The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration: her life is a solitary one, and in, some places, her work is never done. She is also subject to rougher treatment than either the house or kitchen-maid – Mrs. Isabella Beeton
Gracie, the maid of all work in Anne Perry’s mystery novels, was lucky. Charlotte Pitt, the wife of Inspector Pitt, was a good and kind mistress who worked alongside her maid and gave gentle instructions. They quickly established a friendly relationship. Charlotte’s kindness did not make Gracie’s work life much easier, but she was luckier than most of her counterparts. In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton places a maid of all work lower than even a scullery maid. According to Mrs. Beeton, an ambitious scullery maid could learn skills from the kitchen maids and cook and move up the servant ranks, whereas a maid of all work was generally stuck in her position.
As with the scullery maid, the maid of all work was generally a very young girl. She could also be a mature woman so down on her luck that the only other choices open to her were life on the streets or finding shelter in a work house, which was to be avoided at all costs. In Mansfield Park Fanny’s family in Portsmouth is described as being poor, yet even they were able to hire a maid of all work, so you can just imagine what the work conditions were like for these poor women, who literally did everything from cooking, sweeping the floors, hauling water, carrying out slops, looking after the pets and children, laundering, changing the beds, and serving the family at mealtimes. Maids of all work were the first to rise and the last to go to bed. If the house was small, they were lucky to receive a pallet to sleep near the fire in the kitchen. As for time off to rest and recuperate, a maid of all work was at the mercy of her employer.
The following description of a maid of all work comes from ‘The Dictionary of Daily Wants’ – 1858-1859:
MAID OF ALL WORK. – A domestic servant, who undertakes the whole duties of a household without assistance; her duties comprising those of cook, housemaid, nurserymaid, and various other offices, acccording to the exigencies of the establishment. The situation is one which is usually regarded as the hardest worked and worst paid of any branch of domestic servitude; it is, therefore, usually filled by inexperienced servants, or females who are so circumstanced that they are only desirous of securing a home, and of earning sufficient to keep themselves decently clad. In many of these situations, a servant may be very comfortably circumstanced, especially if it be a limited family of regular habits, and where there is a disposition to treat the servant with kindness and consideration.
The duties of a maid of all work being multifarious, it is necessary that she should arise early in the morning; and six or half-past six o’clock is the latest period at which she should remain in bed. She should first light the kitchen fire, and set the kettle over to boil; then she should sweep, dust, and prepare the room in which breakfast is to be taken. Having served the breakfast, she should, while the family are engaged upon that meal, proceed to the various bedchambers, strip the beds, open the windows, &c. This done, she will obtain her own breakfast, and after washing and putting away the things, she will again go upstairs, and finish what remains to be done there.
As the family will in all probability dine early, she must now set about the preliminaries for the dinner, making up the fire, preparing the vegetables, &c. After the dinner is cleared away, and the things washed and put by in their places, she must clean the kitchen; and this done, she is at liberty to attend to her own personal appearance, to wash and dress herself, &c. By this time the preparation for tea will have to be thought of, and this being duly served and cleared away, she must employ herself in needlework in connection with the household, or should there happen to be none requiring to be done, she may embrace this opportunity to attend to her own personal necessities. Supper has then to be attended to; and this finished, the maid of all work should take the chamber candlesticks, hot water, &c., into the sitting-room, and retire to rest as soon as her mistress or the regulation of the establishment will permit her.
The duties here set down can only be regarded as an outline rather than a detail, the habits of every family varying, and thereby regulating the amount of labour demanded, and the order in which the duties are to be performed. As a rule, however, a maid of all work, if she wish to retain her situation, must be industrious, cleanly, and thoughtful; and not only able to work, but to plan.
- Description of the duties of a Maid of All Work, Mrs. Beeton
- This blog’s other posts about regency servants