omeless dogs, whose name they did'nt know."
    "'I'm much beholden to you, Miss,' I says, 'but there ain't a name you've mentioned but what I should hate myself if I was mean-spirited enough to answer to. I'd rather drop the 'andle altogether, and be called 'Obson.'"
    "And that's what I was called till I come away. Oh, no, I didn't leave on that account, though twice I gave warning. It was about the Civil Stores that I left. Master got a ticket - not his own, though, because the name of Morgin was on it, and his name wasn't Morgin by a long way -  and so they was going in for saving and for getting their grocery, and cheesemongery, and their butcher's meat even at the stores. Never mind about my feelings. Oh dear, no. I was only 'Obson."
    "But," I ventured to remark, "what difference could it possibly make to you?"
    "Why, all the difference. Gossiping on the steps is a thing I never do; not being in a fit state with your sleeves tucked up and a coarse apron on, to make it worth while. But it do make a cheerful change, though it's only passing the time of day, to have the tradesmen's young men calling for orders. Of course, dealing at the stores put an end to their calling; and, to add to the aggravation of it, I had to fetch the goods, leaving off in the middle of my morning's work to go about half a mile to fetch as much as could be stowed in a big carpet bag. I would not do it."
    "'I ain't a 'orse, Sir,' I said to Master. 'If I had come here as such it would be different, or if it had been mentioned as likely to come to pass it would have been optional to take your situation or heave it; and since it's forced on me it's leave it is, this day month.'
    "And that's how I came to be out, Sir, and so they'll tell you if you apply to 'em."
    There was another candidate for all-work service - a big-boned young Irishwoman, pleasant of speech and not ill looking, but [-29-] coarse-featured, and with something about her that unmistakably bespoke a "back-slum" origin. She was wrath against her last master and mistress, and I must say that if the account she gave of the cause of her separation from them was correct - and there appeared no reason to doubt it - she had not been well treated.
    "Sure I'd been with 'em over fifteen months," she confided to me, "and I'm not complaining at all of their treatment of me in gineral. There was always plenty to eat and drink, and a good bed to lay on; though it wasn't too much of the last-mentioned that fell to my share. You see, Sir, it wasn't the number in family. There were only four little children, and the master and missus, but there was so much ailment amongst 'em, and they couldn't afford to hire a nurse. The missus was a poor thing, with weak nerves and a pain in the side; and the doctor said that she musn't be worried, specially of nights, and so; when the children were ill, and it was generally so with one or other of 'em, I had 'em in my bed to tend to, and many a night I haven't slept a wink with their winniking and wailing, poor little mites. But once the master was ill for three weeks with yellow janders, and I nursed him through it, and did the house work of nights when they was all abed and asleep. He was a man with queer fads and whimsies, that I knew, but I never thought him bad-hearted And what else could you call it, Sir? It came on me like a thunderclap, when he said to me on the Saturday-
    "'Tomorrow, I believe, is your Sunday out, Bridget.'
    "'It is the same, sir.'
    "'I hope you won't be disappointed, but can't permit you to go.'
    "'Sir,' said I, 'it's no use being put out; if it can't be helped, I must wait till the Sunday after, I suppose.'
    "'Listen to me, Bridget,' he says, 'if you desire to stay with us you must forego your Sundays out altogether. I'm sorry for it; but the health of my family is the first thing to be studied, and when one is warned of a danger and wilfully disregards the warning, and evil consequences follow, he is guilty of a great wickedness.'
    "And then he fetches out a newspaper with a lot of the print pencilled round, and he says-
    "'Read that, Bridget.'
    "And it all about what some insanitary officer or something at Kensington, I think it was, had been writing out his opinion  - bad luck to him  - that it was servants who carried small-pox and fever into the houses of their employers, through visiting the miserable homes of their own people when they got out on Sundays, and that it was advisable that such visits should be prevented. I've got the blood of the Murphys in my veins, sir; but it isn't often that I show breed. But I couldn't help it when it came to this.
    "'I've read it sir,' said I, 'and what of it?'
    "'Well,' says he, 'if it hasn't convinced you of the reasonable ness of my request, I've got nothing more to say about it, except that you must either spend your Sundays here or find another situation. There's been a deal of sickness of all kinds lately in my house, as you know, Bridget, and though I, of course, can't say that you have brought it here, here is medical testimony of the possibility, and I mean to be firm in the matter.'
    "I lost me timper, sir. I couldn't [-30-] help it. I asked him how did. I know I had carried home his yaller janders that I'd sat up three nights running with, and give 'em to my brother Michael, who was just at that time took bad with what the doctor said was complikation disease. And I arst him how he'd like me to left him in a mighty hurry that time that Totty had scarlet fever, and I kept the little thing in my room and in my bed, so that the others mightn't catch it. Shure," continued the young Irishwoman, laughing, though with the pugnacity of all the Murphys looking out of her eyes, at the mere recollection of her grievances, "sure if the master puts into me character how I blazed away at him, I'm thinking it isn't a quiet family I'm likely to get a sittlement in. But I don't mean to hide anything, sir, from them that question me, not being ashamed or afraid for having stuck up for my kith and kin, not to mention myself; and them that thinks I done wrong must leave me for them that can make allowance for me feelings."
    The three or four other maids in waiting with whom I talked had no story to tell, and nothing at all to complain of as regards the path of life in which destiny had cast them, and from their tone generally the conviction I have long ago held was confirmed-that a poor man's daughter is better cared for and in most ways more comfortable in the capacity of house servant than as a shop-girl or a factory hand. At another registry office, however, on the Surrey side of the Thames I met with a young person who though, as she expressed it, was a "willin' slave, taken as such, in her inmost heart stubbornly rebelled against domestic service.
    "Ah," remarked the damsel in question, and whose coarse hands and stubby finger nails betokened her intimate acquaintance with drudgery, "you are like my mother, not in features I don't mean, but in ways of thinking."
    "'You get your feet under somebody else's dinner table, my gal,' she says, 'and keep 'em there. Don't tell me about your sister 'Ria and her fashnabel pollynase, and her walkings off wherever she's got a mind to.'
    "'You forget,' says mother, 'how 'Ria, with her nine shillings a week, robs Peter to pay Paul. 'Ria's as thin as a herrin', and look at you.'
    "I ain't got the patience to look at me, and I wouldn't care if there was only half as much of me to look at if I only had my liberty. A lot of good it is looking well, isn't it ? It makes it all the more aggravating to think, specially when people throw it in your teeth, when you complain of anything being the matter with you. Why, my last place - which if ever there was a nigger-driving situation, that was it - I was that worked early and late; and, what with the number of stairs, I got a stiffness in my ankles, and felt so bad that I asked leave to go home for a day or two. But father is as bad as mother for that.
    "'What's the matter, Jane,' he says, 'you haven't been and lost that good place?'
    "'No, I haven't lost it,' I says, 'but it's killing me, and I shan't be able to stand it much longer,' and I told him and mother how ill I felt. Father laughed.
    "'Ah, poor gal,' he says,' you' re in a decline, I should say. Why you're growing as fat as a bacon hog; and there's a pair of arms!'
    "Are my arms bigger than my sister Maria's? Well, they'd make two of 'em for the matter of that. [-31-] I am seventeen, and she's twenty-one, and she's glad to come to me, poor girl, for a bit of help sometimes in her slack times. But look at the liberty she's got. She is in the fur-sewing, and her hours are from eight to seven. Of course she gets her Sundays. I get two hours of an evening once a week, and half a Sunday once a month. I  never yet got more in a situation, and sometimes what they call half a Sunday is after one's washed up after a three o'clock dinner, which makes it four or half-past. Mother makes me savage, not but what she's a good mother, and I'd be sorry to run my head against what she thinks is best. But she does talk so."
    "'You've got your health and strength and a good box of clothes,' she says, and what in the name of goodness can a girl want with anything else?'
    "'What is the use of having good clothes if nobody sees you wearing 'em 'cept them where you're in service? It's like buying and paying for your own livery."
    A working maid of some six and thirty summers, who was booked as being willing to "plain cook" in a small family where the washing was put out, confided to me her opinion that the majority of servants "lowered themselves" and forfeited their self-respect by permitting and encouraging overmuch familiarity on the part of the female members of the household to which they were attached. She did not object to accommodate herself to circumstances as far as was consistent with the strict performance of her duties, or even to stretch a point in exceptional cases, as for instance in her last situation her mistress had a weakness for making her visitors believe that she retained a cook as well as a second servant, whom she mentioned to "company" as the housemaid. She would ring the bell, and on the only maidservant in the house making her appearance she would remark-
    "'I did not ring for you, Ann, I rang for cook; where's cook?'
    "I used to keep my countenance and answer that cook was busy, or wasn't well, or anything; though, I could see that some of the visitors who came often knew she was putting it on, from their manner of looking and winking at each other, till one day one of them, who was a fat old uncle in the Spitalfields potato trade, bursts out laughing, and he says,-
    "'Why, dash it, Amelia, hasn't that confounded cook turned up yet? You've been ringing for her these nine months to my certain knowledge.'
    "Of course it wasn't my place to laugh because he did, but I couldn't help it, and that brought on words between us next morning, and so I left, as it doesn't do to be familiar with missuses. A little of it is all very well and makes things easy and pleasant, but you can carry it too far, specially in half-and-half places, where the means is limited and there is a struggle to make a show of being better off than they are. Keep your distance in places of that kind, or you're pretty sure to be imposed on. Don't be led on to taking an interest in the private affairs of the family.
    "It may be all very nice to be on free and easy speaking terms with the missus, and to be that friendly with the young ladies that there was no fuss made about your borrowing without asking a veil or a parasol; and it wouldn't matter if it went no further and stopped at that, but when it comes to being expected to sympathise in their misfortunes and to taking [-32-] shares in going short it's different. They mayn't mean when they let you see behind the scenes, in a manner of speaking, to take advantage of you, but that's what it comes to. It's 'we'll make shift with a scrap dinner to-day, Mary, and have a rasher and an egg at tea. We don't mind you. Oh, Mary, your poor master has again been disappointed about that money you heard us talking about, and I'm compelled to put you off again. But then you are more like one of ourselves than a servant, and I know you won't mind.'
    "It don't pay," said the experienced maid of the kitchen, with an emphatic shake of her bonnet; "let 'em keep their place, and let a gal keep hers, and let us have everything reg'ler, and no liberties took one way or the other."