Saturday 8 April 2023

H is for Housemaids, Household Crafts and Hard graft!

It’s Day 8 of my A to Z Blog Challenge…

In mid-Victorian Scotland the days of the week were not all the same for everyone. Sunday was a day of rest for many, a day to attend church and to pay other religious observances. It wasn’t uncommon for some devout families to attend two church services (morning and evening), punctuated by bible readings at home in the afternoon, often conducted by the head of the household who was generally the father of the family. This religious adherence was common in poor families as well as in those who were more well-to-do.

Sunday is a day of rest? Well, not always, though that was a common saying. Saturday would be a day of preparation for many women who did no cooking on a Sunday, pre-prepared cold meals being what went on the table on the sabbath (Sunday).

If the family was wealthy enough to have even one servant, then it may have been a little bit different in terms of who avoided all of the household work! The housemaid would be expected to attend church, too, but she would have had to clear out the grates and set new fires, or nurture new flames very early in the morning from overnight ‘banking’ where a mixture of tiny bits of coal (dross) had been used overnight to keep them barely going. The housemaid would still be on hand to set the food on the table for all meals, whether it was cold or not. She might still have to do some light house cleaning, if something needed tending to urgently, and she might also have to do emergency repairs to clothing etc. or even catch up with other sewing tasks that were supposed to have already been done.


kitchen range for cooking and heating the room

The luckiest of these servants might actually get a few hours off on a Sunday afternoon to go and visit their own family, so long as the journey wasn’t too long, or the distance too far. Being late back would have probably earned some kind of penalty!

Other days of the week, the housemaid’s lot was not an easy one. It was very hard work to maintain standards of cleanliness when coal fires were used to heat most rooms and were used for the cooking facilities. Laziness of application was not to be tolerated. Keeping a job in servitude as an indentured servant was as important as breathing for many young girls and women in some areas, since any kind of job was hard to come by. This was the case in the countryside as much as in the towns and cities.


labour intensive laundry day

In my current writing, the girls who grew up in Milnathort, Fife, did not all go to school. Even those who managed to attend school long enough to learn to read, and to do basic writing, often ended up working in the local woollen mills, or worked as a servant for the local gentry, or on local farms. Being an indentured servant (mostly on a quarterly, or yearly, contract) was common. It often meant a job that only paid a small amount at the term’s end, but if working as a housemaid, or kitchen maid, bed and board was sometimes part of the package. The employer did not need to provide any luxury but some form of bed would have been provided and basic food given to them. (Maids often needed to share a bed with another servant/s) This was naturally to the advantage of the employer if the maid did not have to travel between their own home and workplace: the employer had more hours covered in a day in their abode, with the servant almost always available to do whatever they were bid do.


a brush for every sweeping task

Cleaning, laundry, sewing and cooking were all hugely labour intensive but it would be a mistake to believe that in larger houses few items were used to keep up standards of cleanliness! There was an immense array of brushes available for specific purposes. The kitchen range became more popular in mid-Victorian Scotland and it had to be ‘black-leaded’, a very tiring cleaning process. Laundry was also very hard work since the materials were heavy when wet, unlike a lot of synthetic materials of the twenty-first century. After a long drying process, the linens for beds and tables and clothing were ironed and again there was a large selection of irons to use for flattening and smoothing fancier clothes.


Victorian irons in there - 
though not the bottom shelves! 

In the houses of the wealthy, the jobs were often more defined and a hierarchic system in place where a lowly kitchen maid might eventually, with hard graft and diligence, work up over many years to become a lady’s maid, or even (eventually) a housekeeper.

My character Margaret is a very lucky young lady. When family circumstances prevent her from staying on at school to become a pupil teacher, she lands a job in an Edinburgh household as a tutor to a young daughter of the house who is bedridden. She does not have the drudgery that her best friend Jessie has who is employed as a kitchen maid in the same household, Jessie having generously recommended Margaret to the mother and father as a possible tutor. However, there is a lot more to both their stories, so I must get back to my actual writing!

See you for the next April A to Z post.


illustrations by Eric Thomas

National Trust Book of Forgotten Household Crafts

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