The October Gallery on Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, is a place of sleek white walls and contemporary art, with a trendy Persian café serving excellent pilaf. Few who work here have any idea what these high-ceilinged, institutional rooms once contained.
Neither did I: this was simply a venue I’d earmarked for my book launch. But a plaque on the outside corner of the building caught my eye as I left. ‘Glory be to God,’ it reads. ‘St George the Martyr Schools For 200 Girls & 200 Infants. 1863. Jesus Christ Himself Being the Chief Corner Stone.’
I went to the Metropolitan Archive to see if I could discover more. Here, they dug out the original building specifications for me: a tightly folded wad of pages covered in looping black ink. Every detail, from lead drainpipe joints to wallpaper weight, was laid down in this document for the builder.
‘Fit up girl’s school with 1¼ yellow deal seats & desks supported on cast iron standards with inkstands & grooves for pencils.’
‘Stain the internal woodwork with asphaltum dissolved in spirits of turpentine to a good & rich colour & twice varnish the same with the best Copal oil & twice varnish all oakwork.’
‘Bedrooms papered with paper the value of 1d per yard.’
The ground floor – today’s gallery, the space I would use for my party – was assigned to 200 infants up to six years old. The courtyard was their playground. Today’s kitchen was a classroom. The girls’ bedrooms, for those who had no homes, were housed on the first floor. Older girls, up to the age of twelve, were schooled on the top floor. An endowment of £160 a year (£7,000 today) provided the necessary income.
So as we all raised a glass to The Housekeeper’s Tale, it felt like an entirely apt venue for the launch of a book on female domestic servants. The majority of girls in this institution would have gone on to work below stairs. Their time at St George the Martyr Parochial School was as much a training as an education. Pupils like this were widely used on internal household chores to economise on paid staff, infants as young as five put to work scrubbing floors. My daughter is five: this was a sobering thought.
Victorian London teemed with young waifs and strays, many of which were scooped up by private charities and philanthropists – most famously, by Dr Thomas Barnardo. He set up his first home for children in 1870 after finding eleven young boys, dressed in rags, sleeping in an open iron gutter. At his death in 1905, Barnardo left behind him 112 Barnardo’s Homes with the care of 8,500 children.
He believed that domestic service in the safety of middle class homes would save these waifs from destitution – and so both boys and girls in his institutions were taught the domestic disciplines. ‘All the household work of the Homes is done by the boys themselves’ wrote Barnardo in the 1890s; ‘they are their own cooks and waiters, their own bootblacks and house and chambermaids. They scrub the floors (and we pride ourselves on the floors at Stepney).’ While the boys were to be trained as tailors, blacksmiths or bakers, the girls were trained for domestic service.
Not ladies’ maids for the aristocracy, but maids-of-all-work for the middle classes; small tradespeople in search of cheap labour, who might pay just a shilling or two a week. ‘Each girl saved from a criminal course is a present to the next generation of a virtuous woman and a valuable servant,’ wrote Barnardo. These girls would find themselves at the beck and call of a condescending mistress, with no set hours and few opportunities to socialise. Dr Barnardo’s prescription was resignation and obedience. ‘I hope my dear girl that I shall hear that you are pleasing your mistress,’ he wrote to one of his charges, ‘and that you are not saucy or bad-tempered or lazy, but obliging, polite, respectful and hard-working, that you get up early in the morning, and endeavour throughout the day to please your mistress as much as you can.’
The reality was harsh. ‘My hands were raw with scrubbing all the time. You were the drab, the lowest of the low,’ recalled a former Barnardo’s girl who started work in 1937. Factory girls, who had the advantage of independence, looked down on domestic servants as skivvies, slaveys and ‘drain ‘ole cleaners.’
By the start of the 20th-century the prospects for girls in institutions like Barnardo’s was still no better. In 1911, of 611 girls leaving London’s poor law institutions, 595 went into service (the rest went into laundries or became dairy maids). What sort of servants did they make? After years of rules, regulations and unthinking obedience, they were said to lack initiative. They were physically and emotionally stunted. The old fireplaces at the October Gallery, now boarded up, are embellished with Christian maxims – but many looked back on their education not for its teaching of Christian virtues, but for its punishments. Some struck lucky, and were absorbed into the warm family life of a household. But many suffered acutely. Worst was the social isolation of being a maid-of-all-work, sitting in a dark kitchen on your own, after being brought up in the gregarious atmosphere of a children’s home.
By 1923, three quarters of such girls were still being sent into service, even though it was recognised that most had little interest in the work, and would do better in another direction. It amounted to a supply of forced labour. ‘“Institution girls” are apparently looked upon by some women as cheap drudges’, a Home Office official commented tartly in a report of 1938.
Domestic service remained the major employment for Barnardo girls up unto the 1940s; by 1946 the charity received 250 applications for every female servant placed. Only in 1952 did Barnardo’s finally stop training girls to become servants.
* With thanks to Lucy Lethbridge, ‘Servants’ (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Pamela Horn, ‘Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century’ (Sutton Publishing, 2001).