In the Victorian era, it was common for young, working-class women and girls to enter into domestic service. This involved working as a maid, cook, or nanny in the household of a wealthier family. Girls would typically start this type of work around the ages of 12 to 14, though some began as young as 10 or 11.
Why Did Girls Go Into Service?
There were a few key reasons why young girls often went into service:
- Poverty – Working-class families needed their daughters to earn money to supplement the household income.
- Lack of education – Most working-class girls only had a basic elementary education, limiting their job options.
- Cultural expectations – It was seen as appropriate “women’s work” at the time.
- Training – It provided training in housekeeping tasks girls would need for marriage.
For many working-class girls, domestic service was one of the few socially acceptable and available career paths open to them in the Victorian period. With limited education or skills training, their employment options were restricted.
The Hiring Process
The process of hiring young girls into service positions began around age 11 or 12. There were a few common steps:
- Registration – Girls would register at the local labor exchange listing their availability, skills, and references. This information was provided to prospective employers.
- Interviews – Interested households would interview candidates, assessing their character and skills.
- Hiring – If hired, contracts were signed detailing duties, hours, accommodations, wages, etc. Terms typically lasted 6-12 months.
- Start of service – Once terms were settled, the girl would move into the employer’s household to begin work.
Some girls would find positions through family connections or more informal methods, but the rise of labor exchanges helped streamline the hiring process in the late 1800s.
Typical Duties and Routines
Once hired into service, the daily routines and responsibilities of young maidservants were arduous:
- Waking early – 5 or 6am to start chores.
- Lighting fires – Fireplaces and stoves had to be lit every morning.
- Heavy cleaning – Scrubbing floors, washing laundry, polishing furniture, etc.
- Food preparation – Helping cook meals and wash dishes.
- Childcare – Looking after children of the household.
- Errands – Shopping, delivering messages, etc.
- Serving meals – Waiting on the family at breakfast, tea, dinner.
- Finishing chores – Washing up and tidying late into the evening.
A maid-of-all-work or between maid performed all these daily tasks. Specialized roles like cook, ladies maid, or nursery maid had specific duties focused on those areas.
The living conditions for girls in service varied greatly depending on the household.
In larger wealthy households, servants lived in separate servants quarters. These could be Spartan dormitory-like rooms, but provided basic necessities. In smaller households, servant girls often slept in makeshift quarters like attics or storage rooms.
Meals were typically provided, though housemaids ate separately from the family. Leftovers and plain foods were common. Some households provided uniforms; otherwise, servants wore their own clothes.
There was usually little free time or privacy. Days off were not guaranteed. However, accommodations and treatment depended greatly on considerate or inconsiderate employers.
Wages and Savings
In the early Victorian period, weekly wages for new maidservants were around 1-3 shillings per week plus room and board. By the late 1800s, this had risen to around £10-£14 annually. The highest paid positions were in London households.
While wages were low, service did allow young women to save money for future needs like marriage. Savings were often placed in Post Office Savings Bank accounts. Some prudent servants managed to save around £50 by their late teens and early 20s.
Average Annual Wages for Servants in the 1880s
These represented typical wages in larger middle and upper-class Victorian households. Salaries for prestigious positions or London service were at the higher end.
Working Hours and Time Off
Working hours were long for servants, often spanning from before dawn late into the evening.
A typical day’s hours:
- 5 or 6am – Wake up and start chores
- 7am – Begin preparing breakfast
- 8 or 9am – Serve family breakfast
- 10am-Noon – Morning chores and tasks
- Noon – Serve luncheon
- Afternoon – More chores, run errands, look after children
- 5 or 6pm – Prepare and serve dinner
- 8pm – Clean up from dinner, finish chores
- 10pm – Bedtime
So a typical workday was 15-16 hours six days a week. Sunday was the usual day off for most servants and involved church attendance.
Some yearly time off was allowed. One week per year was common, with longer service earning two weeks. Holidays like Christmas were usually working days in the household.
Treatment and Relationships
The relationship between servants and employers varied enormously based on the household.
Some servant girls were treated quite well and considered part of the family. Kind, respectful employers took an interest in their servant’s lives. Close bonds could form, especially with those who served a family long-term.
However mistreatment certainly occurred too. Overburdening with tasks, lack of privacy, psychological abuse, physical assault, and sexual harassment were risks. Some girls endured quite miserable conditions at the hands of cruel employers.
Interactions with the lady of the house were formal. Servants were expected to be deferential and obedient. Discipline could be strict for perceived infractions and mistreatment may have gone unreported.
Overall working conditions and treatment depended greatly on the temperament and class prejudices of individual employers.
Challenges and Opportunities
For young working-class women, entering domestic service presented both major challenges and opportunities:
- Long hours and arduous duties
- Little privacy or time off
- Rigid social class rules
- High expectations for obedience
- Risk of mistreatment and abuse
- Steady income and room/board
- Savings for future
- Training in housekeeping and childcare
- Exposure to education and culture in wealthy homes
- Potential for advancement and rewards for good service
For many working-class Victorian girls, service presented one of the few opportunities to broaden horizons and earn money. While challenging, it offered a stepping stone to greater independence.
Social Stigma and Resistance
Despite providing employment opportunities, domestic service did carry social stigma in the Victorian era. Servants were seen as social and intellectual inferiors who relied on their “betters” for subsistence.
Some young women resisted entering service if they could access other work like factory or shop jobs. The lack of personal freedom and rigid class hierarchy of service motivated this. Committing to domestic duties also delayed marriage and children for young women.
However, opportunities outside service were limited. And abandonment of positions without references could seriously impact future job prospects. So most working-class girls continued entering service out of necessity.
Training Programs and Labor Activism
In the late 1800s, some efforts did emerge to improve conditions for young female servants:
- Training programs – Philanthropic groups established training programs for servant girls to learn skills like cooking before entering a household.
- Labor leagues – Leagues formed to advocate for servant’s rights, limits on hours, and living standards. They encouraged contracts between servants and employers.
- Manuals – Advocates published guidebooks advising maidservants on appropriate rights and conduct in service.
But due to the ubiquity and necessity of domestic service for working-class women at the time, the need for reform was limited. Service remained an essential occupation and rite of passage for young Victorian girls throughout the era.
Decline of Young Servants
The practice of young working-class women entering domestic service declined in the early 20th century due to several factors:
- Expanded state education kept girls in school longer
- Growth of manufacturing, shops, offices increased employment options
- Rising wages made service less essential for supplemental income
- Shortage of servants drove up wages and standards of treatment
- Social stigma of servitude increased
While still common, the role of the young maidservant faded. Service became less about upbringing and more a career choice. But it remained an extensive practice employing over 1.5 million women in Britain by the 1930s.
In the Victorian era, young working-class girls commonly entered domestic service from the ages of 12 to 14. Poverty and limited education channeled girls into service roles like maids or kitchen help. Long hours, arduous duties, and variable treatment from employers made service challenging. But opportunities for training, income, and future savings existed too. While exploitative conditions occurred, service also gave many girls a start towards greater independence. The practice provided a ubiquitous occupational rite of passage for generations of Victorian working-class women.