Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - The London Char-Woman

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[-185-]

THE LONDON CHAR-WOMAN.

    "GIVE us a brown, sir - O do, sir - do, sir, give us a brown, sir - had no wittles since isterday arternoon, sir!"
    Such was the appeal of a ragged urchin of some nine years of age, as he skipped before me with shoeless feet in the mud, which he had made an ineffectual attempt to scrape out of my path with the worn stump of a birch-broom. The boy looked pale and hungry, though sharp, eager, and vivacious as a ferret ; and it seemed probable that he spoke the truth.
    "No victuals! - how comes that? Have you no father?"
    "Yes I have, sir, and mother, too ; but father broke his leg off the scaffold, and mother can't get no work. And what does your mother work at?"
    "Her chores."
    "Her chores!" - That's a text, I am inclined to think, from which a pretty lengthy sermon might be preached by an man given to long-winded orations. The boy meant to say, that his mother sought, by acting as char-woman to any one that would employ her, to supply the place of her crippled husband. What are the special duties of a char-woman, I do not pretend to be able to define with perfect accuracy but I do know, that just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of char-woman a like refuge for another class. It is a profession which involves the performance of duties of a remarkably practical kind, to which no degree of éclat, no prestige of notoriety is attached nobody ever [-186-] heard of an honorary char-woman. Its emoluments have never, to my knowledge, been the subject of statistical inquiry, or its functions of regulation by authorities official or magisterial. It has been insinuated, that while other professionals have to study and struggle in order to rise into a position and sphere of practice, the candidates for the office of char-woman qualify themselves for the proper performance of its duties by a species of inverse progression, which, in the course of time, and by the lapse of opportunity, leads down to it - that, in fact, it cannot be approached by any upward movement at all. Does a woman fail in the vocation of cook, then, assuming that of housemaid, fail in that too - then, transforming herself into a maid-of-all-work, fail again? - she is qualified as a char-woman from that time forth. Does a sempstress, weary of the everlasting "stitch, stitch, stitch,'' and perhaps half-blinded by the perpetual strain upon her eves, abandon the needle and thread, and hopelessly resign herself to fate? - fate deposits her at once in the rank of char-woman. Is the wife of an artisan or a labouring-man overtaken by adversity? - is her husband laid up by sickness? - has he abandoned her to go a gold-digging at the antipodes? - is he dead? or, worse still, is he alive, and daily drunk? - in either of these cases, the poor woman, as a matter of course, enlists as a char-woman. Besides these, there may be, for aught I know, a hundred different tracks marked out on the chart of woman's eventful life, which land the poor tempest-tossed voyager at this undesirable haven. At any rate, the profession is one which, though lacking in any very inviting attractions, is undergoing continual augmentation, and, consequently, suffers in its emoluments from continual competition.
    Owing to the very various sources from which the ranks of this numerous sisterhood are recruited, it is difficult to define, with anything like exactness, the physiology of the individual. You may regard her, if you choose, as a devout [-187-] worshipper at the domestic altar she is often upon her knees before it but she prefers a very noisy, clamorous kind of adoration ; and her piety is of the abstract species, not paid to an particular penates, but to the household gods of universal man or woman who may be standing in need of her ceremonial rites. Candour compels the declaration, that the char-woman prefers the service of man, young or old, unmarried or widowed to that of her own sex. Not that she is to be accused of any design upon his personal liberty; but she counts more upon his amiable ignorance of household mysteries, and the permanence of household stores - especially of such small matters as fall unavoidably under her control in the course of the cleansing, soaping, rubbing, scrubbing, polishing, and brightening of the sanctuary of home - concerning all which particulars, she generously supposes him too much of a gentleman to demand a fractional account. Where there is a mistress, the credit and the privilege of these little responsibilities do not devolve on the charwoman.
    The costume of this sisterhood is as various as their character and antecedents, and may be regarded, perhaps, in some degree as an indication of both. In general, however, it may be remarked, that their outer integuments have a tendency to coagulate in turnouts and amorphous bundles about the loins, and at the same time to trail sweepingly at the heels. I have heard it affirmed, that the celebrated Dorothy Draggletail, of harmonious notoriety, was a char-woman; and a friend suggests that she might be taken as a type of the class. I am not so sure upon that matter ; the class being so very numerous, and the good woman who at this moment is clattering about the kitchen below, being a type of a very different order - not only an example of neatness in her own person, but in the persons of two young fatherless children, whom she maintains by her arduous labour. She happens to be the only teetotal char-[-188-]woman that ever came beneath my notice, however ; and as I am a bachelor of fifty, and, in a small way, a man of observation to boot, I suspect this fact may be regarded as evidence that total abstinence is not extensively practised among them. But Mrs. Pettier, like a woman who has seen the world, makes a market of her temperance - and who shall blame her for that, seeing that so many foul wares are brought to market, and fetch a high price ? In demanding an extra sixpence a day, in lieu of beer and gin, she practically asserts the value of the virtues which all praise, whether they exercise them or not and her employers, in acceding to her demand, I am persuaded, lose nothing by the compact.
    The rarity of total abstinence among these untiring vestals, may be due to the very lowliness of their lot, which drives them to seek consolation in such brief joys as they can snatch from the present, for the loss of those vanished hopes which have long ceased to gild their prospects of the future. I have had opportunity of noting, during some of those great domestic revolutions which take place occasionally in the best regulated households, that when two or more charwomen get together, whether it be around the tea-pot or the black bottle, their conversation is invariably of a melancholy and retrospective kind ; and if the sitting be continued long, and the libation be alcoholic, the melancholy deepens, and the retrospection becomes dramatic and tragic, Like their ancient friend and brother, honest Dogberry, they have had their losses - far be it from us to say that they have deserved them. They are always unanimous in deploring the departure of the "better days" which they once knew, and of which they cherish a remembrance all the dearer to them that they know they are gone for ever - thus exercising, without knowing it, a species of philosophy which the serious and didactic poets have long been striving to inculcate. It is owing to these sentimental remembrances, it may [-189-] be, that the modest stimulants which excite and exalt others, depress them ; and that the most pardonable excess makes them often maudlin, but never merry. So I have come to the conclusion, that though the mass of the profession differ physiologically more, perhaps, than do the members of any other profession that could be named, they are united by one remarkable characteristic - namely, that of resignation a virtue, if it be a virtue, which, in these fast and stirring days, they almost exclusively monopolise.
    Scandal is often busy with the subject of our sketch. Deficits in household stores, if they cannot be otherwise accounted for, are unscrupulously set down to their agency. They are accused of surreptitiously meddling where they have no concern - of wandering unconsciously into beer-cellars, and groping mesmerically in wine-bins - of exercising a. comprehensive philanthropy among a numerous circle of relatives at the expense of their employers - of coming to work in the morning thin, spare, and cylindrical, and of departing at night in an unsightly bulbous, tuberculous condition - and of fifty other things, which I hold it invidious to set down. To all such charges, I turn, on principle, a deaf ear. The man or woman either who cannot submit to be cheated a little, is not fit to live in this world, and need not reckon upon my sympathy. 'Tis true, I should like to see that pair of slippers again which cost me ten-and-sixpence, and which disappeared unaccountably after I had worn them twice ; and if the good woman who preceded Mrs. Pottler in the Saturday sovereignty of the basement-floor of the respectable house in which I lodge, did remove them by mistake in one of those fits of abstraction to which I know she was unhappily subject, and will return them to me "per Parcels Delivery," I shall be happy to pay the carriage, and will retain a grateful remembrance of the act of restitution.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857