Monday, 23 November 2009

Census occupation: Charwoman

As requested, another glimpse into Ann Jones' life . . .

The moon was sinking in the sky as Ann trudged up the garden to the ty bach near the water's edge. Moonlight highlighted the river, the swift-moving wavelets dipping and tossing downstream, wave-crests opalescent in the moonlight, slapping against rocks and trailing through the fingers of low-hanging branches. In the rushes on the far bank the old dog otter watched her before he slid silently into the water. A Tawny Owl hooted in the ash trees. Another day had begun.

In the cottage, her daughters slept on, covered in a warm blanket made at one of the pandies up Llandyssul way. The embers in the hearth had survived another night, and she deftly brought them back to life and, rousing her daughters, quickly mixed flour and water and an egg from her hens which had amazingly still kept laying sporadically despite the lateness of the year. The griddle cakes were soon sizzling in a little lard which was kept in a pig's bladder against the cool wall. As she steadied the planc she burned a finger, and reached for the little pad of hay to hold it with. The girls were dressed and ready, with the honey jar on the table, before the griddle cakes even needed turning, sitting on the little bench their da had made from river-wood and rough-hewn branches. It rocked on the uneven floor. The smell of the heated lard made them wish there was bacon, but they knew better than to hope for even a morsel until the next pig was killed and then it would be feast time, with a bucket of offal to share amongst the three Anns and their families who lived cheek-by-jowl here, sharing every rise and fall of daily living.

In the pre-dawn darkness they crossed the road to Ann-stockings, where she left the girls whilst she worked, paying her friend a few pence a week for the privilege. As the horizon beyond the farm began to lighten, she plodded up the lane to the farmhouse, where only a single room showed a light.

It was not a job she did through choice. She had been a dairy maid from leaving home, at the big house up the hill, but when children came along they'd relied on her husband's money. His death had changed all that. Now she was widowed, she was a charwoman - little better than a skivvy really - doing all the dirty jobs, the heavy jobs that the live-in girls hated to do. Mr Davis was kind to her, kept her rent to a minimum and let her have any beestings to cook up in a curd tart, blood sometimes for a black pudding when they'd killed a pig, and a length of chitterlings for the casings, beside the bucket of offal to share with her neighbours. This kindness in return for her scrubbing out the shed where the beast had been rendered into edible and non-edible, a job rendered even more unsavoury if the guts had been trodden on and spilt their contents everywhere.

In winter, her arms ached from scrubbing the huge pans used for cooking, and her hands were dry and cracked from frequent immersion in water. If it was the copper pans she was cleaning, then her lungs and eyes would be smarting from the boiling vinegar it took to clean them inside, and she regularly walked to the marshy field where the Mares tail plants grew which were used to polish them. Daily, hers was the task to scrub the orange floor tiles of the kitchen with a scrubbing brush and lye. The kitchen table fell to her lot too - scrubbing the greasy spots with fuller's earth and soap and then scouring the planks with chloride of lime water and silver sand until her fingers bled, some days.

First thing she would clean out the ash from last night's fires and blacklead each grate, laying each fire fresh, before filling the coal scuttles from around the back of the barn. She would trim each oil lamp, and carefully wash the smoke marks from the chimneys.

In summer, the sunshine showed up all the dark corners and the china would be taken down and cleaned regularly, the duster used with authority the length and breadth of the house and spiders sent scuttling from their corners as their webs were dragged down. The rugs needed to be regularly beaten, as the dust from the lane outside came in through the open windows and settled everywhere. If she was lucky, she might get a few hours' dairy work on a Fair Day when the other servants were given time off or if the milk yields were unusually good, but never a drop for her children - milk was far too precious a commodity for folk like them.

Each summer, it was time to whitewash the farm and outbuildings and she also helped with that. To make the whitewash, waste fat was needed, even that which had gone rancid was considered meet, and odds and ends of the winter's tallow candles found a final use. Chopped with the narrow spade they used for digging post holes, she then boiled it up in the old cauldron, adding dry unslaked lime. This was always done on washing day so that the soapy wash water could be utilized. It stood overnight and became a white spongey mass which formed the base of the whitewash. Then the younger lads, those not afraid of ladders and heights, would paint the farm and outbuildings, keeping the flies at bay and making the farm look God-faring, for as their preacher told them, cleanliness was next to Godliness . . . . .


  1. I've never read a description of a charwoman's duties before---utterly depressing. I think of the flagrant abuses of welfare programs in this country, but the alternative might be something like a modern day version of Widow Jones' existance.
    Our standards of cleanliness are elevated today and most of us "clean" with chemicals in handy spray bottles---the effort of other generations to acheive household sanitation involved such dreadful labors and we would probably think the results were lacking.
    Beautifully detailed--as is each piece you write.

  2. Life was not easy in those days, that's for sure.

  3. Beautifully written BB. You have brought Ann Jones to life, and what a hard life she had. I think that my rural Lincolnshire and Wiltshire Great Great Grandmothers would have recognised Ann`s world.

    I wonder what happened to her daughters?

  4. It's not very lyrically written, but I wanted to give her a voice. As for the girls - dunno - I would need to go to the Records Office and follow them forward. I should imagine they moved away. I know at one point a widow from Llettygariad married a widower from Pantydinas opposite (or t'other way round) and think that Pantydinas used to be a little shop, someone was saying?

  5. It's great to be back in blogland! I've really enjoyed reading your account of Ann's life as a charwoman .. (puts me in mind of Thomas Hardy!) .. you really do wonder how on earth they managed to bring up children in this environment, don't you?! Wonderful stuff, as ever BB.

    Willow x

  6. THis is a brilliant piece of writing Jenny, one of my ancestors gave her occupation as charwoman on a census but I've never really known what kind of work she would have done. I realised it was drudgery of course but not in the detail that you give. It would be fascinating to learn more about both Ann and her daughters. A winter research project? :)