Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The maid of all work: her health

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It can hardly be said that we have here a class too insignificant for study, in our contemplation of the needless mortality of England. Few of our readers may have a precise idea of the actual number of Maids-of-all-Work in our country; but all agree that it must be very large. There are more classes of householders who employ one domestic servant than of those who have even two: and when we look above the ordinary kitchen pair—the cook and housemaid—we find the number of employers diminishing rapidly. The fact is that, at the date of the last census, there were ten times as many maids-of-all-work as there were housemaids: nearly nine times as many as there were cooks, and twenty times as many as there were nursemaids.

When we come to consider, this ought not to surprise us. In the rural districts there are small farms at every step where one servant is kept to do the house business, that her mistress may attend to the dairy and poultry-yard. In villages almost every house between the labourer’s cottage and the squire’s mansion has its single servant. In our towns there is a whole population of shopkeepers, superior artisans, and small manufacturers, who can afford one servant and no more. There are also large classes of the poorer clergy, of retired military and naval officers, of single and widowed ladies who cannot keep two servants, or do not need more than one. Thus, we ought not to be surprised if we find at the approaching census that nearly half a million of Englishwomen are maids-of-all-work. At the last census they were considerably more than 400,000.

“But why consider them separately from other domestic servants in regard to health?” it may be asked.

Because they are conspicuously more unhealthy.

Maid-servants ought to be among the very healthiest people in the nation. They have generally enjoyed an active and hardy rearing: they are usually well-fed and lodged, and must be well clothed: they are singularly free from the most wearing anxieties of life; and their occupation involves a considerable degree of activity, usually without exhausting toil. They have severe annoyances at times and on occasion, from the faults of employers and fellow-servants; some find the mode of life dull; many miss the confiding and affectionate intercourses of home; and some must share the common lot of having personal griefs and cares. Domestic servants are not to be supposed happier than other people; but, when we are thinking, of wearing anxieties in their effect upon health, we may observe that there are fewer of such anxieties involved in the lot of domestic servants than in that of most other classes. If, as we find to be the case, the maids-of-all-work are less healthy than other servants—and even than cooks—it will be interesting and important to discover why.

Nearly all of this class come from the country. Upwards of two-thirds of our women servants of all orders are country-born, and the humbler are almost universally so. The girl who is to be hereafter expected to do everything that wants to be done in a house is born in a labourer’s cottage. As soon as she can crawl she tumbles about in the dirt, and learns the use of her limbs in Nature’s own way—by having a mind to use them, and nobody to prevent it. Her limbs and spine are thus vigorous and strong. She is always in the open air, or in the windy cottage. The paternal dwelling is not damp, as too many cottages are, or she would never be fit for service. A girl with rheumatism or a cough, or subject to head colds, would simply fail of getting a place; for mistresses of servants very properly require health as a prime requisite in all candidates for their place.

It is true, there are kind-hearted ladies, widowed or single, who rather look out for delicate servant girls, on the ground that a small household is the proper place for invalids who must earn a living to try to recover their health. Such employers in fact nurse and maintain their servants, helping them with their business, or indulgently excusing some irregularities in it; and I have seen a succession of unhealthy young women enter such a service, and leave it completely restored. But such employers are right in saying that theirs are the houses in which such a thing can be done, because it is of little consequence who does the daily business, and whether it is always exactly and punctually done: and such irregularity may even be good for single ladies who are only too likely to grow excessively “particular;” but it is out of the question in family dwellings where the business of life presses from day to day. In such households the first requisite in a domestic servant, after character, is health.

Our young servant, then, does not come in a mouldy or rotted condition from a damp cottage, but full of health and strength. She has lived on potatoes and buttermilk for the most part, and they have agreed well with her. She can lift great weights; she can bear to be on her feet all day; she wakes always at the same minute in the early morning; and she never thinks about being ill. She does not think about her bodily condition at all; for there are no aches and pains to remind her. Some people go through life without having ever felt their lungs; and others are unaware, except by rational evidence, that they have a stomach. Thus, many country-bred young people feel nothing particular, and are unaware of their physical state altogether.

The future of the country girl depends mainly on what sort of service she enters. It may be a household of two persons, or of only one. If she is to serve an elderly couple, or two or three maiden ladies, or a widow with one or two children, there is nothing in her mode of life to affect her health injuriously, and nothing therefore to require much attention from us. In such small households in the country, there is plenty of time to get easily through the business of the day: everybody is early in bed, and not extremely early in the morning. In such houses, in short, there is no wear and tear, in parlour or kitchen. A servant may live there till she has nursed and buried her employers, and be as hale after it as when she entered service.

By far the largest proportion of places where a single servant is kept are in the opposite extreme. If there is too much quiet in the spinster’s house, there is too much bustle in the town shopkeeper’s or the lodging-house. It is from those bustling houses that a succession of maid-servants come out to die. To these, then, we must direct our observation.

The first ailment of country girls in service is usually indigestion. The mischief arises from the change of diet, and, in the majority of cases, from the intemperance of the novices when set down in the midst of luxury. To a girl who has lived on potatoes and buttermilk, new white bread and fresh butter are an irresistible temptation. So is juicy fresh beef to one who has seen no meat but bacon. Fruit pies and sweet puddings are food of Paradise to one who comes from stir-about and rank cheese. This is no mere supposition. It is a very common thing for young servants to grow low-spirited after a few weeks in a first place—to feel a weight at the stomach, pains between the shoulders, cramp in the feet, nightmare, or stupid sleep, shortness of breathing during the day, and heavy head-aches in the morning. The yellow complexion and leaden eyes soon show what is the matter, and the doctor presently sets it right for the time. This is a temporary mischief, avoidable for the future by a little watchfulness on the part of the mistress and a good deal of self-denial on that of the maid. It is referred to here because it is the first ailment, and extremely common. That it is no trifle is shown by the fact that girls have come crying to their mistresses, begging to be sent home again because they cannot help eating all the good things in the pantry. It makes them feel ill and wicked; but they cannot help it. They want to go back to stir-about, or bacon and potatoes.

This, however, is an evil which may be considered voluntary, and is undeniably avoidable. The inevitable dangers to health are the constant unsettledness in the kitchen, the hurry and bustle, the rarity of relief, and, usually, the deficiency of sleep.

Miss Nightingale says, in her “Notes on Nursing” (p. 29): “I have never known persons who exposed themselves for years to constant interruption who did not muddle away their intellects by it at last.” Nothing can be truer than this: and no persons are more hopeless, both as to intellect and nerve, than those who cannot sit still, cannot bear to be alone, cannot stick to the same occupation for as many hours or half-hours as it may require. Something worse than this is what the maid-of-all-work has to put up with every day, and all day long, in a bustling place.

She can do nothing well: and she is aware that she does nothing well. She has neither the time nor the liberty of mind to take pleasure in any one occupation, and learn to excel in it. How can she cook a dinner properly when she has to leave her fire to make the beds, or to sweep the chambers, and to answer the door and the parlour bell? Every knock must be answered by her; every message must go through her; at the moment when her pudding, or her joint, or her sauce is in need of her mind and her hand, she is called off to admit visitors, or to receive orders, if not to be found fault with for not being about some other work. And thus it is from morning till night. She is rung up in the morning, heavy with sleep, for she is up late almost every night; and it is one continued hurry to get the water boiled, the rooms dusted, the breakfast laid, the shoes cleaned, &c., before the family come down; to say nothing of the sweeping of the hall and the cleaning of the door-steps. In a lodging-house, where there are three or four breakfasts in as many sitting-rooms, the case seems desperate—but I have seen the work done. There is but one dinner in such cases, as gentlemen dine anywhere rather than at their lodgings in our days of degenerate domestic cookery: but, still, the maid’s day is one full-drive throughout. She cooks badly; she waits badly; she cleans badly, and is aware that under her everything gets dirty. She grows untidy in her own person. Her clothes give way, and she has no time, and too probably no skill, to mend them. Her hair is rough and dusty from her perpetual whisking about the house and the area. Her face and hands are hot and smutty, and her apron soiled all over. I have known such a servant try hard to preserve the habit of whipping on a clean cap and apron when visitors came to the door, and being even paid to do this, and yet who could not keep it up. Besides the disheartening loss of comfort and self-respect under the encroachment of untidy habits, and the sense of growing confusion in the mind, there is the dread of the future. She is losing the power of learning to do things well. She can never raise herself, for there is no superior place which she is, or can become, qualified to fill. Her wages are small, because domestic service is paid by quality rather than quantity. She cannot lay by any considerable portion of her wages, because she wears out her clothes fast, and has to pay for the making and mending of them. She cannot for ever support such a life as she is leading, and she sees nothing hopeful outside of it.

The gravest single item of mischief in such a life is probably the deficiency of sleep. There are all kinds of employers of domestic servants in the world, as of other orders of persons; and many are thoroughly considerate about the health of their servants; but it does sometimes astonish an observer to see masters and mistresses who never bestow a thought on whether their domestics get sleep enough. There are families as well as lodging-houses where some member has as strong a passion for getting up early as another for sitting up late, while each expects to be waited on by the same servant. I have known gentlemen in lodgings who never could remember to take the key, when going to hear a critical debate which would last half the night. I have known a lodging-house servant who got to bed anywhere between midnight and four in the morning, when at all; but, as one lodger must have his breakfast at seven, she occasionally spared herself the worry of going to bed only to get up again before she could compose her harassed nerves to sleep. What must be the consequences of such a mode of life as this?

The poor thing conceals as long as possible that there is anything the matter with her. In the very worst cases of the ill-ordered family or lodging-house, or the establishments connected with great shops, there is often a good deal of money earned. Lodgers, shopmen, guests, make presents to the servant. This is the inducement to stay in such a purgatory, when the servant has any reason to believe she could obtain and keep an easier place; but of a really superior service she has no hope, and therefore she holds on to the last moment.

Where does she go to then? Sometimes to a hospital, sometimes to the country cottage, or to some brother or sister who can ill afford the burden of her sickness. Very often indeed she is taken to a lunatic asylum. A quarter of a century ago, we were told that the female wards of such asylums were filled mainly by servant-maids and governesses; and, above all, by maids-of-all-work; and now we are told the same thing still. Physicians account for it in various ways; some speak chiefly of morbid religion; some of love; some of overwork and too little sleep; some of the privation of home affections; and many others of the anxiety caused by a hopeless future. Whatever may be the proportion among all these causes of insanity, the insanity itself is a plain and undisputed fact. And it does not stand alone. It points to an excess of mortality in the same class. For persons who become insane from specified causes, there are always many more who die.

Are these deaths needless?

Assuredly they are. It can hardly be conceived that the death and the insanity would take place if employers were fully aware of the facts of the case. The lowest and most selfish dread of responsibility would induce a reordering and amelioration of the work done, and some consideration about quiet meals and sufficient sleep. If we could obtain the statistics of the case of maids-of all-work in quiet, considerate small households, and in large families or lodging-houses, we should soon witness a great change in the lot of the class. If so, there is nothing to prevent the change beginning now,—at any moment after any reader, or any witness becomes aware that this particular class of women servants is more liable than other persons to insanity, and premature decay and death.

The responsibility rests chiefly with the mistress of the household. Not quite always, for I have known a parsonage full of pupils where the maid who had been toiling from before six in the morning, was set down to her needle, when everybody else was gone to bed, to make her master’s fine shirts; and when her eyes went—from sheer overwork and want of sleep, and she became nearly blind—it was through her master’s pious encouragements and coaxings to work to the utmost, for Christ’s sake. As often as she declared that she could not go on sitting up till one or two o’clock over her stitching, he urged her by praise and religious stimulus. When her friends asked her why she submitted to such perilous toil, she answered that she thought her mistress was inexperienced, and did not know what she required; and her master encouraged her so kindly, and afforded her such religious privileges, that, as often as she meant to go, she was again induced to stay. At last her sight was so much impaired that there was no longer any question of her staying.

Such instances occur here and there; but few employers would have courage to go so far; and especially, few husbands would choose to sustain the ignorant oppression perpetrated by their wives. On the contrary, if the full truth were known, we should see ladies undertaking that the maid should not be disturbed at her dinner, and so arranging as to dismiss her to bed before ten o’clock. They would also bethink themselves of lessening the disturbance and anxiety of their one domestic by doing more of those light offices which would be a very small fatigue to them, and a great relief to the kitchen member of the household. The relief would be out of all proportion to the work done; for it is the multifarious character of the maid’s work which oppresses her faculties more than the mere toil wearies her limbs. Her release from certain definite departments would lighten the pressure of all the rest.

There are other considerations of far greater importance. The loneliness of the solitary maid-servant is a thing which very few people seem to think of at all. Other servants have their mutual companionship, while the hardest worked of all has none. There is plenty of joking about policemen, and butcher’s men, and bakers’ boys, in connection with maid-servants; but, speaking with mournful gravity, there is something worse than intrusive policemen to be dreaded if any woman—and especially an educated woman—is consigned to a life of toil without the solace of human intercourse.

A sensible and humane mistress will be the friend of her servant;—will converse with her—tell her the news—inquire about her family—invite a friend to see her now and then, and permit the visits of respectable relations and acquaintance, within reasonable limits.

I have seen such a mistress repairing her maid’s gown; and I considered it a very graceful occupation. I have known a lady plan, with real solicitude, the best way to manage about her maid’s wardrobe, and the economy of her wages. I trust it is no uncommon thing to see mistresses undertaking the charge of the house, so that the maid may get her “Sunday out,” or even a day at the Crystal Palace. But it seems to be too true that the haughtiest spirit appears among the lowest order of housekeepers, and that maids-of all-work have therefore more hardship, more discouragement, and more loneliness of spirit, as well as of life, to bear than the comparatively small classes of special servants.

Except in situations which bring in gifts or fees, such as lodging-houses, the maid-of-all-work has lower wages than the cook, housemaid, or nurse, while she has a continually decreasing chance of improving herself and her position. She is lonely day by day, and her future is fearful. Her spirits droop; her health fails; she rushes into some excitement of love or religion; she is disappointed or shocked, or despairing, and she passes into Bedlam, or a workhouse infirmary; and, after a time, to a premature grave.

This is the fate of some—of many. No one will suppose that it is an average account of domestic service in the humble households of England. The fact being disclosed that there is much insanity and premature mortality in a particular class of domestic servants, it has simply been shown how the thing happens.

The next effort ought to be to stop its happening in time to come.

Harriet Martineau.