Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 8 - 'A Perfect Servant'

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 A COMMISSIONER was expressing regret during our inquiry that so much suspicion exists between servants and mistresses. " It is almost impossible," said the Commissioner, "to get an unbiassed opinion. Mistresses seem to think that servants are all bad, and servants shake their heads over mistresses."
    This was said to three or four City gentlemen, whose office lies close to the office of THE BRITISH WEEKLY. "Well, we have a perfect servant," one of them remarked. " I know she must be perfect, for my wife says so; and my wife is very particular."
    The other gentlemen said that a perfect servant presupposed a perfect mistress. They also said something about servants being made of flesh and blood, although mistresses seemed to think them bits of machinery. But their remarks were not encouraged, for gentlemen are not supposed to know anything about servants.
    [-102-] The perfect servant was visited forthwith ; also the perfect mistress. She is eighteen years of age, a strong, well-made young woman, with beautiful hair and a bright colour. Her face glows from a plentiful supply of soap to the open pores of the skin, and much rubbing. She is a general servant-that is to say, she does all the work of the house, with a little assistance from her mistress. But the lady of the house is delicate, and consequently she leaves nearly everything to the servant, calling in a charwoman to do extra work-like washing blankets. The family consists of master, mistress, grown-up daughter, a boy who goes to a day-school, and two little children. The house has six bedrooms, one nursery, two sitting-rooms, and two kitchens; all of which have to be "cleaned " every day, and "turned out" once a week. All the washing of the family is done by the perfect servant, "except the master's shirts." She cooks, looks after the children, scours, dusts - in fact, does all that has to be done. Her face glows with health, she expresses herself to be "perfectly happy," and she "gives satisfaction." She receives 12 a year (the wages of general servants in London vary from 12 to 18), without beer or perquisites. She goes out one evening every week, every Sunday evening, and also for a whole day  [-103-] every month. She is a Roman Catholic, and her mistress seems to think that the confessional-box is a safety-valve for gossip. She has no lover, but spends her free time with a married sister who lives in London. She is good-tempered honest, sober, cheerful, affectionate, hard-working. She is an early riser, very neat, makes her own clothes, and is "properly supplied with underclothing." (This, we hear, is very rare among general servants.) She does not resent her uniform, namely, the cap and apron which so many girls refuse to put on, thinking them a badge of servitude.
    "It is very difficult to get a good general servant," the lady told our Commissioner. "London girls will not go to service if they can help it, and mistresses are quite laughed at when they put their names down for general servants at the registry offices. I know ladies who have had to wait months before they were suited. The girls are so independent. Before I found this girl I was almost in despair, for the girls who applied to me made so many stipulations. One said she would consult her young man about coming in at 10 p.m. on her free evenings; but she did not think that he would fall in with such an arrangement. Another said that we were too many in family ; and so it went on until I found this [-104-] treasure. But servants always behave well to me. I have never had any trouble with servants."
    "I think if she had a mistress who 'nagged' at her, she might show a bit of temper," the mistress said. "But so far I have never heard her say a rough word to the children, or any one else. She is perfect."
    It is only fair to say that the mistress of the perfect servant has never yet been obliged to give a servant "notice." Her servants have only left her for family reasons of their own, such as to get married. Yet it is not an easy place, for the two children can only just walk about, and the family consists of six people. The house is large, and fully furnished, The master likes to have his dinner cooked as becomes a City gentleman. And all the work must be done by Saturday morning; for the mistress wishes to devote herself then to her husband.
    Among the hardships which general servants have to contend with, this lady mentioned the door-bell. "My servant is fetched from her work sometimes ten or twelve times in one morning to answer the bell," she said. "Men selling flowers and vegetables, old clothes merchants, agents, and all sorts of people come to the door. I answer the bell if I am downstairs; but the servant's legs must ache by the end of the day, [-105-] for the stairs are steep, and she is generally obliged to answer it. I wonder that a spiegel * [* A spiegel is made of two pieces of looking-glass, fastened together like a book that is half-open. The glasses have a small mirror at the top, and stand on an iron rod, outside the window. Thus the inhabitants of the house can see all who pass up and down the street, and all who come to their door.] is not introduced over here, such as they have in Holland, or a small grating like those which are attached to the doors of German houses. It would save servants' time, and be a great help to mistresses.
    Among the hardships of mistresses the lady spoke about the gossip which general servants indulge in. "Many servants spend their time gossiping across the garden wall with the next-door servant. If a mistress goes out she may be sure that her last dress and her next dinner will be poured into the ear of a neighbour's servant. This makes mischief, and is very unpleasant. Of course when two or three servants are kept there is not so much cause for gossip ; but general servants must speak to some one. So the tittle-tattle of a street echoes along, and ends in scandal. Some mistresses listen to servants' gossip; and others who will not condescend to such things are annoyed by the constant undercurrent of small-talk which general servants find so pleasant."
    [-106-] Another good general servant (if not perfect) has been reported to our Commissioner as having saved no less than 400 during twenty years of service. All this time she was in one family; and for eight years she did the whole work of a large household. She began with 14 a year for wages. Out of this she paid the rent of her seat in a Wesleyan chapel, gave liberally to charities, and dressed herself. She had no one dependent on her, so she was able to put by all that she did not require for her yearly expenses. At first she carried her money to the savings bank; but after it amounted to 100 her master took charge of it, allowing her five per cent. Before he did this an agreement was drawn up by a lawyer, and the whole thing was "legally superintended." She is stated to have had a mania for china ornaments when she first went to service (crazes for blue china, etc., are not confined to aesthetic gentlemen and ladies). But she conquered this with the help of her mistress, and is now in a fair way to "settle comfortably."
    Her case is typical of the general servant in a gentleman's family. She came under the care of an excellent mistress, who treated her like "a poorer daughter." This lady told our Commissioner that "the tendency of the day [-107-] is to level everything," and said that "God has made social distinctions which must be kept between classes" (at least, her words were to that effect, so far as our Commissioner can remember). The lady was taught housekeeping by an excellent servant in her grandmother's house, and is not above cooking her own dinner. In fact, she has cooked a dinner in full evening dress, and then presided at the head of her table minus her cooking apron. She very rightly thinks that as man is a cooking animal, and distinguished from the beasts by his propensity to eat flesh roasted, the daughters of men should not be ashamed to practise the art of cooking. But she says that raw meat makes her shudder, and that the fumes of the kitchen give her a headache. Nevertheless, her young daughters are to be taught housekeeping. She seems to consider that the reason why German women excel our countrywomen in happiness arises from the fact that they have daily exercise for their muscles, and they have no reason to consider themselves useless members of society. When asked how much liberty she gives to her servants, she replied, " As much as I give to my own children." In fact, the servants of this lady are under maternal government, and the result is 400 savings on the part of one who has [-108-] spent twenty years in her family. It is only fair to say that when visitors came to the house all the tips went to this general servant ; and as the visitors were many her purse did not wholly depend on her wages. She thinks of buying a little cottage in which to stow herself and the china ornaments that now grace her spinster fireplace.
    While talking of parsimony we must quote another general servant who has saved over 500 in twenty-five years which have been spent in one family. Mistresses complain that servants use too much coal, and are careless of dripping, because they are not obliged to pay for such things, that they burn candles and "swallow matches" in a way they would not do if the money for lights came out of their own pockets. This servant lives in the family of a gentleman who has a long pedigree and a short purse. She has helped to bring up six boys on a small income. Yet she has saved over 500 herself, and she must have put thousands into her employer's pocket. The following true anecdotes will show how she has managed it.
    Last year a gentleman who is well known in Parliament called to see her master. She opened the door and conducted him into the hall. Then she looked at his boots. "Please, sir," she said [-109-] "will you wipe your feet? We've a new drawing- room carpet."
    On another occasion, when the eldest brother of her mistress called in the lady's absence to say good-bye before he went to the south of France for six months, she produced at his request a postcard out of her mistress's desk. When he returned to England half a year later, she asked him, "Mr.----, sir, have you paid back that postcard to the mistress ?"
    Scores of such stories could be repeated by the boys she has brought up. They call her "the heiress," and it is an open secret that the Benjamin of the family will one day have her money.
    Many mistresses complain that general servants spend too much money on dress. Materials are very cheap, ribbons and feathers can be had for a few pence. Dressmakers make costumes for servants at a low rate of payment. Added to these facts are the following truths, which help to explain a general servant's extravagance. One day in the month is her own, and perhaps two afternoons in the week. She counts the hours between these periods as a school girl counts the days to the holidays. For these few hours she hoards her finery, in order to produce an impression on her acquaintances. Every one knows [-110-] that soldiers in London let themselves out by the hour on Sundays, and that the price varies from 1s. to 5s. per hour for a good-looking soldier.
    Most general servants have sweethearts - some "friend" with whom they walk and talk, without thinking much about marriage. While the lives of general servants remain what they are at present, such people will spend money on their appearance, unless their mistresses bring to bear on them personal influence, or they become engaged to some respectable man for whom they have a real liking. There is not the smallest doubt that general servants are, as a rule, extravagant and improvident; but these things arise largely from their position in the houses as dependents, people who get food and lodging in return for labour, who have nothing to do with their money unless it is to buy smart dresses and bonnets.
    The great ambition of such servants generally is to copy the mistress ; and if she dresses quietly they are pretty sure to follow her example. Among themselves they are all "young ladies." The kitchen-maid is called in the next house "the young lady who lives at Smith's," and the housemaid is "Miss Jones who is at Jackson's." If Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jackson dress quietly, their young lady servants will do the same.
    [-111-] It must not be forgotten that finery is cheap, and that to dress quietly and well requires time and money. The late Dean of Gloucester used to say, "There should be nothing conspicuous about a lady; one should not notice the colour of her garments any more than that of the umbrella which she puts up when it is raining."
    Servants will never dress above the taste of their sweethearts, and men of their class like them to make a showy appearance. For one man who admires a quiet bonnet and sober-tinted gown, a dozen prefer a hat with a smart feather, and a dress of as many colours as the coat which Joseph put on to the disgust of his brethren.
    General servants complain very much of want of liberty in choosing their "place of worship." "To tell a woman where she is to go to church is to interfere with the rights of a British subject," says a mistress. Nevertheless it is done again and again by mistresses; and bitter complaints have reached us on this subject from divers quarters. A respectable tradesman who visits fifty houses a day confirms this statement. He tells us that it is a constant source of bitterness among servants, especially among general servants. In large houses a pew is generally kept at some church for the servants; the late Lord Shaftesbury used to turn round in his parish church, and [-112-] take a survey of his servants, who were arranged behind him. Such martial discipline is quite fair if the servants have warning before they are engaged; but general servants are not always told the religious tenets of the mistress. In fact, as the tradesman who has been already quoted said, "If mistresses were obliged to give characters to servants, as servants have to give to mistresses, many of the ladies would have to do their own work, for no amount of money would get them a servant."