VICTORIAN SERVANTS SPEAK OUT

After a lengthy break, I’m relaunching my A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England blog on a more responsive platform. Hopefully, it will make the content easier to navigate and search, and be more reader-friendly.

To mark International Women’s Day, this post is about the unsung heroes of Victorian society, without whom the wealthy and middle classes could not manage their daily lives: domestic servants. The rich rarely had issues attracting and retaining staff since working in gentlemen’s service was considered the pinnacle of a servant’s career. However, for smaller households employing just one or two servants, it was a very different matter.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the newspapers were full of complaints about the ‘servant problem’ – the apparent inability of employers to obtain and keep good servants. Countless opinions were offered as to the cause and the remedy, including that given by Mrs Panton in From Kitchen to Garret: Hints to Young Householders (1888). In her manual, she offered what appears to be common sense advice but it was contrary to the way many mistresses viewed their servants: ‘If we treat our maids just as we treat ourselves we shall find our trouble almost disappear. I invariably leave my maids a good deal to themselves about their work; and once they know what has to be done, I find it is done without my constantly being after them…’

‘Morning Wear’ in Cassell’s Household Guide

Part of the ‘servant problem’ was attributed to the increasingly wide range of employment opportunities for working-class girls who had traditionally gone into domestic service. Jobs in shops and factories were more attractive because of the fixed working hours, whereas servants were at the beck and call of their mistresses at all hours of the day. After 1880, working-class girls were educated for longer and to a higher standard. The most intelligent could now aspire to enter the professions of teaching and nursing, while clerical work offered further opportunities away from domestic service.

This increase in literacy among servants led many to air their grievances by writing to their local newspapers; this was one of the few ways they could express themselves publicly. While researching my book Servants’ Stories, I came across an exchange of letters on the British Newspaper Archive. They were sent to the Western Mail in November and December 1892. The first letter was a request from ‘A Servant’ of Swansea for ‘protection against tyrannous mistresses’:

Will you insert a servant’s complaints of the way in which the majority of that much-abused class are treated? No one seems to heed our long hours or our holidays, which are (like angels’ visits) few and far between. There seems no other class working at a greater disadvantage. For instance, no servant can expect a situation who had not got a good reference and a long one from where she last lived. It often happens she has been living with unprincipled people, who think not half so much of their servants as they do of their dumb animals. What is it to them if the girl does not get a situation? She has offended them in some way or other. Perhaps she had had more than her share of work, bad food, and other things too numerous to mention, and she has spoken too plainly to please them. That, of course, is considered impertinent, for, according to many mistresses’ opinion, a servant is a being made expressly for them, and she has no rights whatever, and she is told she need not expect a character. What are servants to do under these circumstances? They may be out of a situation for months – perhaps something worse. Do the mistresses think we have no spirit, and that we must bear quietly the petty tyranny they have it in their power to use in a hundred ways? My two last situations have happened to be places where it is impossible for servants to live, I being the sixth servant in three months, and yet we have nothing and no one to warn us of places of this sort. I think it is a serious matter that our character (I may say our livelihood) is at the mercy of such people. Why cannot something be done to benefit servants as well as other working classes? Servants ought to know what kind of places they are going into, as well as the character of the people they are to live with.

Maid of all work (Living London)

In the days that followed, other maids wrote to the Western Mail listing their own problems with their employers. ‘A Poor Servant in Pembrokeshire’ added:

I am only grieved to say that we servants are worse treated than pet animals. They are studied with fresh air every day, but we do not need it once a week even. Are we allowed sufficient time to eat the food we get, which would not be often given to their pets? When we enter into an engagement with a lady we are asked if we can obtain a good character. Should there be a little spot, “Oh you won’t suit me.” Should the lady’s character be inquired into as closely as the servant’s, I wonder which would prove the most just. You are asked if you are honest. Is it needed where everything is locked. You are expected to be clean. Can you be clean in some ‘houses’ where you have a piece of soap locked from you?

Lack of trust between mistress and maid was a constant source of frustration and anger. Employers also wrote in to have their say during this discussion. ‘A Mistress’ of Park-place, Cardiff commented:

I do not doubt that among servants, like every other class, there are some who are badly treated, but … what of the gross carelessness and wicked wastefulness of servants, and what of their growing antipathy to doing the ordinary work of a household? Servants, nowadays, are not to be compared to the honest and industrious worker of a few years ago, and their grievances are entirely of their own making.

This letter provoked an impassioned reply from to ‘A Servant’ of Newport:

I have heard many say that modern servants are not like the old-fashioned ones, but mistresses of the present day are very different from what they were then. Mistresses used to respect their servants and were looked up to in return, but such mistresses now are few and far between. There are so many ‘ladies’ who have been domestics themselves that we cannot expect them to make good mistresses. I should think that to have a good place we should have a kind mistress. This is the chief thing; then the girl would find it a pleasure to be industrious.

‘In a Servants’ Registry Office’ (Living London)

A butler with 17 years’ experience wrote:

I respectfully contend that servants are far more honest now than they were years ago, when many of them had little or no wages more than their food. No, servants are not what they were years ago. They, like other branches of the community, have improved with the times, and are still improving. But why is it they meet with so little encouragement from their employers? Hundreds of societies are formed, recreation-rooms built, and everything conceivable is done for the improvement of the clerk, artisan, mechanic, &c. Mistresses subscribe liberally to any of these, but no helping hand is held out to the poor being who is unlucky enough to bear the insignificant designation of “servant”… I am happy to say from experience that there are some few mistresses who take an interest in their servants, and do all they possibly can to encourage them to be thrifty &c, and improve themselves, not only by giving them good advice, but with kind, substantial help. But while employers continue to treat servants as machines, expecting all and giving as little as possible in return (for it is not solely a question of wages), there will be a difficulty in obtaining good servants.

Finally, came the hopes of ‘A Cardiff Girl’:

Would you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper to refer to the proposed servants’ union. I am sorry to see that such a few girls of this town have taken the matter up. Why do not some of them come forward with pluck and energy and stand out one with the other until they get a union like the shop assistants and have a half-holiday once a week, with some part of the day on Sunday, instead of being penned in like prisoners once a fortnight? I am sure we deserve it, I sincerely hope, now the girls have made a stir that it will not result in a failure like the last.

Unfortunately, the various servants’ trade unions had little effect on improving the working conditions of those in domestic service. It was difficult to recruit members because the contract between servant and employer was a private one, and maids ran the risk of being blacklisted if they were discovered to be members of a union.

This exchange of letters in the Western Mail continued for weeks, indicating the depth of feeling on both sides. The ‘servant problem’ continued well into the twentieth century when a trend developed of maids becoming ‘daily helps’ or char-women, which meant they had fixed hours and were able to return home at the end of the day.

VICTORIAN CRIME: MURDER IN THE SUBURBS

Today, I’m very happy to be hosting a guest post by Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian true crime. Read on for the shocking story of the murder of PC Nicholas Cock in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, one of Manchester’s suburbs, back in 1876.

MURDER IN THE SUBURBS

Chorlton-cum-Hardy is a suburb of Manchester, four and a half miles south-west of the city centre, now characterised by small shops, street cafés and delicatessens. Originally a rural village, the tranquil farming community was surrounded by fields and meadows, and nursery gardens. By the end of the nineteenth century, Chorlton had begun to develop into a more distinct suburb of the industrialised metropolis of Manchester. Factory owners and businesspeople moved out to the township’s leafy streets to escape the dirt and noise of the textile mills and factories. They built attractive red-brick villas with walled gardens, on tree-lined avenues, travelling into the city by the omnibus service or twice-daily packet boats on the canal. Crime was low, compared to the dangerous streets of the city centre, making it: ‘one of the most respectable suburbs of Manchester…covered by villa residences of some considerable pretension’ (Manchester Courier, 27 November 1876).

The quiet suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy (copyright free)

In the quiet township of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, there were occasional burglaries and robberies, yet many of the criminal activities were still rural in nature, such as poaching and theft of farm animals. In the early 1880s, there were two murders, one of a young woman on her way home from the market, which was never solved, and another resulting from a drunken argument, which had an uncanny link with shocking events some 30 years later. 

In May 1847, market gardener Francis Deakin was drinking in a beerhouse with his friend George Leach, whose wife owned the establishment. An afternoon of beer and rum led to an argument between the couple, and when George started to hurl insults his wife, Francis stepped in to defend her. Enraged, George ran into the kitchen and grabbed a carving knife, meeting Francis in the passage. Shouting, ‘I’ll have no man interfering with me and my wife,’ he lunged at Francis and stabbed him. George was immediately sorry for what he had done and expressed the desperate hope that he had not killed his friend, but Francis Deakin died from his wounds. George Leach was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and transported for life.

Francis’s wife, Martha, was left alone with six children, ranging from 15 years to a few days old. Helped by her family, she took over the management of their market garden business and supported her children until her death, 11 years later at the age of 46. The younger members of the Deakin family were left in the care of 16-year-old Francis junior, who looked after his brother and two sisters, whilst assuming responsibility for the market garden. Francis married in 1864 and had one son before his wife died. By the mid-1870s, he had become a prosperous nurseryman and was re-married with three more children. He lived at Firs Farm, which would become the focus of another murder, after the prime suspects were arrested on his property.

PC Cock was murdered at the junction of West Point, Chorlton-cum-Hardy (copyright free)

On 1 August 1876, 21-year-old PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight, from the township of Chorlton towards the junction of West Point where three main thoroughfares joined, when he met a law student on his way home, and a colleague. The three men stopped for a chat at the junction and, after a few minutes, went their separate ways. Shortly after, two shots rang back out in the dark. The student and PC Beanland ran back to West Point to find PC Cock lying on the ground – he had been shot in the chest.


PC Nicholas Cock of the Lancashire Constabulary (copyright free)


As soon as he heard of his officer’s death, Superintendent James Bent knew exactly who the culprits were. He proceeded immediately to the farm of Francis Deakin and apprehended the three Habron brothers, who worked in his nursery garden. Superintendent Bent’s investigation led to a murder conviction and ended with a startling twist and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar, which finally revealed the truth of this heinous crime.

A big thank you to Angela for writing such an interesting post, packed with Victorian period detail. Was anyone in your family tree a victim of violent crime? Please do get in touch if you have a story to tell about your Victorian ancestors.

Angela writes about Victorian crime and you can find out more about her work on her website
http://victorian-supersleuth.com.

Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. Angela is also the author of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders and The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword). 
 

Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley

VICTORIAN FASHION: WHAT TO WEAR IN JUNE (1885)

Last week, many of us in the UK were sweltering in temperatures of more than 30 degrees C – very unusual for a British summer! In our house, we coped by throwing open all the windows, staying out of the sun at the hottest time of the day, and eating copious amounts of ice cream. In the 21st century, we’re lucky to have technology like air-conditioning and electric fans, and to be able to wear fewer clothes when it’s hot.

But spare a thought for the Victorians, especially women and young girls, for whom removing layers in hot weather just wasn’t an option. One of my favourite Victorian periodicals is the Cassell’s Family Magazine which is full of interesting articles on subjects as random as the benefits of Turkish bathing, how to cook potatoes and what should be in the family medicine chest. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month. ‘What to Wear in June’ certainly doesn’t mention dressing in fewer layers.

She describes June as “that delightful time of year when nature is seen at its very best, there is every encouragement to dress well. The sun shows up all defects, and you must don your freshest attire.” This was in the days before deodorant and easy-to-wash clothes, although the readers of Cassell’s Family Magazine would probably have had a maid to do their washing or it would have been sent out to a laundry to be cleaned.

The following illustration shows the stylish indoor costumes suitable for June:

Indoor Costumes – What to Wear in June (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1885)

The women are wearing polonaises (the dresses themselves) made with paniers (side hoops). The Paris correspondent noted that they were as popular as walking dresses because “they are both convenient and economical wear, for it is not imperative they should always match the skirt the accompany.” They were worn “drawn away below the waist in front, curtain fashion, while at the back the drapery is arranged to look as bouffant as possible.” It was important that the flounced skirt had either ruche or kilting at the edge. No concessions to possible heat here!

Outdoor costumes involved even more items of clothing, including gloves, hats and parasols:

Outdoor Costumes – What to Wear in June (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1885)

These elegant dresses were ‘washing costumes’ made of sateens and cambrics that were easier to wash than fabrics like silk. The dresses had “demi-long sleeves sewn in high at the shoulders, bunchy paniers, and rich embroideries”. The two dresses for adults on the right were “equipped for travelling in soft, light woollens, of which there is an ample choice this summer in both Paris and London.”

The column did offer a small amount of warm weather advice: “Some wonderful parasols are now keeping off the slow-coming summer sun; some have row upon row of red lace, some have stripes of moire and satin, some are of crocheted straw, but the prettiest are large and entirely white, with fall upon fall of lace.”

The writer also advised that for country wear, “small-spotted gauze veils are very much in vogue, and for travelling we could not do better than copy our American cousins, who tie a gauze veil entirely over the hat or bonnet, so that all dust is excluded.”

You can see beautiful Victorian dresses like this at the Fashion Museum in Bath and the V & A in London.

VICTORIAN CHILDCARE: BABY FARMING

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post by the fabulous Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. Angela tells us the sad story of the infant victims of Amelia Dyer, the notorious baby farmer; many of their mothers were domestic servants who had no choice but to entrust their children to the care of women like Dyer.

Victorian Childcare: Baby Farming

Life was particularly harsh for single mothers in the nineteenth century. Young women who fell pregnant outside wedlock lost their homes and jobs, and were shunned by society. Domestic servants were amongst the most vulnerable and their plight was brought to light by a series of dreadful discoveries in the river Thames at Caversham, in the spring of 1896.

On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast upriver and, as he approached Caversham Weir near Reading, he spotted a brown paper parcel in the water. He and his mate hooked the package to take a closer look. Once on the towpath, they cut through layers of newspaper and flannel to expose a tiny human foot and part of a leg. When the police opened the parcel fully at the mortuary, they found the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and a year. She had been strangled by a piece of white tape tied around her neck and knotted under her ear. A faint name and address on the sodden parcel led the officers to Amelia Dyer, a local baby farmer. A letter found at her home suggested that the child recovered from the river might have been Helena Fry, daughter of Mary Fry, a domestic servant.

Amelia Dyer (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)

Victorian servants who had illegitimate children were usually dismissed from their post, despite the fact that they may have been sexually exploited by a member of their employer’s family. Encumbered with an infant, they may not have been able to return home and they would not have found another position. Their choices were limited – there was no state assistance and they often ended up in the workhouse, where they were separated from their child. The only other viable option, if they could afford it, was to place the child with a baby farmer.

Baby farmers, who were usually women, advertised in the local newspapers for children to adopt for a fee, either a weekly payment of about five shillings, or a one-off premium of around £10, which was a large proportion of a domestic servant’s annual wage. Transactions were organised by letter, and once the mother was satisfied that her baby would be taken care of, she handed over the child to the baby farmer, with the money, and often never saw them again.

Newspaper advertisements placed by baby farmers (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)

The reality for farmed-out children was bleak. Although there were some reputable baby farmers, many of them were unscrupulous practitioners who neglected the infants in their charge, drugging them with opiates, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, and starving them to death. The high infant mortality rate at the time masked the deaths of these poor mites. The practice was unregulated and completely legal.

When the body of baby Helena Fry was found in the Thames in 1896, the police investigated Amelia Dyer, who had been running her baby farming business for some 30 years. Many of the parents who had entrusted their children to her were in domestic service. The bodies of at least six children were discovered in the Thames at Caversham Weir, one of whom was Frances Jesse Goulding, illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Goulding, who worked as a servant in a public house in Gloucester. The baby’s father was a married man and so Elizabeth made the heartbreaking decision to give her child up for adoption. When she saw an advertisement in the paper, she arranged with Amelia Dyer’s daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, to have baby Frances adopted. She met Palmer on Gloucester station and paid her £10 to take the child, who was later identified by a lock of her hair, after her body was found in the river.

On 22 May 1896, Amelia Dyer was convicted of the wilful murder of baby Doris Marmon, whose body was found in the Thames in a carpet bag together with another child, Harry Simmons. Three weeks later Dyer went to the gallows. Following her execution, legislation was introduced to protect children like Frances Jesse Goulding and the other infants who perished at the hands of the notorious Victorian baby farmer.


A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating, yet poignant post. Please get in touch if baby farming has cropped up in your family tree or if you have a story to tell about your Victorian servant ancestors.


Angela writes about Victorian crime and you can find out more about her work  on her website www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth

Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. Angela is also the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword).



DAY 12: 12 DAYS OF VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARDS

We’ve reached the last day of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards! The final card I’d like to share with you has a design of some naughty kittens in bed:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

The verse says:

While laurel boughs and berries red,
Glow bright on every side.
Oh, be their freshness o’er thee shed
And cheer your Holly-tide!

All that remains for me to do is to wish you and yours a happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

DAY 11: 12 DAYS OF VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARDS

Today is day 11 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards and I thought I’d share a very traditional-looking design of the Nativity with you. This is a three-dimensional card from the 1890s and this is the front when the card is flat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

 This is what the card looks like when it’s fully open:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

The card was published by Raphael Tuck & Sons. As well as being a three-dimensional card, it’s also a novelty card. If you shine a light through the blue cellophane-like material which represents the window, it illuminates the baby Jesus.

DAY 10: 12 DAYS OF VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARDS

Now we’ve reached day 10 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, it’s about time that I share a mechanical card with you. Victorian Christmas card designers were ingenious in their designs and inventions and all manner of pop-up style cards appeared. This is one of my favourites: an embossed black cat. This is what the card looks like from the front when fully closed.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

The card opens out to reveal a brilliant concertina cat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs