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Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

The Life of a Working-Class Girl

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Edwardian maids

I left the factory for a short break and went into service when I was fifteen. Mother would have preferred me to be placed in ‘good service’ as she had been in her time, but I went as a ‘maid of all work’. I was expected to wait at table, getting my own meals when I could, there being no alloted times for the servant. I took the food into the dining -room and was given a plate with mine served ready to eat, which I would take back into the kitchen and eat standing up by the draining board, or at least attempt to, because by the time I had taken the vegetables round to the other diners at the table and returned mine was invariably cold. There was no point in my sitting down because in about ten or twelve minutes the bell would ring for the sweet to be brought in. Before I could start on my sweet, the bell would ring again for me to clear the table.

These conditions were the norm for a general servant or ‘generals’ as we were called. Many of my school friends became ‘skivvies’ by the fact of being females and there being very little other work for them, other than in one of the factories. It used to amuse me when factory girls looked down on us as inferior, calling us ‘drain ‘ole cleaners’. Some maids, after a long period in service, acquired the accents of their employers and, in their turn, looked down on factory girls and thought them ‘common’.

A ‘general’ was expected to do all the housework, preparing the vegetables and the cooking. I had to be up at six-thirty in the morning and clean the master’s shoes and get the children’s clothes ready for school. I was small for fifteen and their own daughter, who was thirteen, had reached pubescence and I had not; I was treated as a child in any way, or even as a young person.

When my master or mistress went out at night, I was expected to stay up in case one of the young children woke and called. I was left plenty of ironing to do and silver to clean just in case I got sleepy; then up again next morning early.

There was little personal time at all but I used to steal a few minutes very late at night peeping into the master’s books. His wife said she couldn’t understand them so she was sure I could not either. I was only allowed to dust them when she was there. My memories of that place are that I was always tired, always hungry and listening to the wrangling of my employers.

I was told that I smelled which, if true, would not have been surprising as I was not allowed to use the bathroom; I would not have had time anyway. He was a sub-editor on one of the London newspapers, and years later, when reading his obituary, I saw that it ended with ‘He had a wonderfully happy marriage’. Not whilst I was there, he didn’t. I wonder why the Marriage Guidance Council don’t employ servants or charladies who have really seen it all from the inside?

When I was sixteen I took a daily part-time post as I was needed at home in the afternoons. It seemed to mother that I was being starved as part-timers weren’t fed, except this one occasion. It was Christmas time and the lady for whom I worked had persuaded me to stay for midday dinner, although I had persisted in telling her my own family would not start Christmas dinner without me. I must have been naive if I thought that she meant me to sit at the table with the family, there was no room on the kitchen table where all the food was laid out so I had mine on the draining board (again) by the sink. I was full of self-pity thinking, ‘Here I am, sitting by the sink, having my Christmas dinner, while they’re all waiting for me at home’. She had kept me there, the cunning thing, knowing that no servant would have a meal and then walk out leaving the washing-up and the litchen untidy. When I reached home in mid-afternoon the family had had their dinner, except mother who would not have hers until I was home. I didn’t get a penny extra for that afternoon’s work; but, after all, I had been given my meal.

So back again to another factory, this time to ‘His Master’s Voice’, now ‘E.M.I.’. I was employed on a machine for drilling metal discs, a day’s work being a full truck-load. Men were engaged on the same job on the night shift using the same machines, but they did not fill their trucks. Although I never met any of the men, I used to exchange notes with the young man who worked my drill. On one occasion I told him in a note how lazy I thought he was and mentioning the difference in our pay. In his reply he said, “If I get twice as much as they pay you and they are making a profit out of me, how much profit do you think they’re making out of you?”

Starting factory work at such a young age we were teased unmercifully, a factor being that we were all much smaller for our age group than the present generation. I was often told, “As a girl, keep your place”, but I was never quite sure where my place was. And on my way home from the factory I was shouted at by passers-by, “Girls taking men’s jobs”. It was all so confusing. Whilst working we would be sent from one department to another on spurious errands such as “Go and get the key of the boiler” and “Go for a long stand” and then shouted at by the charge-hand for standing about. Then we would be teased about sex, which had little significance for us immature girls. One rough woman who cleaned the boss’s office told us “Oh, I put oil of wintergreen on my husband when he starts anything; I’ve got a right to, after bringing up five kids”. It was quite some time after that before I realised that she had used the linament as a form of birth control.

~ Canary Girls and Stockpots by Edith Hall

Margot Asquith on her Early Education

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Margot Asquith in 1905

Margot Asquith (1864 – 1945) was born to Scottish industrialist Sir Charles Tennant and his retiring wife Emma. As the sixth daughter out of eleven children, Margot’s upbringing was rather wild for the day, and the high-spirits and independence of her and her sister Laura entranced a number of people upon their entry into late Victorian high society. In her autobiography, published in four parts in the early 1920s, Margot reflects upon her upbringing, marriage, and position within The Souls. In the following passage she describes her education before making her debut, which was rather typical of upper-class and aristocratic young women of the 1880s.


ALTHOUGH I did not do much thinking over my education, others did it for me. I had been well grounded by a series of short-stayed governesses in the Druids and woad, in Alfred and the cakes, Romulus and Remus and Bruce and the spider. I could speak French well and German a little; and I knew a great deal of every kind of literature from Tristram Shandy and The Antiquary to Under Two Flags and The Grammarian’s Funeral; but the governesses had been failures and, when Lucy married, my mother decided that Laura and I should go to school.

Mademoiselle de Mennecy—a Frenchwoman of ill-temper and a lively mind—had opened a hyper-refined seminary in Gloucester Crescent, where she undertook to “finish” twelve young ladies. My father had a horror of girls’ schools (and if he could “get through”—to use the orthodox expression of the spookists—he would find all his opinions on this subject more than justified by the manners, morals and learning of the young ladies of the present day) but as it was a question of only a few months he waived his objection.

No. 7 Gloucester Crescent looked down on the Great Western Railway; the lowing of cows, the bleating of sheep and sudden shrill whistles and other odd sounds kept me awake, and my bed rocked and trembled as the vigorous trains passed at uncertain intervals all through the night. This, combined with sticky food, was more than Laura could bear and she had no difficulty in persuading my papa that if she were to stay longer than one week her health would certainly suffer. I was much upset when she left me, but faintly consoled by receiving permission to ride in the Row three times a week; Mlle. de Mennecy thought my beautiful hack gave prestige to her front door and raised no objections.

Sitting alone in the horsehair schoolroom, with a French patent-leather Bible in my hands, surrounded by eleven young ladies, made my heart sink. “Et le roi David déplut á l’Éternel ” I heard in a broad Scotch accent; and for the first time I looked closely at my stable companions.

Mlle. de Mennecy allowed no one to argue with her; and our first little brush took place after she informed me of this fact.

“But in that case, mademoiselle,” said I, “how are any of us to learn anything? I don’t know how much the others know, but I know nothing except what I’ve read; so, unless I ask questions, how am I to learn?”

Mlle. De Mennecy: “Je ne vous ai jamais défendu de me questionner; vous n’écoutez pas, mademoiselle. J’ai dit qu’il ne fallait pas discuter avec moi.” (I’ve never defended questioning me, you do not listen, miss. I said that one should not argue with me.)

Margot (keenly): “But, mademoiselle, discussion is the only way of making lessons interesting.”

Mlle. De Mennecy (with violence): “Voulez-vous vous taire?” (Would you shut up?)

To talk to a girl of nearly seventeen in this way was so unintelligent that I made up my mind I would waste neither time nor affection on her. None of the girls were particularly clever, but we all liked each other and for the first time—and I may safely say the last—I was looked upon as a kind of heroine.

…On my arrival in Grosvenor Square I told my parents that I must go home to Glen, as I felt suffocated by the pettiness and conventionality of my late experience. The moderate teaching and general atmosphere of Gloucester Crescent had depressed me, and London feels airless when one is out of spirits: in any case it can never be quite a home to any one born in Scotland.

…[M]y father was too busy and my mother too detached for me to have told them anything. I wanted to be alone and I wanted to learn. After endless talks it was decided that I should go to Germany for four or five months and thus settle the problem of an unbegun but finishing education.

Looking back on this decision, I think it was a remarkable one. I had a passion for dancing and my father wanted me to go to balls; I had a genius for horses and adored hunting; I had such a wonderful hack that every one collected at the Park rails when they saw me coming into the Row; but all this did not deflect me from my purpose and I went to Dresden alone with a stupid maid at a time when—if not in England, certainly in Germany— I might have passed as a moderate beauty.

Frau von Mach kept a ginger-coloured lodging-house high up in Lüttichau-strasse. She was a woman of culture and refinement; her mother had been English and her husband, having gone mad in the Franco-Prussian war, had left her penniless with three children. She had to work for her living and she cooked and scrubbed without a thought for herself from dawn till dark.

There were thirteen pianos on our floor and two or three permanent lodgers. The rest of the people came and went—men, women and boys of every nationality, professionals and amateurs—but I was too busy to care or notice who went or who came. Although my mother was bold and right to let me go as a bachelor to Dresden, I could not have done it myself. Later on, like every one else, I sent my stepdaughter and daughter to be educated in Germany for a short time, but they were chaperoned by a woman of worth and character, who never left them: my German nursery-governess, who came to me when Elizabeth was four.

The Dresden of my day was different from the Dresden of twenty years after. I never saw an English person the whole time I was there. After settling into my new rooms, I wrote out for myself a severe Stundenplan (timetable), which I pinned over my head next to my alarm-clock. At 6 every morning I woke up and dashed into the kitchen to have coffee with the solitary slavey; after that I practised the fiddle or piano till 8.30, when we had the pension breakfast; and the rest of the day was taken up by literature, drawing and other lessons. I went to concerts or the opera by myself every night. I made great friends with Frau von Mach and in loose moments sat on her kitchen-table smoking cigarettes and eating black cherries; we discussed Shakespeare, Wagner, Brahms, Middlemarch, Bach and Hegel, and the time flew.

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The Education of Girls and Women

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A woman undergraduate working in her study room at Somerville College.jpg

Though the educational acts passed after the 1870s provided free, mandatory schooling for both sexes, girls were not only educated differently than boys, but they had to fight for schooling beyond the grammar level. Even after the foundation of famed women’s colleges such as Somerville, Girton, or Lady Margaret Hall, and the opening of universities to women, they still grappled with proving their relevance in an era where a woman’s sole purpose was to marry and tend to her home. Yet, pioneers such as Dorothea Beale and Frances Buss marched on with the foundation for female education laid in the 1830s-1860s, and became synonymous with the topic of womens’ higher education.

By the Edwardian era, there were twenty-one girls’ public schools, teaching approximately 5,000 pupils, and even more girls’ high schools (and some co-educational secondary schools) in existence across the whole of Britain. The average curriculum balanced the typical feminine accomplishments such as sewing, cooking, housewifery, and infant care and the “harder” subjects such as chemistry, mathematics, and languages, and most girls colleges featured a separate institution for the training of teachers. In fact, the push for higher education for women went hand in hand with the increase in education for the lower and working classes since in the late 19th century teaching had become a woman’s profession (those poor governesses notwithstanding).

In tandem with the rigorous and challenging curriculum at girls’ schools was the formation of ladies’ colleges at the university level. Miss Beale, the formidable headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, spearheaded the founding of St. Hilda’s College at Oxford in 1893, determined as she was to continue her crusade to educate girls who would go on to change the world. St. Hilda’s joined Somerville, St Hugh’s, and Lady Margaret Hall as pioneer women’s colleges at Oxford, and its sister schools at Cambridge–Girton and Newnham–to change society’s minds about women’s education (though not without a considerable battle against the jokes and harassment at the expense of female students). Nevertheless, these pioneer headmistresses and students soldiered on, breaking the glass ceiling in many traditionally male fields, and earning respect for their achievements and mental prowess in their own right.

Unfortunately, upper class and aristocratic women were barred–by social norms–from these great educational strides and remained as poorly educated as their Regency and Victorian forebears. For them, a governess who taught the rudimentary topics of reading, writing, and arithmetic and the social graces, with a varnish of sophistication provided by a few months in Germany or Switzerland before their debut were good enough. Some upper class and aristocratic women furnished their own self-education, courtesy of their family libraries, but since they were supposed to worry more about their court curtseys and small talk, and their reading was strongly censored, quenching the thirst for education could be difficult. Nevertheless, these women gained a “hands-on” education in politics, hostessing, and managing estates, and though most considered their “power behind the throne” as the basis of their anti-suffrage stance, they proved that an educated and intelligent woman was the new norm for the modern age.

Further Reading:
Girls Growing up in late Victorian and Edwardian England by Carol Dyhouse
The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild by Pamela Horn
The Public School Phenomenon, 597–1977 by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
The Edwardian Lady by Susan Tweedsmuir
Education of Girls and Women in Great Britain by C.S. Bremner
The Renaissance of Girls’ Education in England: A Record of Fifty Years’ Progress by Alice Zimmern