From the Archive: A cold start for the housemaid

Duties of Housemaid

To be downstairs by 6 a.m.

To open shutters and light fires

To call Mr & Mrs Marriott at ¼ before 7 o’clock

To dust dining room & sitting rooms & be ready for prayers at 8.30

To make beds & do bedrooms, sweep & dust front staircase

Servants’ dinner 12.15

To dress and be ready to answer front door bell in afternoon

To take schoolroom tea at 5.15

Monday  To have washing ready by 10.30

Tuesday  To sweep front bedrooms

Wednesday  To sweep back bedrooms

Thursday  To sweep top bedrooms

Friday  To clean water closet

Saturday  To clean housemaid’s pantry

Archive document .2565.2 sets out the daily tasks expected of the housemaid at Cotesbach Hall in the late 1890s. It is marked ‘Copy’ because the original was presumably given to the maid in question. In June 1898, it would have been Josephine Spriggs who received the list but she stayed for only a month before being replaced by Janet Lees, who was herself succeeded the following spring by Elizabeth Pallett. Elizabeth was rapidly followed by Clara Merriman, Alice Line, Agnes Gibbons, Maggie Warren, Eva Palmer, Kate Arnold, Minnie Bell and Arabelle Sawdon, few of them staying for as long as a year.

We do not know whether this turnover was due to dissatisfaction on the part of the staff or on the part of their employers. Wages at Cotesbach were not low by national standards; the youngest of the housemaids were paid £17 per year, rising to £19 with age and experience. This was about a third of an agricultural labourer’s wage but food and accommodation were provided and both were doubtless of a better standard than the girls were used to in their often overcrowded village homes. Working hours were long, however, and half a day off on Sunday (after attendance at church with the family) was probably all the free time that could be expected, so many girls left domestic service altogether as soon as the opportunity arose. Maybe, on the other hand, the girls were dismissed one after the other as they failed to meet the exacting demands of their employers. A late Victorian copy of Mrs Beeton’s “Household Management” gives some idea of the rigour with which the tasks on the Archive list were to be performed: “The first duty of the housemaid is to draw up the blinds and open the windows in all the lower rooms, and to take up the rugs in those rooms which she is going to “do” before breakfast … Then she should lay a cloth over the carpet in front of the stove, and on this place her housemaid’s box. The cinders disposed of, she proceeds to blacklead the grate, and having blackened, brushed and polished every part, she lays the fire. The fires lighted, she … proceeds with her dusting, commencing in one corner and working methodically around the room. Any linoleum or wood surrounds to the carpet must then be gone over with a floor mop. It is not enough in cleaning furniture to pass lightly over the surface … every corner, every pane, every ledge requires to be carefully wiped, so that not a speck of dust can be found in the room.” In the midst of all this, she had to find time to wake the master and mistress of the house with a cup of tea – and all before prayers at 8.30.

On a cold and dark February morning, it is easy to see why keeping staff at Cotesbach Hall – as in so many Victorian establishments – was such a problem.