Wednesday 26 January 2011


When my mum had jobs that needed doing but she didn't enjoy, she always called it drudgery. A word not often used these days, though it did cross my mind recently when I put my nose to the grindstone and got on with the - truly horrid - job of scrubbing the oven from top to bottom, and boy, did it need it as some jam had boiled out of a roly-poly and bubbled all over the oven bottom until it was pure carbon!

Today I have been reading bits from "Not in Front of the Servants" (A true portrait of Upstairs, Downstairs Life) by Frank Victor Dawes and an excellent book. Believe me, the poor girls mentioned in there knew ALL about drudgery.

They had very little choice, of course, in those days of poverty and large families. As soon as the eldest girl was old enough, she was out into service, and proud to go and help her family by sending home the pittance she earned and by being one less mouth for her family to feed. In the mid-Victorian period 10 years was considered a suitable age. The book tells of one poor child who was in service in a large house at Harrogate in Yorkshire. Up at 4 a.m., she was expected to set to and scrub the stone floors in the dairy, on her hands and knees with a bucket of cold water and just a candle for light. Having done that, she then had to churn the butter until her arms felt like they were dropping off. She would scarcely see the light of day as she skivvied (another word my mother used) in the kitchen and scullery, black-leading the grates, setting and lighting fires, polishing floors and being at the beck and call of all the other servants until finally she was allowed to drag herself upstairs to her attic bedroom, again lit by candlelight, at 9 p.m. I should imagine she slept like the dead each night.

If the placement was local, the maids in service were sometimes able to send some leftovers home, as Harriet Brown, working in Edgeware in 1870, wrote to her mother: "I have saved a small piece of plum pudding for you and will save some mince pies and I thought you would like a little dripping so I have sent all."

Bread and dripping - a favourite of my mum's especially when we had had a small piece of beef to roast on a Sunday. I never joined her in this delicacy!

Harriet's daughter didn't fare as well in her placement 20 years later where she was the lowest of 8 housemaids. She "slaved from 5 a.m. until late at night at all the roughest work. She had to scrub at the bare boarded floors of the staff rooms with a mixture of soft soap and silver sand until her hands, and arms up to her elbows were red raw. On most nights she cried herself to sleep."

Of course, the staff got full board although at times they might have been better off at home. One poor girl who worked in a chemist's home, had a frugal diet: Breakfast: Four slices of bread and dripping, two cups of tea. Dinner: quite a good two-course dinner; Tea: small pot of tea, three slices of bread and margarine. This was 1914.

A 1900s lady's maid remembered that the food was not plentiful and was rather repetitive, with boiled bacon one morning and fried the next, but NEVER an egg in all the time she worked there. Sundays had tastier fare with sausages or bloaters being on offer. However, the Sunday roasting joint for above stairs was expected to be used up the rest of the week on the servants' table, in various guises until it became a sort of hash which no-one fancied. Bread, butter and home-made jam (gooseberry one week and plum the next) were served for tea. Occasionally they had treats left over from dinner parties and these were swiftly demolished!

In large houses there was a very strict serving order, with the tweeny last, poor lass. The better establishments fed their staff very well with none of the "this'll do for them" and bread and margerine and leftovers. Instead, the servants would have their own menu and country houses would always have an abundance of fresh vegetables and game, though one wonders what the servants thought of game hung until it was high and wriggling with maggots, and ripe cheese crawling with mites . . .

Anyway, no drudgery for me today, although I did push myself hard tidying up out in the garden, and did my baking at the wrong end of the day (after breakfast is best, when I have energy).

Today's A.R.O.S.: Harbingers of spring, the snowdrops peek through the soil, and the catkins waggle golden lambstails.


  1. Hi there...My name is Lynn Winders, I am an almost 65 year old mom, grandmom and retired nurse living in the desert southwest in the corner of Utah. I have just found your blog and had to tell you I LOVE IT!!! I am fascinated with Wales, although have never been able to visit. I have some Welsh ancestry and so reading about how life used to be, seeing cathedrals, countryside, touches of antiques, has just made my days. I loved the posts about the overnight houses, and have sent several of my friends to the blog to learn from you also. I love history and so learning some of the off-the-beaten-path things is marvelous. I mean kings and queens are good, but so are the lives of the everyday folks. Matter of fact, last night after reading about the houses, I journaled for several pages about what my ancestors could have been like. Anyway, the photos are almost as good as being there, the history is better than from a professor, and I will be back visiting on a regular basis. Keep the good stuff coming. Bendithion, Lynn

  2. The things the "help" must have been privy to is mind boggling. While the upstairs is putting on airs, it is downstairs where everything is revealed.
    Have you gotten a chance to watch "Downton Abbey" yet? It has been quite entertaining to watch.

  3. Thank you for this reminder of how very forunate we are. My grandmother was "hired out" as nanny, cook, and housekeeper at age 12. She was the eldest of 4 daughters and her father had left his family when she was still a girl.

  4. We don't know we're born, as my Nan would say.

  5. Oh yes BB there was drudgery and not so long ago either - and there still is in so many parts of the world. It was all jolly hard work - wash day in the middle of winter was about as bad as it got for my mother I think - I remember it well from my childhood.

  6. There was drudgery in my grandmothers` days and all those tales of life in service ring true. My mother was a young student nurse in the 1930s, and things were not much better for her.

    As Weaver says, this kind of life is still happening for many people, usually women and often children, around the world. Most of us work hard in our daily lives, but often there is choice about how and what we do. With labour saving devices and modern conveniences, we even have time to sit at a computer and blog! We are very fortunate.

  7. DW - I've been thinking very much along those lines this week. I picked up a National Geographic in the Doc's yesterday and it was ALL about water. Reading about how people struggle in China and India was a real eye-opener and I shall never take it for granted again.

    WoG - my washday memories are with the "copper" in the corner of the "scullery" as mum called it, heated up first thing and sheets first, going through to woollies last, and everything put through the table top mangle . . .

    Kath - that's an expression that an employer of mine was always using (she who never wanted for anything as born with a silver spoon in her mouth. . .)

    GQ - the story of most of our grannies I suspect. I have found my maternal gran in service in London in 1901 and 1911 censuses. She got to travel though - went to Switzerland with her family.

    DD - oh yes, I watched every episode of Downton Abbey : ) Much enjoyed.

    Lynn - a big welcome to you and thank you for your kind comments. I just try and share the things that interest me and I'm glad they interest you too! Do you know which part of Wales your ancestors came from? If you go back through my "archives" (doesn't that sound grand?!) I have written more about life for the ordinary Welsh folk. I will try and get the date for you later today. Haste ye back.

  8. My grandmother went into service with Sir David Rutherford and Granddad was his chauffeur. It actually gave my father a bit of status in school to say that he was part of the big house, Powis Court, in Hertfordshire.

  9. I have always cringed over the stories of young people sent out to "service." I expect the young men had it a bit better--not in the sense of finer meals or accomodations, but at least they got outside a bit. Most of these well-to-do families likely considered themselves "Christians" and yet recognized no harshness in the way their servants were treated [?]
    The first generation of my French-Canadian family to be born in the US were "in service"--their names, when they can be deciphered in the census of the early 1900's show them as "servants"--usually attached to the households of properous farmers or merchants. It took another generation for them to become accustomed to the English language.

  10. My Nanna went into service when she left school and skivvied in a local hotel/pub. I know she got up at the crack of dawn and worked til she dropped. On her afternoon off she walked home and gave her mum all her wage and then walked back to work again to start another week.
    Married at 16 and two children/two years later lost her husband.
    Wish I could go back in time and make her life easier somehow as she was one of those women who'd give you her last penny if you were desperate.