Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Maids in Waiting

[back to main menu for this book]



A helping hand for maids-of-all-work - The trials and vicissitudes of that state of existence - The lady benefactress and her customers - The maid with a "sojer" cousin - A deserter from Her Majesty's army concealed in a mangle - The step-cleaning girl - Ruinous competition in the step-cleaning trade - "They'll do a 'ole flight and find their own ar'stone for tuppence" -  The musical maid with a passion for the "melodion" - Tyrannical objection of "missuses" to music in the kitchen.

    AMONG the many kind-hearted people it is my good fortune to be brought into communication with, is a lady who takes an interest in the welfare of that patient and much-enduring, and at the same time too frequently and unfairly abused, class of domestic servants known as maids-of-all-work.
    Her philanthropy, however, in the direction indicated takes a somewhat peculiar turn. She makes no pretension to keeping what is termed a "registry office," neither does she profess to procure situations for those who, quitting one service, are able promptly and without difficulty to place themselves in another. The object of the lady in question is to befriend young women who for some reason or other, though able and willing to engage themselves as household "helps," are unable to find an opportunity for doing so.
    This will happen from various causes. A poor girl may fall ill, and be for months, perhaps, incapable of the drudgery of "single-handed" housework; and when her health is restored so long a time has elapsed since she left her last service, that her credentials pertaining thereto are almost valueless, and she has to make a new start. A young female, a general servant, may have been ambitious to "better herself," and abandoning domestic servitude, has sought employment at some trade, to find after a time she has made a mistake, and wishes to return to what she has become convinced is a much less responsible and a more comfortable state of existence. It may happen that, by a not very grave act of misbehaviour, a girl may have so deeply incensed an unforgiving mistress against her that the best character she is willing to provide her with is worse than none at all.
    [-141-] Again, a servant may have bad parents, and on her returning home when she quitted her last place, they have made away with her decent stock of clothing, and so rendered her altogether ineligible for another situation without assistance is rendered her. In such and similar cases that come to the knowledge of the lady alluded to, she causes careful inquiry to be made, and when she can conscientiously do so she generally manages to restore the applicant to her temporarily lost position. It is not always, however, that she is enabled to do this. In many cases those who apply for assistance are but imperfectly aware of the chief purpose of the benevolent agency, and seem possessed of the idea that it is a sort of Maids-of-All-Work Protection Society, and the lady who conducts it a declared champion of the general servant community against the tyranny and malice of mistresses. Indeed, so curious and amusing were some of the instances of modern "servantgirlism" related to me, that when it was suggested that I should one morning be present with the manageress during application-time, I willingly accepted the invitation.
    The business of the establishment is transacted in two rooms on the ground floor, the front room serving as a waiting-room for the applicants, who one at a time were admitted to the neat little office beyond, where, patient at her desk, sat the lady of the establishment ready to receive and listen to each girl in her turn. When I arrived there were more than a dozen young women in attendance, and at a glance it was evident that there was at least two or three of the number of the exceptional kind I had had described to me, who, from my selfish point of view, were the most interesting. As a rule the maids in waiting were meek-looking poor creatures, with the subdued and diffident bearing of persons really in need of a helping hand, and ready to accept the same with much gratitude. The exceptional cases - the young women who were in error as to the sort of Servants' Aid Institution to which they had found their way - were of quite a different type. They were smartly dressed, wore kid gloves, and carried reticule and parasol, and had they been upper - the most uppermost - of housemaids, they could not have glanced more haughtily askance at their shabby sisters, as they sat stiffly apart from them. From the way they, the superior ones, whispered and smirked one to the other, it was [-142-] seemingly their impression that the needy-looking, poor little maids in waiting had evidently come to the wrong place, and it was a great pity that some one did not let them know it.
    The first few cases that claimed the attention of the lady superintendent after I had been admitted to her sanctum were of the kind that showed the usefulness of the scheme, the said applicants being all of them girls or young women who, through illness or unavoidable misfortune, were unable to obtain situations, but would be enabled to do so with a little timely assistance. The cases satisfactorily disposed of, the next candidate for counsel and comfort appeared in the person of a strapping young Irish woman, neatly attired in a red skirt and a green hat, who, with those who have a fancy for female tresses of as fiery a tint as can be well imagined, would have passed as good-looking.
    She had a grievance against her last employers, and was anxious to disclose it. She had been in service at Chelsea, and during the three months she was there she had behaved in such an exemplary manner as to give perfect satisfaction; but, for all that, she had been dismissed at a moment's notice, and that under such conditions that she had found it next to impossible to obtain another situation.
    "But, surely, there must have been some reason for discharging you," mildly urged the lady at the desk.
    "Well, ma'am, coorse there was, and I'll tell ye - it was for doing just a small act of kindness to a relative what was in throuble."
    "Was it a male or a female relative?"
    "Shure, it was me cousin, ma'am - a sojer."
    "Well, if you wish me to give you any assistance you must tell me all about it. What was the nature of the kindness you rendered your soldier relative?"
    "Shure, it was a lot to make a fuss about, ma'am," replied the fiery-headed maid-of-all-work, with a scornful screwing up of her mouth. "Me cousin had desarted from his regiment, poor young chap, and it let him hide awhile in the kitchen mangle. And now you know the whole rubbishin' thruth of the matter, and she couldn't tell the wuss of me herself if you went and axed her."
    I hope the worthy manageress did not find it more difficult [-143-] than I did to preserve a serious countenance as she remarked,
    "Under the mangle, I suppose you mean. A person couldn't get into a mangle-box; it is filled with stones."
    " So was this one, ma'am, and it stood in the back kitchen. It was Patrick's (me cousin's) own idea. The barracks being just handy, he used to drop in and spend an hour of evenings with me sometimes, and he used to tell me how cruel they sarved him in the service, and how that he would get away from it if he could. At last he made up his mind to desart if I'd help him by hiding him away for a few days till I could manage to get him off into the country. 'The ould mangle is used only once a week,' he says, 'and it will just serve the turn. It will be always under your eye, Mary,' he says, 'and you'll be able to give me the bit of victuals.' So we took out the top stones so I could place the lid on when he lay down in it, and there he was, ma'am, doing no harm to nobody, from Tuesday till the Friday, when, bad luck to 'em! the military somehow got wind of where he was likely to be found, and they come and they tuk him. And you should have heard the bullyragging I got, ma'am, from the mistress and the master as well, and I was turned out in the shameful way I've already explained to you, for doing what was no wrong at all, but only what me good-nature tempted me to."
    I need scarcely say that the young Irishwoman's case was not one that the befriender of maids-of-all-work in distress felt called on to deal with, and on this being politely intimated to her she departed, wrathfully slamming the door behind her.
    Then followed a few commonplace cases demanding no special mention, except in one instance, and that in connection not with the applicant herself, but her sister.
    "And how is Martha doing?" the lady asked of the former; "she has not been wearing her mistress's clothes again, I hope?"
    "Oh, no, ma'am she wouldn't be so foolish as that, I m sure. She was too frightened last time. And, oh ! if you please, ma'am, Charley and her are going to be married at the end of the summer. He got the money what the gentleman give him what hit him about the head so with the stick, and he s bought a room o' furniture with it."
    [-144-] "Well, it is not often a windfall of luck comes in that shape, at all events," remarked the kind old lady at the desk. "You must know, sir," she continued, turning to me, "that this young girl's sister had a narrow escape from getting into serious trouble through an act of thoughtlessness and vanity. She might have been sent to prison for it. She is rather a fine girl, and is proud of her figure, and it so happened that the mistress with whom she was living was just her size, a fashionably-dressing, rather giddy creature, I am told, with a husband who is jealous of her. Well, sir, the husband had bought his wife a sealskin jacket and a hat of the same, with a peculiar fur trimming such as was never seen before in England, perhaps. It was, of course, a daring and wicked thing to do, but the mistress being away from home one evening, this girl's sister took it into her head to borrow her mistress's finery, and step out for an hour and show her sweetheart how grand she looked in it. And while they were standing in the shade of the garden wall, bidding each other good night, who should come along but the jealous husband, and, recognizing in a moment the hat and the jacket, he laid on to the young fellow - the sweetheart, I mean - so furiously with his walking-stick that he had knocked him down insensible and hurt his head very much before he was made to understand his mistake. The girl, of course, was dismissed, and she was fortunate to find a friend in me as regards getting another situation. The gentleman kindly gave the young man ten pounds for the injuries he did him, and you just now heard how he has spent it."
    The next applicant who presented herself was a bright-faced, very poorly-dressed girl, who had evidently taken desperate pains to make herself tidy for the occasion. Her old boots had been carefully blacked, a brand-new artificial flower bloomed in her battered bonnet, a clean "all round" apron (with two circular patches at the knees) nearly covered her worn-out skirt. A white collar and a bit of ribbon encircled her throat, and she had made further sacrifices at the shrine of respectability by buying herself a pair of new salmon-coloured cotton gloves, which were several sizes too large for her. At the last moment, however, she drew off one of these, as if troubled with doubts as to whether such an affectation of gentility might not be misconstrued, and advancing to the desk, made a respectful curtsey.
    [-145-] "Oh, if you please, ma'am," said she, "I wished to know if you could be so very kind as to help me to'rds making a beginning."
    "I will do so, if I can, you may depend on that," was the encouraging reply. "What is it you wish to make a beginning at? What are you doing at the present time?"
    "Please, ma'am, in general, I'm a step-cleaning gal."
    More for my edification than that she herself required to be informed, the lady inquired what she meant by that.
    "I goes round to the private houses and I 'arstones the steps for 'em," was the answer. "There's a many, don't you see, ma'am, as don't keep any servant, and does their own indoors work; but they don't like to be seen step-cleaning, and would pay a penny to have it done for 'em. There's some servants the same, though the missuses doesn't know it. If you get there early, before anybody is up, they'll give you the broken wittles for doing the 'arstoning. That s being a step-cleaning gal, please in. Which it isn't so bad in the summer-time, 'cept there being not so much to do along of the steps only wanting sweeping; but though there's more to be made by it in the winter, it's cruel hard, always slopping in the cold water and kneeling down on the cold stone."
    "And are there many girls who get a living in that way?"
    "Yes, indeed,'m. There s so many of 'em that they under-work each other that you can't earn much at it. They'll do a 'ole flight, and find their own 'arstone, for twopence. And they re such a rough sort of gals, that any one who's 'spectable don't like to be mixed up with them. I wish I could get into a 'ouse, regler, please'm," she continued, wistfully; "I wouldn't care how hard the work was or how far it was away. If it was ever so far away," she added, after a pause, and anxiously, "I should like it all the better."
    "Why would you?"
    She was silent for several seconds, and two big tears welled up into the eyes of the poor little drudge, as she replied.
    "Oh, please'm, that ain't nothing to tell about. Leastways, it isn't anything a lady would care about troubling herself with."
    "Perhaps I may be the best judge of that," remarked the lady, kindly.
    "Well, then, ma'am, I'll tell you how it is. I was only too [-146-] glad to go out and earn what I could, and see to the house and to the three childen as well since mother died, which it s three years ago now, though it did seem hard, he's being a drinking man, to have p'r'aps sixpence took away from the shilling you'd saved to go to the public house with. But now father s bin' and got married agin, and he says he don't want me at home any longer, and won't have me. I'd have put up with anything so that I might have stayed at home to look after the little 'uns, but she's harder to me than father is, and if you only could help mc to get a place I should be so grateful."
    She was dismissed with a promise that inquiries should be made, and I am glad to be able to state that within a week afterwards the poor little "step-cleaning girl" was comfortably placed with a family at Rochester.
    The next and last applicant at the desk was a hard-faced female, whose age may have been five and twenty, and who seemingly had long since cast aside the vanities of girlhood. Her appearance contrasted strikingly with the young persons hitherto admitted. Her plain skirt of linsey-wolsey hung limp from her waist downwards, unadorned with frill or flowers, with a cloak of the same material, which had no more pretension to be of fashionable cut than the cape of a policeman. Her dark hair was rigidly streaked to the sides of her face, and her bonnet was a mere "shape," tightly secured beneath her chin with a narrow black ribbon. Addressing the lady superintendent, she remarked, in a dejected voice, and after a preliminary sigh,
    "I have called, ma'am, to know if you will recommend me to a Christian family as good general, with plain cooking, and the washing put out?" The person addressed was busy with her papers for the moment, but hearing the voice and recognizing it, looked up quickly.
    "Your name is ----, and you have been here before if I am not mistaken."
    "You are not mistaken," returned the severe female in injured accents; "I have been here before, ma'am, and good cause have I to remember it."
    "But I was not aware that you had left Mrs. ----. I am sorry that you did not suit her."
    "Oh, don't say that, ma'am. It wasn't mr as didn't suit her, it was her as didn't suit me. And as for being sorry, ma'am, I [-147-] mean as regards my principles, I should have been more sorry if I had found myself in a frame of mind to reconcile myself to such heathenish ways."
    "You must not say that. I know Mrs.---- very well, and to my knowledge she is a good mistress and a kind Christian woman."
    The virtuous applicant stiffened her neck, and for a few seconds closed her eyes ere she replied,
    "Having pr'aps been imposed on as I was, ma'am, possibly you might think so, but she's henythink but Christian, if you ask me, ma'am."
    "I am surprised to hear you talk so. Maybe your ideas of a Christian family are peculiar. What did you find that was objectionable?"
    "I objected, ma'am, to being denied liberty to give my religious feelings free expression when they took the shape of singing. Oh, ma'am, don't tell me that a missus is what she professes to be when she tells you downright that your hymn-singing is a nuisance, and that you should reserve it for suitable occasions, as if it wasn't right and proper to sing hymns at all times and seasons."
    "Perhaps you have a habit of raising your voice loudly when you sing."
    "I hope so, ma'am," was the prompt reply, delivered with a vigorous shake of the head; "and I'm not ashamed to own it. When she said that morning, noon, and night my voice was to be heard from the kitchen to the top bed-room, she spoke no more than the truth. But it wasn't on that account that I left; it was on account of my melodion."
    "Your what?"
    "My  melodion, ma'am. It's a sort of accordion, but with a deal more of the organ in it; and I used to enjoy a happy hour playing on it of evenings. Not in my missus's time, ma'am. I'd scorn the action. But I put it to you, ma'am, when a servant has been slaving about the house from morning till night, if when she's brought down the supper-tray and laid her fires for next morning, by which time it s eleven o'clock, perhaps if she then ain't to be allowed to sit down in her own bed-room and play a few serious tunes, such as any family as knows itself couldn't object to, when may she do so? Of course, ma'am, [-148-] not knowing 'em as I do, you thought you might recommend them as such - but as for Christian! It ain't very Christian, I think, in a master to hammer at your wall till he dents it with a bootjack, and to holler out at the hour of midnight to you to hold that confounded row which was worse than legions of cats. When it came to that, which was only the night before last, ma'am, I thought it time to leave. So I took the liberty of calling to know if you knew of any really Christian family as you thought would suit me."
    The lady at the desk replied that she was afraid that no such eligible opening presented itself just then, but to save her the trouble of calling again, if she heard of anything likely to suit she would write to her.