EMPLOYED WOMEN IN VICTORIAN HASTINGS & ST LEONARDS

Servants


© Helena Wojtczak
The overwhelming majority of working class girls in Hastings & St Leonards entered domestic service, which was the largest category of occupation for women throughout the 19th century. Fifty-three percent of all employed Sussex women in 1861 were domestic servants.

A related job was that of charwoman, a skivvy employed on a daily basis in commercial and industrial premises. This was generally the province of desperate older women, particularly widows, who had only domestic skills to offer to an employer. In the 1860s, newly-widowed Ann Russell of 1, Lavatoria, St Leonards, worked as a charwoman to support five small children (the youngest was aged one month), as well as her mother-in-law who lived in as childminder. Charring was a booming occupation: the 49,000 working in Britain in 1851 had grown to 74,000 in 1871.

Domestic service seemed to be the answer to everybody's needs. People wanted servants, and women needed work. Little training was required and, as an added bonus, the work fitted girls to become wives. The only fly in the ointment was that most girls would have preferred to be doing just about anything else.

No Royal Commission investigated domestic service it or suggested legal protection for the worker; no trade union called attention to the lot of servants.

Hidden away in basements and attic bedrooms, shut away from the public eye, servants were largely mute and forgotten. Signs of protest or discontent were met with stern warnings and, eventually, dismissal. In 1864, 16-year-old Fanny Beaton, made her feelings known rather spectacularly, by twice setting fire to her bed, which was located in the kitchen and was fully-enclosed with wooden shutters. Fanny admitted that her mistress, Mary Akehurst of 12 Marine Parade, Hastings, was kind to her; she had simply wanted to go home. She was sent to prison for one month.

In a small middle-class or prosperous working-class household, one maid-of-all-work was engaged to carry out the most menial chores, often as an assistant to the housewife. The pay was about 2s a week plus board for a 6-day week which began about 6am and finished at 10 or 11pm. It was not unusual for servants to share a small attic-room and, in some cases, even the same bed, while others slept in kitchens situated in damp basements. Their few personal possessions were stored in a small trunk known as their 'box'. As the family's income rose, so did the number of servants, and this served as an outward sign of prosperity. In a medium-sized house, a parlour-maid and cook would be engaged as well. Only the largest, grandest households employed higher servants such as a lady's maid, butler or footman.

Women were employed as housekeepers, particularly in rural areas. One would often be employed when the housewife was in poor health, or had died, leaving her husband to raise children alone while running a farm or other business. All domestic work in the countryside was extremely heavy and involved long hours. As well as domestic duties there was always some care of livestock. Duties assigned to females included feeding animals, plucking poultry and milking cows.

The austere life of servants was thrown into sharp contrast by their wealthy employers' array of beautiful clothes and accessories. A servant could never afford to buy such things for herself. Pilfering from employers was common; many girl servants were prosecuted and custodial sentences were the norm. Honest girls, who purchased cheap imitations - paste jewellery, pretty hair-slides, a bit of lace or perhaps a gay straw hat - were roundly criticised for their 'love of finery'. It was even described as a 'social evil' by the editor of the Hastings & St Leonards News, who condemned servant girls for loving 'tawdry finery' and blamed their 'ignorant mothers' for fostering in them a 'love of "showing off" beyond their station'. He believed that 'a lady is perfectly justified in forbidding her domestic to dress in a style which is plainly beyond her honest means' and advised that she 'refuse to allow her to appear in public in the guise of a poppet or with the airs of a fool'. He suggested that the reason these 'silly girls' dressed up was 'to get the power of dazzling butcher's boys', which meant that they were 'graduating for a life of sin or a home of misery'. In conclusion, he reminded readers that there was 'Christian work' for 'kindhearted' women in saving these 'poor creatures' from the 'ruinous consequences of a giddy love of dress which too surely await so many of these victims of bad taste and ignorance'.

The fabulously wealthy Countess of Waldegrave echoed these sentiments in 1867 when she gave a stern lecture to schoolgirls on the merits of saving up their surplus pennies to purchase warm clothes for winter, instead of indulging their love of finery. She warned that, when (not if) they became servants, their mistresses would disapprove of their attempts to get above their station in life. God was cited in support: He, in His wisdom, had allotted to each her correct place in society. To contradict His plan was blasphemous.

Servants were traditionally engaged at hiring fairs, but by the 19th century the rise of bureaucracy and in town living led to the introduction of special agencies to connect servants with potential employers. One of the first in Hastings was run by Mr. J. Tanner, who opened a room in his house at 30 All Saints' Street as a registry office, so that girls who had newly arrived in town could obtain places as servants as soon as possible, 'that the evils of idleness might be avoided'. He charged nothing but, later, commercial agencies were opened - the forerunners of today's employment agencies.

Only a handful of households in the Hastings district were able to employ the stereotypical assortment of 'upper' servants such as butler, footman, governess, skilled cook, housekeeper, senior parlour-maid, head house-maid and lady's maid, as well as the 'lower' servants including kitchen-maid, scullery-maid, laundress, nursemaid, housemaid, stable-boy etc.

For smaller households the priority was to employ female 'lower' servants to perform the dirty, heavy work. As soon as a family's income reached about 150p.a. it engaged a young teenager as 'maid-of-all-work' (general servant). She usually worked 14 to 16 hours daily at the most menial chores. If the family had a shop she would also serve behind the counter.

In Hastings many maids were employed by lodging house keepers to do the washing up, clean out all the grates, sweep and scrub the floors and to run up and down stairs carrying buckets of coal, cans of hot water and breakfasts. Many houses were several storeys high.

As a family's income rose, so did the number of its servants. A housemaid and cook were the priority. Only wealthy persons employed male domestics since there was a servant tax on them. The many wealthy visitors who came for the summer often brought with them a lady's maid, while other servants were engaged locally or were included with the property when 'taken' (i.e. rented) for the season.




Barbara Bodichon

Bessie Rayner Parkes

Marianne North

Dr Sophia Jex Blake

Dr Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Eiloart

Dr Anna Kingsford

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