Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers enjoyed their years of childhood much as children do today; but they never graduated from children to teenagers - instead they became Young Ladies.
And although girls from all backgrounds were young ladies, the generalisation ended there, because the opportunities open to young ladies depended very much on their personal and family circumstances. The chance to choose one's future was one given only to those who were materially provided for; but most women were robbed of the luxury of choice by the necessity of making ends meet and contributing to the family budget. This meant taking any available work, whatever it was.
This month, The Way We Were listens to elderly ladies remembering the days when they were young ladies. Many had to find work as soon as they left school, just to bring in an extra wage packet; others were of independent means with the choice, at least for a time, as to how to spend their lives.
Surprisingly enough, few independent 'gals' chose to stay at home in a life of pleasant ease, waiting for the right tennis partner to become a suitable marriage suitor. Many opted for exciting, difficult lives, sometimes as volunteers without payment. Others left privileged, sheltered lives to work abroad, alone and intrepid. Sometimes these brave careers had to be sacrificed if an ailing parent needed home nursing care; duty to the family usually came first.
However, girls who were obliged to find work as soon as they were fourteen years old or even younger rarely returned to help care for those still at home; their wages were too vital to give up work until they found a husband and eventually got married; and this week it is their hard-working lives we look at.
Girls leaving school seventy years ago had neither careers advice or work experience to help guide them towards a vocation. Finding a job often depended on who one knew rather than what one knew.
Many young girls from this area went straight into service; the big houses provided a steady source of employment for servants, and finding a good house might be a question of Mother knowing the cook, who might mention that the scullery maid was leaving:
"There was never any shortage of jobs because the big houses were all in occupation of these cotton magnates and maids were always wanted, they might have a staff of seven, or a dozen even, parlour maids, house parlour maids, kitchen maids, cook - oh she was a very grand person, and a housekeeper was a very grand lady indeed....I must say that the staff of the big houses were always very well treated, very well housed in good conditions; I was sometimes invited by a housekeeper or perhaps a kitchen maid to go and visit them at Cringlemire or Briery Close and I was surprised at the nice rooms they had, very well kept and I don't think I am looking at it with too rosy a view but mostly everybody seemed very happy together.The girls didn't expect anything else, it was the thing to do..."
Those observations on the happy life to be had in domestic service, needless to say, were made not by a cook or parlour maid herself but by a lady teacher further up the social scale.
Many girls relied on a persuasive mother to find work in a small town - and it was mother who negotiated the wage increases!
"When I was leaving St Mary's School at 14, I think my mother went to see if I could get in the Post Office; and they said I hadn't a secondary school so I couldn't go in the Post Office; the only alternative was to go into the telephone exchange, and then mother went into the chemist's shop - Mr Barker had it then, and he said, was I looking for a job, and mother said, well, yes, I wanted something to do. So I started work in 1917 in a private chemists...I hadn't any training really but I did a course from some education thing, I don't know what it was, to be a dispenser. I couldn't go away to college or anything, so I was a dispenser but I hadn't any qualifications and in 1917 I started with ten shillings a week. We used to start at half past eight until seven o'clock every day except Thursday, and on Christmas Eve I had to stay until about nine o'clock because they said when people came out of the public house they'd be doing their Christmas shopping.
..."About six months after mother did ask for a rise and he gave me another five shillings."
Working as a young girl for a family as childrens' nurse maid, washer woman, cook and waitress might have seemed just too much to fit in a day, for a wage of ten shillings a week; but for one young Wigton girl, recently come to Ambleside, it was a better bet than the poverty of the biscuit factory she'd left behind:
"I went to Carr's Biscuit Factory at 14 till I was 17; I just went and applied for it, I remember beng a little tiny thing and this lady sitting up at a great big desk and I was looking up at her. They were very nice people to work for but the money was very poor..."
The girls were paid 3Źd for packing one hundred packets of biscuits. No wonder life as a maid of all work in Ambleside seemed good in comparison:
"...I had a lovely little bedroom; when I came to Ambleside I thought it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen and the people all seemed to be rich, everybody seemed well off...there were some people out of work, I suppose, and some people were just ordinary but I couldn't see that. There wasn't the real poverty here that there was at my home town."
This lady's experiences left her well qualified to pass on two pieces of advice for other young working women:
"I always used to say to our children, learn to dance because then if you go away to work, you're never lonely."
And, some advice for any Cumberland girl with a local accent - lose it!
"But I always maintain that when you have to go out into the world to earn your living, elocution is a must for the last year at school, you chould have elocution lessons so that you can hold your own with anyone. You should never be turfed out to the world talking Cumberland because you're a long, long time before you're finished with it!"