Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Lights and Shadows of London Life, by James Grant, 1842 - Chapter 7 - Female Servants

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Their number — Their wages — Love of finery —Their influence on the happiness of families — Hints suggested for procuring good servants — Means proposed for improving their character — Illustrative anecdote.

IN a work bearing the title which I have chosen for these volumes, it will reasonably be expected that some allusion should be made to a class of persons on whom the comfort of most families, in a greater or less measure, depends. I allude to female servants. The entire number of female servants in the metropolis is computed at 120,000, of whom from 7000 to 8000 are constantly out of place. Their wages vary with the situations they fill, and the position which the family occupies in society. Girls of [-213-] sixteen or seventeen years of age, obtain as servants of all-work in tradesmen's houses, from 6l. to 7l. per annum. In the houses of families which occupy a somewhat better position than working tradesmen, the wages of a servant of all-work, exceeding her twentieth year, vary from 10l. to 12l. In the middle ranks of society, where a plurality of servants are kept, the wages of each vary from 15l. to 20l. per annum. The wages in the higher grades of society are considerably better, generally varying from twenty to thirty guineas a-year. In some instances they are higher still, but these instances are very rare.
    The usual practice is to engage female servants for a month; and a month's notice of the intention to part, must be given by either party. As servants receive much better wages in the metropolis than in the provinces, it will not excite surprise when I mention, that they dress much finer here than in country towns. Indeed, so smartly dressed are some of our metropolitan female servants, that on holidays they have all the appearance, so far as mere apparel [-214-] can confer that appearance upon them, of perfect ladies. You may often pass in the streets the maid and the mistress of a family, living at the rate of 1000l. or 1500l. a-year, and be unable to lay which is Mrs. So-and-So, and which is Mary, her house-maid. This love of finery above their station, is the besetting sin of the female servants of London. It often induces them to expend more on their dress than their wages will justify, and conduces more, perhaps, than any other cause that could be named, to those aberrations from the paths of rectitude, which eventually terminate in the extinction of all virtuous principle, and consequent resort to the public streets.
    I have remarked that female servants exercise a very material influence on the comfort of families.
    Perhaps, indeed, there is no greater source of domestic unhappiness, where the cause does not arise from family misunderstandings, than the improper conduct of female servants. An ill-tempered, indolent, or otherwise improperly-conducted female servant is sufficient to mar the [-215-] happiness of families, even where the husband and wife — parents and children, are on the most affectionate footing, and where all the necessaries, and even comforts of life, are enjoyed in the greatest abundance. Every one is aware of this: almost every one, indeed, has had experience of it; and hence the loud and universal complaints which are made of the annoyances and miseries caused by bad servants. It is singular that, in an age when plans are proposed to remedy almost every evil as soon as it is felt, no attempt, worthy of the name, should have been made to grapple fairly with this crying evil. It is not an irremediable evil; it is, on the contrary, one which, in my opinion, would speedily give way to an enlightened mode of grappling with it. The most obvious way would, in my apprehension, be to adopt some measure by means of which families could insure servants of sound moral and religious principles. Even Hume himself, though an avowed atheist, admitted that, if he were called on to choose a confidential servant, he would select one of Christian principles, and not one holding the same opini-[-216-]ons as himself. It is surprising that the philosophy embodied in this testimony of Hume's to the practical and social advantages of Christianity, has not been more generally perceived and acted on. I have often wondered that ladies, while carefully inquiring into the general character of servants before employing them, never think of ascertaining whether or not they be religious persons. Even masters and mistresses who have themselves no sense of religion, would, one would think, look out, on the principle embodied in Hume's remark, for religious servants; as in their religion would be found the best guarantee for their obedience, civility, faithfulness, and honesty. But that masters or mistresses of decided piety should, in so many instances, pay so little attention to this point, is passing strange. If they were to engage no servants but those of religious habits, they would not only find a great addition to their own happiness, but they would indirectly contribute, in a very considerable measure, to the happiness of others; for, when servants once found that personal religion was regarded as a recommend-[-217-]ation, they would pay more attention to the subject than they do at present, and would, consequently, prove better servants than they previously did.
    But in order that religious families may have greater facilities afforded them than they at present possess, for procuring pious servants, it is necessary that some sort of public institution should be opened. for the purpose. Perhaps such an institution would be more efficiently managed if under the conduct of a committee of ladies of all religious denominations holding evangelical principles. In the meantime, until such a committee could be appointed, it might prove worth the while of some private individual to open an office in one of our public thoroughfares for the purpose; he refusing to enter on his registry the name of any applicant for a situation, who cannot furnish satisfactory proof of being a member in some place — no matter whether church or chapel — of evangelical worship. A fee of one shilling for each person, when suited, would be adequate remuneration to the party keeping the office. The advan-[-218-]tages of such a scheme would, I am convinced, be soon felt, both by employers and servants.
    In addition to the proposed institution, and with the view of co-operating in the promotion of the objects contemplated by it, it would be necessary that some steps should be taken for the purpose of raising the character of female servants. The great practical question then comes to be — " How is this to be done?"
    It were unreasonable to suppose that so great and desirable a result could be either suddenly brought about, or that the whole female domestic community of the metropolis could be made to undergo the needed improvement. A large proportion would, in all probability, defeat all the efforts, however strenuous, energetic, and persevering, that could be made to raise their character and ameliorate their condition. But though the transformation of their character would not be sudden, and never universal, a very marked change to the better might be speedily produced, were the proper means employed for the purpose; and eventually the character of female servants, as a class, would [-219-] be elevated to a very high standard compared with their character at present. The improvement might be so great and general, that instead of, as at present, having — to use a phrase sufficiently current in the ordinary language of life — to draw twenty blanks before getting one prize in the lottery of female servants, we should be able to choose a servant with something like a moral certainty of getting one who, if not in all respects what we could wish, would at least have the recommendation of possessing good principles; meaning by the phrase, honesty, faithfulness, civility, and a desire or disposition to please.
    One thing is certain, that the desired object is not to be accomplished by scolding and quarrelling with servants. Experience has abundantly proved the inefficiency of this expedient, as a means of reformation. Neither is it to be effected by repeatedly changing unsuitable or improper servants. Even the most severe punishments which can befal female servants, in the form of loss of place, and the privations by which it is usually followed, very rarely have the [-220-] effect of mending their principles, or improving their temper.
    What the means are by which I think it were possible to effect a very great and general transformation in the character of female servants, I shall state presently. But first, let me take this opportunity of expressing my cordial approbation of the "Central Servants' Home and Registry," in Millman Place, Bedford Row — so far as the objects of that institution go. I only wish that certain additions were made to the excellent features which "The Home" possesses. I should like to see it contemplating still more comprehensive objects, and established on a broader basis. Its chief object — a most excellent one, undoubtedly — is to provide a temporary home for servants of good character, who are out of places; and then to facilitate their procuring suitable situations.
    Nothing, I repeat, could be more benevolent or praiseworthy than this institution, so far as it goes; and most heartily do I wish that the liberality of the Christian and benevolent public would, by placing more ample pecuniary [-221-] means at their disposal, enable the directors to carry out their excellent objects to a far greater extent than they have hitherto been in circumstances to do. But while the "Central Servants' Home and Registry" seeks to protect, and encourage, and assist those female servants who are good servants and meritorious characters already, what I aim at is, to see the means in operation which shall make good servants and meritorious characters, where the parties are neither the one nor the other at present.
    "Reform marches' everywhere but through our kitchens, where it is most wanted." So says an accomplished and highly-talented lady, in a private letter to the author of this work. The remark is not only just, but is pregnant with matter of the deepest moment. Though, as before observed, there is no class of persons who exercise a greater influence on the comfort and happiness of society than female servants in large towns, there is no class of persons whose condition, as a class, has attracted less of public attention, with the view of improving it. We have associations of every conceivable kind for [-222-] ameliorating the condition of our fellow-creatures, both at home and abroad; yet, strange to say, no effort worthy of the name has yet been made to grapple with the enormous evils which are so rife in the kitchen. The neglect which the benevolent and philanthropic portion of the community have shown towards the female servants of populous towns and cities, is the more surprising, as the inculcation of right principles and the enforcement of proper conduct on their part, are, as has just been hinted, so intimately mixed up with the well-being of every family in which the services of a female are required. Every one who knows anything of family matters must be aware that a single improper female servant, whether her faults assume the form of bad temper, sulkiness, incivility. slovenliness. indolence, or dishonesty, can completely mar the comfort of any family; even of families who possess every other imaginable element of happiness. In fact, many families are the positive victims of their female servants. I myself have known instances in which the most virtuous, and kindly, and generous mistresses, have [-223-] been doomed, and through them their husbands and families, to a course of living martyrdom of many years' duration, solely from a succession of bad servants. Talk of servants being the slaves of their mistresses! Why, the latter are, perhaps, much more frequently held in absolute thraldom to their servants.
    Do I blame female servants for this? They are certainly, in one sense, the subjects of blame, but not to the extent to which blame is generally attributed to them. The blame, in a great measure, attaches to masters and mistresses themselves. I do not here so much allude to the injudicious, if not harsh, treatment of their domestics, on the part of particular mistresses and masters. I chiefly refer to the absence of any organized and persevering endeavours to improve their moral, their mental, and social condition, as a class. Until something be done of the nature I am recommending, the evil which every family more or less sensibly feels, and of which there are such constant and universal complaints, will exist in all its present fearful magnitude.
    [-224-] But what, it will be asked, are the means which I would recommend for effecting the proposed and so much-needed reform in the kitchen, and indeed in every department of the house where the services of females are required? Well, then, in answer to the question, I would first of all recommend, as essential to the success of my views, the formation of a Society having for its specific and exclusive object, the improvement of the minds, morals, and manners of the class of persons to whom I allude. Were such an association, consisting of intelligent and judicious individuals, once formed, the Committee would speedily devise a variety of means for improving the character of female servants. Some of the plans which it appears to me ought to be adopted with this view, may be mentioned in a few words. I would, in the first place, suggest the propriety of commencing the publication, at short intervals, of a series of tracts, addressed to female servants, and pointing out their duty, not only on religious grounds, to be faithful, honest, cleanly, industrious, civil, and respectful, but [-225-] showing to them how creditable such a course of conduct would prove to themselves, and how largely it would conduce to their own comfort and well-being.
    In the series of tracts which I am recommending, I would regard it as of essential importance to the production of the good effects which would be aimed at — that in every instance, in other words, in every tract, the principles of evangelical religion should be distinctly recognised; for I do hold that evangelical religion is the only sure basis of any great or permanent moral reformation.
    The proposed series of tracts being intended solely for the benefit of female servants, who are, in almost every instance, but imperfectly acquainted with even the first rudiments of knowledge — it would be indispensable to the success of the scheme I am proposing, that the tracts should be written in the plainest and simplest possible manner; so as that the servants should not only be able to understand them, but understand them without an effort. It would be well, too, to introduce as many [-226-] short but pointed anecdotes into such addresses as possible, illustrative, in some cases, of the advantages to the parties themselves, of proper conduct; and in other instances, of the disastrous consequences which have been entailed on servants by bad temper, dishonesty, incivility, indolence, and the other blemishes so common in their characters.
    Another essential quality in such addresses would be brevity. Servants have not, in the majority of cases, much time, neither have they much disposition, for reading. To insure the perusal, therefore, of the tracts in question, they would require to be short. An ordinary-sized octavo page would, perhaps, be the best average length which could be fixed on; on no occasion ought the addresses to exceed two such pages.
    There would, no doubt, be some difficulties, in the first instance, in the way of getting the tracts brought fairly before our female servants; but these difficulties would soon vanish. Masters and mistresses would speedily discover, that it would be for their interest  [-227-] to put such tracts into the hands of their servants; and when once the latter had begun to read them, they would look forward to succeeding numbers of the series with eagerness, and would peruse them with avidity. The difficulties in all such cases lie in the commencement of the undertaking.
    At first, and for a season, the good effects of these addresses to female servants might not be visible; but by the time the means I am recommending had been a few months in operation, innumerable proofs would be furnished, that the Society's labours had not been in vain. Instances would rise up in every street and square in the metropolis, in which a marked improvement had taken place in the moral, mental, and social character of our female servants; and the example of those whose characters had undergone this salutary transformation, would soon be found to exert a most beneficial influence on the characters of their fellow-servants and acquaintances.
    My scheme has this other great recommendation —  that it might be carried into effect [-228-] without any very large expenditure of money. A few hundred pounds, annually expended in the printing of tracts of the brevity I have suggested, would suffice to send a succession of these little messengers of good into almost every house in the metropolis where female servants are kept.
    As a collateral means of communicating the kind of information of which they stand in the greatest need, I would also suggest the propriety of the establishment of a small periodical exclusively devoted to their interests. There would be a peculiar charm in a small magazine to the class of persons referred to; while there would be this great advantage attending such a publication — that the discussion of topics of special interest or importance could be continued through successive numbers, where justice could not be done to them in one or two numbers. Short tales, too, could be given, and, where necessary, continued through several numbers, illustrative of the advantages of good conduct on the part of female servants, and of the evil consequences which invariably result from improper conduct. 
    [-229-] The little periodical might be published weekly at one half-penny, or once a fortnight at one penny. Frequency of publication I would deem essential to its salutary agency on the minds of those to whom it is proposed it should address itself. It is only by constantly, and at very short intervals, plying the minds of female servants with sound counsel, either in the form of a direct precept, or by keeping commendable examples before their eyes, or by both modes, according as circumstances may suggest,— that any great and salutary moral and social reformation may be expected. A very small sum would suffice to distribute gratis 80,000 or 100,000 copies of such a work, weekly or fortnightly, as might, on more mature consideration, be determined on. And were the thing once fairly set on foot, I have no doubt that servants would themselves purchase copies to a very great extent. Masters and mistresses, there cannot be a question, would largely patronise such an undertaking. It would not, indeed, surprise me if, after the first year of the proposed [-230-] publication, the number of copies sold would, between those purchased by servants themselves and those purchased by masters and mistresses for distribution among females in their employ, be sufficiently great to meet the expenses of printing the number of copies I have mentioned.
    I have proceeded throughout on the supposition, that the means I have been recommending for reforming the character of female servants, would be put into operation by a committee of persons feeling a deep interest in the objects sought to be promoted. Such a committee would take care to have a registry for the names of meritorious servants, and also that something should be done to encourage servants whose conduct had been unusually excellent.
    I need not say that the very idea of a committee implies a Society. The members of the Society would severally contribute, according to their respective circumstances, to a general fund, established with the view of carrying out the objects to which I have referred. I would farther suggest, not only the [-231-] propriety of a general meeting of the Society every year in Exeter Hall, or some other public place, but that a condensed report of the proceedings at such meetings should be printed, for distribution among servants as well as the members. This would have the effect of drawing special attention to the condition of servants and the claims of the Society, and could not fail to be attended with the happiest results.
    I have thus thrown out what I conceive to be some valuable hints as to the best means of raising the character and improving the conduct of our female servants. I have proceeded throughout on the assumption, that the tracts and magazines, and other publications of the Society, would be based on evangelical religion. Without such basis I am convinced, that no real reformation of manners, far less any reformation of heart, can ever be accomplished. I feel assured that nothing more than a beginning is wanting in the good work, to insure an amount of approval and assistance which would speedily place the suggested Society on a stable and permanent footing. 
    [-232-] Having thus directed attention to a very interesting subject, I will now by way of appendix to my observations, relate an anecdote which affords a singularly striking illustration of the importance of imbuing the minds of female servants with those evangelical notions, which I have assumed throughout to be the only substantial basis of a reformation of character. I was present at the proceedings I am about to narrate, and felt so deeply interested in them as to draw up an account of them soon after their occurrence. The case occurred at the Old Bailey, about two years ago, before the Recorder of London, a man of singularly humane feelings. It was the trial of a young girl who had stolen haIf-a-dozen silver spoons, of the estimated value of thirty shillings. The prisoner was only eighteen years of age, and was a girl of singularly interesting appearance. To fine regular features, she united an intelligence in the expression of her countenance, very rarely to be met with in the humble sphere of society in which she had been accustomed to move. The moment she advanced to the bar, and before the [-233-] jury or the spectators had the slightest idea of what the offence was for which she was about to be tried, every one present seemed to be struck with her appearance. From the facts elicited in the course of the proceedings, which only lasted about an hour, it appeared the prisoner had been servant in the house of a respectable tradesman in the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn Fields, and had remained in her situation for eighteen months. Her mistress had always found her to be a girl of the strictest integrity, though, with the view of testing her honesty, she had repeatedly afforded her the most tempting opportunities of pilfering without the least seeming chance of detection. Though, therefore, the girl's mistress missed the silver spoons soon after they had been stolen, she never for a moment allowed her suspicions to alight on the prisoner; who, it ought here to be stated, did not abstract them while in her employer's service, but when on a visit she paid to her three weeks after she had quitted it. Six weeks had passed away. and no trace either of the spoons or of the party stealing them, was discovered, [-234-] until one day a message was conveyed by the police to the former master of the girl, to know whether he had missed any property said to have been stolen on a certain day. The latter replied in the affirmative, and mentioned the six silver spoons as the property which had been abstracted. He was then summoned to appear the following day at Lambeth Street police-office, when the facts connected with the theft were brought before him. These facts may be stated in a few words. On quitting her situation, the poor girl did not succeed as she had expected to have done, in procuring another; and, having spent her last farthing, she took the opportunity afforded her of committing the offence when, as already mentioned, on a friendly visit to her former employer. She then proceeded, on leaving the house, directly to a pawnbroker's, and pawned the spoons for a sum of money considerably below their value. She had no sooner done this, than she was seized with the most powerful compunctious visitings. She could neither sleep, eat, nor drink, but felt inexpressibly wretched during the whole of that day and [-235-] following night. Unable any longer to bear up under the agonising sense she entertained of the wrong she had done she went next morning to the house of her former employer, in the hope that she had already and that been suspected, and that she would consequently be given into custody, and be eventually brought to justice. The invariable integrity, however, which had marked her character during the eighteen months she had been in her situation, still prevented her late mittress from, even for one moment, imagining she was the guilty party. The poor girl, though exceedingly disappointed that she was not suspected, and at once given into custody, could not, owing to one of those anomalies which are often observed in the human character, bring herself to make a confession of her guilt; and after remaining in the house for an hour or a little more, quitted it with her conscience still unburdened. The other perceived that the   girl was unusually dejected, but this she very naturally ascribed to the circumstance of a young female, without friends or the means of support, not having succeeded in obtaining a situation. On [-236-] her way home — if the miserable hovel in which she lodged ought to be dignified with the name — she resolved to have recourse to suicide, either by throwing herself into the river, or by swallowing the requisite quantity of laudanum; but no sooner had she formed this resolution, than the thought struck her with a resistless force, that to commit suicide would not only be adding sin to sin, but would be committing a sin. of far more fearful magnitude than the one of which she was already guilty, and which was to her the source of an almost intolerable remorse. The idea of destroying herself was therefore discarded. Two or three weeks more passed away, during which the crime she had committed was constantly present to her mind throughout the day; and either prevented her falling asleep in the night, or, if exhausted nature did occasionally seal her eyes, her repose was marred by frightful visions connected with the act of theft of which she had been guilty. Unable any longer to bear up under the load of remorse which pressed so heavily on her conscience, she now determined to starve herself to death; imagining [-237-] that to allow herself to die, as she expressed it, would not be to incur the guilt of self-destruction. Here it may be remarked, by way of parenthesis, that this was an erroneous opinion; and it only shows that the most sensitive and conscientious minds may often reason themselves into the adoption of the greatest fallacies. No sooner had the unfortunate girl formed the resolution of undergoing the horrors of a gradual death by means of entire abstinence from food — which, of all modes of death, one would imagine to be the most horrible— than she determined on carrying it into execution. She was at this time loitering about, half-distracted by her remorse, in the neighbourhood of Blackwall;  which, for the information of country readers, it may be proper to mention is at the east end of London, about four miles from the place at which she had stolen the spoons. About half-past five o'clock in the morning, as she was passing a particular house, she observed the door of an adjoining cellar open. In a moment she made up her mind to enter it, then to shut herself in, and there remain without light, fire, or  [-238-]  food, until she expired. She accordingly gently descended the steps which led to the cold, dark, damp cell, and, entering the repulsive place, fastened the door, from the inside, on herself. In the course of the day, one of the family living in the house, had occasion to go to the cellar, and finding the door shut, made an ineffectual attempt to open it. The party then went away, thinking the door had fastened itself by being forcibly shut by the last person who had been in the place. Nothing more was thought of the circumstance that day or the following night; but at a late hour of the evening of the second day, some of the domestics had occasion to go again to the cellar, when, finding the door was not to be opened by any efforts they could make, they determined on breaking it open by force. This was accordingly done, when to the unspeakable surprise of the family, they beheld a young girl, in a very weak and exhausted state. There she had remained for nearly forty consecutive hours, without fire, without light, without food, and at a very cold season of the year, a voluntary victim to her overpowering convic-[-239-]tions of guilt; and there, there cannot be a question, from the determination she had already evinced to carry her purpose into effect, she would have continued, if not discovered, until, from the combined effects of cold, want of sustenance, and the exhaustion consequent on previous mental anguish and the absence of bodily rest, her sufferings had terminated in death, — which event would most probably have taken place in the course of that night or the following day.
    Probably there are but few instances on record of so extraordinary a perseverance in a fixed purpose, in a female of such tender age, and under so many circumstances that were calculated, not only to shake her resolution, but to induce her to abandon it entirely. Had such a story been related in a work of fiction, it would have been regarded as the invention of an extravagant imagination, setting at defiance the laws of possibility as well as probability. But truth is strange — stranger, in many cases, than even fiction itself.
    The statement of the circumstances under  [-240-] which the poor girl had been induced to enter the cellar, was made by herself in broken and faltering accents; but, as might be supposed, it was not for a moment believed. It was thought that she must have concealed herself in it with the design of committing some act of theft, and that, having shut herself in, the door had somehow or other become so fastened, as that she could not open it again. The only circumstance that militated against this hypothesis, was the earnestness with which she begged that a policeman might be sent for in order that she might be delivered into the hands of justice. The master of the house did send for a policeman, not for the purpose of giving the girl into custody, but with the view of her being taken care of, when, to his great surprise and extreme sorrow, he was bound over to prosecute. The girl was taken to Lambeth Street office, on the following day, and was committed to Newgate, to stand her trial at the Old Bailey — not for stealing the spoons, but on a charge of misdemeanor; any person being found on the premises of another party after a certain hour at night or   [-241-] before a certain hour in the morning, being liable to be committed on that charge.
    After being two weeks in Newgate, the trial of the poor creature came on. She was advised to plead "Not Guilty," it being supposed likely she would, under the circumstances, be acquitted; but she would not listen to the advice, saying, that as she deserved, so she desired to be —  still farther punished for the crime she had committed.
    Never, perhaps, as before remarked, did any case excite a deeper interest in a court of justice. The Recorder, at all times remarkable for his humane feeling towards prisoners at the bar, was particularly affected as the circumstances were brought before him. He repeatedly paused in the course of the proceedings, as if overwhelmed by the extraordinary facts of the case; while its affecting interest was greatly heightened by the circumstance of the prisoner, a young and beautiful girl, looking a perfect picture of penitence as she stood at the bar.
    It transpired in the course of the proceedings, in answer to a question put by the judge to her  [-242-] former master, as to how she had come by the very remarkable sense of honesty which she evinced, that she had derived her elevated notions of moral and religious rectitude from the instructions she had received at one of the Sunday schools in the metropolis, which she had attended for several years before going into service.
    The judge passed upon her the most lenient sentence which the law would allow, namely, a month's imprisonment; and it was intimated by her former master, to the great gratification of all present, that he would cheerfully take her back to his house, whenever the term of her imprisonment had expired.