"All the parlourmaids had to wear black shoes and black wool stockings; and my mother had such a lot to do, she had raw feet - she had no skin on the bottom of her feet from running up and down. You were going from morning until night. The doctor said she had to leave there."
Life below stairs for women in service in our grand country houses was anything but grand, for the Victorian and Edwardian splendour of country house living depended heavily on staff behind the scenes working long hours for poor wages. This week our series about life in service recalls what it was like to be a parlour maid or a kitchen maid some eighty years ago in any one of the dozens of large houses that graced the Westmorland countryside.
Most girls went into service when they left school at 14, and although it was secure and regular employment with bed and board, leaving one less mouth to feed at home,homesickness was common. Some girls were miles away from home, with only one half day off a week, and no transport. One mother managed to get news of her daughter through a coachman who used to see her at work in the kitchen. "She's there, she's washing dishes with her tears", he reported. To visit home, she had to walk miles cross country on a Sunday afternoon and be back again by bedtime. Some girls could only visit home once a year on holiday. Uniforms consisted of two coarse aprons, morning and afternoon aprons and dresses, woollen stockings and black shoes. The housemaid took her daily orders from the parlourmaid, and work started about half-past six:
"You'd all the front steps to scrub, and the stairs, and there were miles of them, carpeted of course, and you'd got to be brushing those with a hand brush and dustpan, no Hoover or anything. Those had to be done by seven o'clock. Then there were other jobs before we had our breakfast at eight in the servants' hall. After that there was the diningroom breakfast to see to, and then clearing out, upstairs to the bedrooms and bathrooms which were all to be cleaned.
"We went on working till one o'clock and then we had lunch and after that was a sort of leisure time if you will, but it wasn't leisure time actually, because you'd got all the darning and mending, sheets and pillowcases to mend and all that sort of thing. You were kept sewing all afternoon, and then there was a time after tea which was post time. You'd got to take the letters to the post - well you got out then, and got a walk."
Though time was short, the walk to the post might provide an opportunity for a quick meeting with a follower, or boyfriend. Followers were not normally allowed at the house, and courting could only be done elsewhere on half day holidays.
If the mistress was entertaining, there was dinner to serve in the evening:
"It was at eight o'clock, with about eight courses, and you didn't get finished until after ten."
Time off amounted to one half day a week:
"I had Thursday afternoons from after we'd cleared up lunch till ten o'clock. You'd got to be in at ten and every other Sunday we had from after lunch till ten. Then the following Sunday you had the morning off, but you'd got to go to church. And you must sit in front of the ladies so that she knew you were at church and not playing truant or something."
Guests invited to stay at the house meant extra work not only upstairs but down in the servants' hall too, where the staff had to share their routine with visiting servants. Nobody questioned the extra hours:
"You didn't have set hours, it was all day long, more or less."
A half day holiday was often spent walking:
"There were four or five of us there, and we were all sort of happy together. We used to walk over the tops, we always walked, we'd no other means of transport, we'd walk for miles."
A fortnight's holiday a year was normally allowed, and in 1929, one housemaid remembers earning #20 a year, or #5 every three months. Her employer generously paid the #1 trainfare for a visit back home to Yorkshire once a year, and although she paid nothing for her keep, her wages had to buy clothes, "a nice coat for about £2 or a pair of shoes for 12/6d," - and then there were those infamous woollen stockings to buy:
"You did an awful lot of kneeling, and you darned and darned the knees until you really couldn't darn them any more, then you had to spend your precious money on a pair of stockings for working."
There were good employers and bad ones. In one house, in Ulverston, where the master considered the parlourmaid fair game for his personal gratification, a little bit of extra polish on the oilcloth floor saved her virtue:
"I didn't like his ways, but he went away for the weekend and he brought me back a pair of kid gloves, well I'd done all kinds of things for him, they were very nice kid gloves, so I took them and thanked him, I thought it was very nice of him to bring them. And then again I threw the next pair at him, he wanted me to go with him, that's what he was. Well all the floors were oilcloth and they were all polished... I'd polished the floor, and he was after me, this old fellow, and I used to set off, and he was running after me and I've had him on the floor many times because he used to fall, and as soon as he fell, I ran out!"
At Rothay Manor in Ambleside, the American mistress adored surprise parties late at night when the guests would arrive unexpectedly; but the real surprise was for the servants getting up next morning to find all the extra clearing up to do. It was small wonder mistakes were made by tired staff. At The Croft nearby a momentary lapse of concentration during a party resulted in the fruit and cream being sprinkled with salt instead of sugar, and small errors could easily result in the sack. One exhausted housemaid dropped off to sleep in a basket chair with a candle burning close by, she was so tired; and when she woke to find the chair on fire, that wasn't her only problem:
"She'd to pay for it out of her own money, oh yes."