I have always been fascinated by the Victorians. They are so near,and yet so far. The victorian period was a time of exploration,invention,extreme social inequality and extraordinary change. The Ragged Schools,The Crystal Palace Exhibition,Maids of all Work,Mudlarks and Helen Keller will all have a place here,as will stories about the Queen from whom the period took its name.

Duties of a Maid of all Work

I have a wonderful book called 'The Domestic Educator:a useful Manual for Everyday Life'. I bought it for 3d(a quarter of a predecimal shilling), in a Street in Brighton called Upper Gardner Street:when I was a little girl we called it Funny Street,because on Saturdays it was crammed with second-hand stalls and even then I loved searching through piles of strange, assorted junk for treasure. It is an 1877 edition,and is full of useful advice,mainly for young women.
          At the time of publication,children were working to help support poor families at an early age. Mothering Sunday, now a sentimental affair involving expensive cards,flowers and chocolates, originated in the days when twelve-year old drudges, living all year away from their mothers and graciously allowed a day for the purpose,would go back to their home(often a visit to their home church was expected) bearing a posy of wild flowers picked by the wayside and maybe a gift of home-made cake.

          The book has advice on a wide range of domestic situations for the young lady anxious to improve her situation.
There are chapters on:
                 'Life and its Duties' ( including Good Temper,Prudence,Scandal & Truth)
                  'Home Sunshine' ( including Love,Family Receipt for furniture polish,Beetles,to kill,& Candles,to light)
            and 'Things to be Known'( including The Reason we take Food,& To Cool Upper Bedrooms).
Among this useful information is a chapter on Domestic Service,in which the duties of different servants are laid out in great detail. The lowest of all servants was the Maid-of-all-Work,usually a young girl in a small establishment, whose duties were varied and demanding. There is,thank goodness,no modern equivalent for this type of job.
                 These are the instructions in the book(bracketed comments are mine):

The general servant must be an early riser. (usually 5 or 6 o'clock)
Her first duty,of course,is to open the shutters,and,in summer,the windows of all the lower part of the house.
Then she must clean the kitchen range and hearth,sifting the cinders,clearing away the ashes,and polishing with a leather the bright parts of the stove or range.

She must light the fire,fill the kettle,and as soon as the fire burns,put it on to boil.
She must then clean the room in which the family breakfast.
She must roll up the rug,spread out a coarse piece of canvas before the fireplace,and (if it is winter) she must remove the fender,clean the grate, and light the fire.
Then she must just lightly rub the fire-irons over with a leather, replace them and the fender,and sweep the room over, first pinning up the curtains out of the dust.

She should let the dust settle for a few minutes,running meantime into the kitchen to get the breakfast things ready to bring in.
In five minutes or so she should return,and thoroughly dust all the furniture,the ledges about the room,the mantelpiece,and all ornaments. Not a speck of dust should be left on any object in the room.
Then she lays the breakfast cloth ready for breakfast,and shuts the dining or breakfast-room door.

Her next duty is to sweep the hall or passage,shake the door-mats,clean the doorstep,and polish the brass knocker, if there is one. Then she cleans the boots,washes her hands and face,puts on a clean apron,and prepares the toast,eggs,bacon,kidneys,or whatever is required for breakfast.
Previously,however,she will carry in the urn,that her mistress may make the tea.

She then has her own breakfast,goes up to the bedrooms,opens the windows,strips off the bedclothes,and leaves the mattresses or beds open.
By this time probably the bell will ring for her to clear away the breakfast things.
She should do this quickly and carefully;bring a dustpan,and sweep up the crumbs,put back the chairs,make up the fire,and sweep up the hearth.
The china must be washed and put away,and the kitchen tidied a little. Her mistress will then give her orders about dinner.

As soon as these are settled,she will put on a large clean apron in which to make the beds,that she may not soil the bedclothes with her working dress.
The mistress of the house generally assists a maid of all work in making the beds;but this is by no means a RIGHT of the servant's,and very frequently she has to do them alone.
In making beds,she should carefully turn the mattresses every day,shake the feather beds well,and rub out any lumps that may have gathered in them.
The sheets should always be placed with the marked end towards the pillow(possibly laundry marks?).
When the beds are made,and the slops emptied,the rooms should be carefully dusted.
Then she sweeps down the stairs,and dusts the bannisters.
She sweeps the dust from each stair into a dustpan,and is careful that no dust flies about the passage or hall which she has already dusted.

She now cleans the drawing-room grate(if a fire is burnt there),and dusts the room.
Dusting the ornaments is often done by the mistress,but cannot be expected.
She returns to the kitchen,puts on a large coarse apron which will tie all round her,and which has a bib,and proceeds to cook the dinner.
While the meat is roasting or boiling,any little work which will not take her away from the neighbourhood of the fireplace,may be done.
Half an hour before taking up her dinner,she will lay her cloth nicely,and will set bread,etc.,neatly on the sideboard. She cannot,of course,be expected to wait at table,but she should remove her coarse apron,and be ready to bring in the pudding,or tart,or cheese when required.

When she has cleared the dinner-table,she sweeps and folds up the tablecloth,sweeps up the crumbs under the dining-table,makes up the fire(if required),or if the room is left vacant,opens the windows.
Then she dines herself,spreading her own cloth nicely,and giving herself time for a comfortable meal.
After dinner,she has a kettle of boiling water ready,washes up the dishes and plates,cleans the knives(washing the grease off carefully before she rubs them on the knife-board),washes the silver spoons and forks,and just rubs them over with the leather;cleans any boots and shoes required,and then cleans up her kitchen,sweeps up the hearth, and goes to wash and dress herself.

Her next duty is to bring in the tea,make the toast,etc.
After tea,she turns down the beds,sees that there is water in every jug and bottle,shuts the windows and draws down the blinds.

These are the ordinary duties:but in order that the house may be well cleaned,every bedroom should be swept once a week, the tins and silver must have weekly attention beyond that of daily washing,and the mahogany furniture,etc.,must be well polished weekly.
Also, occasionally she should take up the stair carpets,replacing them so that they may not wear out by the same part being always at the edge of the stairs.
She must also rub and clean the brass rods.


Recollect,my little general servant,that if your job is a hard one,it is the best possible one for training you for a better.

After all,you have no more to do,nor,in fact,so much as you would have as mistress of your own house when married,when you would probably have to clean house,work for your family's support,and take care of children,besides enduring anxiety and the many cares of the mother and wife.

In your place you have no care for daily bread and clothes.
Your food and raiment are sure,andyou have every comfort(!!!!!!).
If you rise early,bustle about,and waste no spare moments,you will get through your work very well.
If,when you put your head on your pillow,you would just plan how to get through next day's work,you would find it a great help.

            The 'Little General Servant' to whom these condescending words were addressed was paid from £6 to £7 a year,and was often 12 or 13 years old,and far away from home...

This is a picture of a housekeeper in a small country establishment with her staff; they are so young!