These extracts from two letters written by servants provide a fascinating insight into their lives and opinions. The first is part of a letter written by a young maid-of-all-work (the lowest of the low in terms of servant hierarchy) to her mother, dated 1870. The original spelling and grammar have been retained.

 My Dearest Mother,

I do not know how to thank you enough for your kindness in doing the aprons for me. I should never of got them made myself for I have not made the print dresses yet that I told you about when I was home last. I must try and finish them this week for I am sick and tired of seeing them about. I have been so driven at work since the fires begun I have had 'ardly time for anything for myself. I am up at half past five and six every morning and do not go to bed till nearly twelve at night and I feel so tired sometimes I am obliged to have a good cry. I do think I should have been laid up if it was not for the Cod Liver Oil I am taking it is very nasty but I think it does me good it is very dear, half a crown for a pint, and it is so nasty. I reach my heart up nearly at the thought of it. Mrs Graves the cook is very kind. She as help me with my work in the morning. I would never of been done if she had not and these Nurse she as never said so much as are you not well, not even offered to do a thing for me, but I am much better now so I not trouble her.

Dear Mother I should of ask you over next week only we are going to have two dinner parties one on Tuesday the other on Thursday and we shall be so busy so you must come after it is over. I have saved a small piece of plum pudding for you and will save some mince pies and I thought you would like a little dripping so I have sent all. Mrs Graves has to spare and I dearsay next week she will have some more. You must let me know if you would like it and I will send it... When I see you I will tell you more which I have not time to write now hoping you are all quite well and baby better.

With fondest love to all I remain your ever

Affect. Daughter,

Harriet Brown

Please do write me a nice long letter one day this week excuse paper as it all I have

(Quoted in Not in Front of the Servants, by Frank Dawes)

The second is is from a girl who was clearly more educated and at the end of her tether with her various employers' habits! It was printed in the Carlisle Journal, 17 August 1888.

To: The Editor

Sir, -

Folk talk a great deal now-a-days of servants, and from the tone of many ladies you might suppose that good servants were the exception and bad ones the rule. No doubt there are faults on both sides. Certainly all the fault is not on the side of the girls and I should like to propose a little change in the system under which we are commonly hired. For instance, we girls enter our name in a register office, the keeper of which sends inquiring mistresses after us. And then we have to submit to a course of examination which would do credit to a barrister. Are you clean? Are you honest? Are you good-natured? Do you go to Church or Chapel? Can you wash, and can you cook? Have you any followers? These and a host of other questions are put to us, and then we are favoured with the rules of the household over which the ladies preside. You must wear caps. You must go to Church or Chapel. We don't like you to go out. You may take a walk on Sunday afternoons, but you must be in at such a time...

All this questioning and all this precaution may be very necessary, but what I want to say is that it should not be on one side. The way the thing is done one might think that mistresses were angels and one-half of the servant-girls were, if not devils, something very full of natural depravity. I think the keeper of the register office should not only give the character of the girls to the mistress, but she should provide herself with a character of the mistress to give to the girls, who might also put her through a little catechism, something after this fashion:

Have you a sweet temper, ma'am? Do you give your girls plenty to eat? Do you keep everything locked up as if you expected us to thieve? How many servants have you had last half-year, and why did they leave? Do you speak kindly to your girls, or are you always scolding? Are you guilty of the practice of nagging, never off their bones about something or other? Do you, when you are pleased, speak a kind word of commendation for their encouragement?

You see, Mr Editor, what I mean is that the character should not all be on one side, that it is as necessary that girls should have characters with the mistresses as that mistresses should have with the girls. I am willing to admit that there are plenty of bad servants, thoughtless and careless of doing their duty, but there are plenty of bad mistresses who only look upon a servant as a machine, out of which so much work has to be done for so much pay, without any consideration of the fact that girls want kindly treatment and long for something home-like to take the place of the home they have left.

Take my own case, for instance. I am 25 years of age, have been in service since 15, and have only had four places, but this Whitsuntide I changed, and a fearful change it has been. My mistress seemed a very pleasant lady when she came to engage me, and said all kinds of things in commendation of the place. I believed her, for I knew nothing contrary, but I found my mistake. I am not going to say more than this, that it is impossible to live with her. The master is good to do with and kind, but the mistress, why she can't agree with herself, and from the way she speaks the livelong day you might suppose she had been nursed in her infancy on vinegar. Had I known what I know now I should never have come to such a place, the nature of which you may judge. They have had twelve servants in two years, at the rate of three each half-year. Surely, sir, they were not all bad ones. I should like mistresses to know that girls are very much as they make them. If treated kindly and considerately it is not many but will return such treatment with courtesy and obedience, but if the contrary, then a good girl is often driven to desperation, the evil gets the uppermost, and she is a bad one.

Excuse me writing such a long letter, which please correct, and believe me,

yours truly


Reproduced by permission of the Cumberland News, Carlisle, and with the special assistance of local historian Denis Perriam