LIFE OF A VICTORIAN MAID
Female domestic staff usually had to provide their own clothing. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, this would typically have been a lilac, blue or pink working dress with a white cap and apron for the morning. In the afternoon, which was the time for visitors, servants would change into a formal black dress and frilled apron and cap.
In grander houses, a female servant might have worn a white blouse, white petticoat and underskirt and then a black pinafore over the top. She would have had a white frilly cap with a coloured ribbon. The alternative, perhaps for less dirty work would have been a white blouse, black bodice and then a white pinafore dress on top. The cap would have been black with white trim.
In our house, Florence wears a dark apron for dirty jobs such as laying the fires, over her blue working dress.
Florence wears Julia’s old clothes during her free time; for her afternoon off once a week. On Sundays, she wears a plain, sombre, black coat and skirt, with black shoes, stockings and gloves. She has a toque style of hat.
In most houses, there would be too much work to allow the maid of all work to rest during the day. Jobs would include making fires, carrying the coal in, dealing with tradesmen and women, cleaning – housework including spring cleaning, washing, washing up, cooking and making tea, preparing beds, carrying hot water, running errands. And in the larger houses, managing junior staff.
They would also mend their own clothes, and check the doors and windows were locked at night. By 1890, many houses sent their washing out as this was cheaper.
If there was a separate cook, with other work done by a housemaid, the maid of all work would be a ‘plain cook’, preparing simple dishes such as meat, vegetables and puddings.
Florence has an early start each morning; in the summer she is at work by 6am and in the darkness of the winter by 7am.
After washing and dressing, she goes round the house, opening the shutters and curtains, and opening a few windows. In each room, she takes up the hearth rug, places the fender on a cloth, and cleans and re-lays the fire. She polishes the brass and steel work. Florence then sweeps each downstairs room, collecting the dust near the fireplace. She carries her tools, including brushes, blacklead, emery paper and polishing cloths, from room to room in a wooden box. The cinders from each fireplace go in the bottom. She then dusts the furniture.
One of her friends who works at a nearby house has a Bissell carpet sweeper, but Florence has to make do with a variety of brushes.
She takes a supply of coal and kindling to each fireplace and lights the downstairs fires; today’s March morning is chilly. A large range could burn 1 hundredweight (nearly 51kg) of coal per day, costing about one shilling in 1890. The Bush family have a medium-sized range, but together with the fireplaces, they consume about this much coal in the coldest part of the winter.
Sidney pops his head round the kitchen door; “Can I have my breakfast, Florence?”.
“Oh, sorry sir.” Sidney just has some bread so it takes just a moment to prepare things. She takes them into the dining room. Her next task is to prepare the breakfast for the children, Mary, who has just arrived, and for herself. They have bacon and cold meat for breakfast in the week, and sausages or bloaters on Sunday.
As the has her first moment of rest in the day, Sidney leaves the house for his train journey to London.
Florence quickly finishes her breakfast, and then goes upstairs with hot water for her mistress and the children. Mary is giving the children their breakfast and will help them get washed and dressed.
“Good morning, Florence.” says Julia.
“Good morning, missus.” replies Florence. She sets the jug of hot water down on the wash stand and prepares Julia’s clothes.
“I am going calling this afternoon, so I will need my best skirt and blouse. And Mr and Mrs Browne are coming for dinner tonight at 7.”
Florence silently groaned. She had hoped to have her afternoon off today, but now she would need to prepare fancy food for dinner; Mr and Mrs Browne always needed to be impressed. Florence brushed madam’s hair, and helped her dress.
By 8:30, Julia was ready for the day, and Florence went back downstairs and brought breakfast through to the dining room.
At 9, the whole family assembled in the dining room for morning prayers.
After clearing away all the breakfast things and washing them up, Florence sweeps and dusts upstairs. Her mistress’s eldest daughter Constance helps Florence to make the beds and do some of the chores. She is quite a willing girl so her work makes quite a difference.
Florence goes round the house collecting the oil lamps, and takes them to the kitchen. She cleans and trims them, refills them, and then takes them back. Her next task is to clean up the candle sticks; the family don’t use too many as they are expensive.
She then discusses the day’s menu with Julia and is sent out to buy a few items, such as yeast, that are not delivered. In their road, a baker brings fresh bread each day in a basket, and the milkman brings the milk on a cart. Florence has to visit the greengrocer’s, butcher, and fish shop.
Returning home, Florence makes the midday meal for Mary and the children, and herself. They eat this together in the kitchen at about 12:30. Their usual lunch is cold meat; most weeks there is ham and chicken.
Then Florence prepares luncheon for her mistress, who sits down to eat at 1:30. Florence then helps her mistress undress for her rest, and goes downstairs to clear away from lunch. Her next tasks are to begin preparing the meal for tonight.
She has barely started when Julia calls for her help with dressing for the afternoon.
The kitchen and nursery tea at 5pm is mackerel, with bread and butter and a small cake.
Barely finished, Julia returns from her visiting. Florence helps her to change for evening.
At 6:15 Sidney returns home, and Florence takes him hot water.
At 6:30, the guests arrive; Florence welcomes them, and shows them into the drawing room.
The dinner seems to go well; the Brownes leave at about 9:30. Once the ladies have moved to the drawing room, Florence clears the last items from the dining room, leaving the men in peace.
At 9:00, after clearing up and washing up, Florence has a quick kitchen supper of bread and cheese.
Florence cleans Sidney and Julia’s shoes, checks that the drawing and dining room fires are safe, turns out the downstairs oil lamps, and locks the doors and closes windows.
She then attends to Julia, helping her to undress and wash. She removes the slops.