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Life downstairs for the village maid-of-all-work

Maids of all kinds abounded in the Georgian era, and several feature in The Deathly Portent as this was the chief source of occupation for young girls in a village. Often they were the only servant and had their work cut out.

I have a lovely little research volume called “The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman” from the late 18th Century, which details the functions undertaken by her staff. While the genteel villager living on modest means could not aspire to this level of domestic service, the book shows what was expected of the ordinary housemaid. When one considers that all the other jobs in the house also fell to the lot of the maid of all work, one can’t help feeling sorry for the poor girl.

Floors had to be swept and scoured, according to Mrs Whatman, with fuller’s earth and fine sand to preserve the colour of the boards - not soap, which left a white residue. The Water Closet pan had to be mopped inside with warm water, the front steps swept, the hearth cleaned, and the hall and staircase swept and dusted every day.

The maid dusted furniture, being careful of painted chairs and plaster, and books, but without meddling. She was never allowed to dust pictures, gilt frames or black busts. Air the rooms - but don’t open windows with dirty hands - and keep the flies and ladybirds at bay. Be careful to shut out the sun. Mrs Whatman details what time the sun comes into each room during the day, so presumably the poor maid had to rush about closing the blinds at the right moment.

Three times a week, the maid cleaned the garret rooms, where the servants slept, with a warning to sweep under the beds. Once a week, she whisked the curtains - some sort of beater, one imagines - and shook mats and carpets.

This is just the maid. What if she must also be the cook, the laundrymaid and the chambermaid?

That meant washing once a week - hand scrubbing in a tub, winding through a mangle to get out the worst of the wet and wrinkles, drying it (outside in summer, otherwise inside on a pulley in the kitchen), ironing, folding and putting away. It meant lighting the fires, first sweeping down the soot from the chimney, making beds, keeping sheets aired, as well as mending and needlework of all kinds.

The canny maid would light the kitchen fire and set water on to boil for personal washing before doing anything else when she gets up at five or six, because when downstairs is done, she’s going to be making breakfast, probably baking rolls as well as setting the table and serving coffee.

When the rooms are done, there’s dinner to prepare, ready to serve in the late afternoon. She might get the odd hour free after dinner, once she’s eaten her own, before serving a light supper, then tea, followed by turning down the beds, closing the curtains around them and running a warming pan over the sheets. Finally, she must put out the fires and candles before she finally falls into bed around seven or eight.

If she’s really unlucky, this little maid might have to help her mistress to dress and undress into the bargain. At the least, she’s going to be looking after the mistress’s clothes and possibly polishing shoes as well.

About the only thing she’ll be free of will be the heavy work - chopping wood, mending fences and all the jobs traditionally assigned to the sturdy male. Any village will boast a plethora of handymen to be employed when needed.

Being a housemaid was bad enough, but being a maid of all work was a nightmare. And for what return?

Depending on the status of the household, a maid of all work got between £3 to £10 per year, paid quarterly. In today’s money, this equates to about £168 to £560. In addition, she was housed, clothed and fed at her employer’s expense, which made up around three-quarters of her real wage. One might fairly estimate that in real terms her wages amounted to a cost to her employer of £672 to £2240 per year. But our put upon maid of all work likely had around £1.35 (or £135 in our money) for her personal expenditure every three months. And you can bet she sent quite a bit of that home to mum.

These maids were young, starting around 13 or 14 years of age. There was always a turnover because they were apt to leave, either to marry or to try their fortune in the larger towns, hoping for a better job. They were also targets for seduction, and a maid who fell pregnant was likely to decamp in the night.

A tough life, but what was a girl to do? If she was born into the working class, her choices were limited and one imagines she was only too happy to have a steady job while she vied with her fellow maids to catch a worthwhile husband.

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