Alternatives to Domestic Service, 1800s

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1362-91:

Elizabeth Banks was inspired to undertake her 1892 investigation into service to find an answer to the question that vexed the English middle classes: why was it that many girls would do almost anything, even if it meant living off ‘porridge in the morning and watercress in the evening with no midday meal’, rather than undertake the work of cleaning someone else’s home? She visited a young seamstress living in terrible conditions – ‘the unwomanly rags, the crust of bread, the straw and the broken chair’ – in a lodging-house in Camberwell on eighteen pence a week. When the dismayed Elizabeth offered to find her a job as a housemaid, ‘with a nice clean bedroom, plenty to eat, print dresses in the morning, black stuff in the afternoon, with white caps and aprons and collars and cuffs’, she was astounded by the girl’s outrage at the suggestion: ‘“Did you come only to insult me?” she demanded, stamping her feet. “I go out to service! I wear caps and aprons, those badges of slavery! No, thank you, I prefer to keep my liberty and be independent.”’

The servant-employing classes struggled to grasp why so many girls did not appear to be grateful for the opportunity to get their feet under a more comfortable table than the one they had come from. Was not the home a haven both moral and practical, a place of safety? The nineteenth century had been haunted by the spectre of the lost child of the Industrial Revolution: the chimney sweep, the crossing-sweeper, the pickpocket, the match-seller, the five-year-old child who had gone blind sorting buttons in a sweatshop. In the popular imagination they were perceived as orphaned (even if this were not in fact the case), adrift, alone and prematurely aged by malnutrition, poverty and abandonment. The social reformer Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 descriptions of the ‘rookeries’ or London tenements in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London almost single-handedly sparked an age of public health reform. Chadwick’s picture of a world of struggle, suffering and hopelessness was entirely cut off from the comfortable family world of the prosperous; nineteenth-century London, he wrote, was a labyrinth of filthy box-like slums, leading one from the other and ‘reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases rising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions’.

According to Henry Mayhew, in 1868–9 there were 17,000 known tramps in England and Wales and 17 per cent of them were under sixteen. In 1889, of the 192,000 registered inmates of workhouses, 54,000 were under sixteen. Dr Thomas Barnardo, the most celebrated of all Victorian philanthropists and a fiery street preacher, was moved to set up his first home for children when he discovered eleven young boys, barely clothed, sleeping along an iron gutter open to the elements. The annual accounts of Dr Barnardo’s children’s homes contain fearful catalogues of the ailments suffered by those picked up on the streets and given refuge: rickets, knock-knees, goitre, spinal paralysis, deaf and dumbness; and lung diseases like consumption, bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma, which were the legacy of the dust inhaled while working long hours in factories. In 1906, Edith, a five-year-old girl, ‘nobody’s child’, was found by Thomas Barnardo wandering the streets apparently completely unwanted – absolutely nothing at all could be discovered of her origins or parentage. Another, a crippled boy of ten, was referred to Barnardo’s after the boy’s mother, a rubbish-picker, was burned to death by an upturned paraffin lamp.

Efforts were made to contain these wandering, vagrant children by the institution of industrial schools, but the focus of the schools was largely penal and the pastoral work of caring for ‘waifs and strays’ was left to private charities and individual philanthropic endeavours. By 1878, in London alone, there were fifty philanthropic societies dedicated to the welfare of children.

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