Ode on a Dishclout
- Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England by Carolyn Steedman
Cambridge, 410 pp, £21.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 521 73623 7
Carolyn Steedman’s is a distinctive, probing, inquiring voice. Personal, but not solipsistic. We never forget, reading her books, that there’s a mind in charge, but not one that’s preoccupied with itself: it is always grappling with some other experience, some other way of seeing, which can’t be re-experienced, but can be hunted, glimpsed, located in its habitat, experimentally ventriloquised, considered from different points of view (some critical), or approached indirectly through its impact on others, or through its refracted representations.
Vol. 33 No. 10 · 19 May 2011
While miners might be hidden away down the mines or textile workers in the mills, domestic servants were often the only members of the working class that other classes got to know. What I thought was missing from Joanna Innes’s account of Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost was anything much about the felt experience of being servants (LRB, 14 April).
My mother was the seventh child of an engine-driver. She had just one brother and all her five sisters ‘went into service’. This was in rural Gloucestershire during and after the First World War; that part of England, then as now, was dominated by the large houses of the gentry and aristocracy, and for working-class girls there was simply no alternative employment. My aunts had all left school at 14 and my grandmother had scouted round to find positions they might apply for: she would also have made sure, as the girls grew up, that they’d done enough domestic labour to be useful in a household. My aunts would laugh as they recalled getting up at 5 a.m. on cold mornings to start the day by killing all the cockroaches on the walls of the kitchen, using their shoes to swat them; they took it for granted that the kitchen of a large country house would swarm with insect and rodent life.
They saw themselves as answerable to the mistress of the household, and their relationships with the master and his sons were mediated through her. If one of the sons wanted to seduce a servant-girl, her worry would be ‘what would ma’am think?’ – a prospect sufficiently forbidding to stand in the way of such liaisons.
My grandfather, ‘Red Bill’ Hewer, was a trade unionist and Labour voter. When the government ordered troops in against the Welsh miners, he refused to carry them on his train. As an engine-driver he belonged to the aristocracy of labour and this brought him into frequent contact with the upper classes – it had been traditional since the days of the stagecoach for passengers to give a special salute to the coach driver. On one occasion, just after he had brought his express into Cheltenham, one passenger, a titled lady, swept down the platform before pausing at the engine and asking: ‘George, my good man, can you tell me the way to Tewkesbury?’ My grandfather replied: ‘How did ’ee know my name was George?’ Pleased, she responded brightly: ‘I just guessed it.’ ‘Well then,’ he replied, ‘thee can just guess thy way to Tewkesbury.’ Her family demanded that he be sacked, but the railway unions were far too strong for that to work.
No matter how normal my aunts made domestic service seem, I always felt glad that my mother escaped it. The reason was to do with the sixth child, the only boy. My grandfather, before becoming a railwayman, had from the age of 11 worked as a farm labourer and bitterly hated it. He accepted that five of his daughters should go into domestic service but he couldn’t countenance the thought that his son would have to work on a farm if the family stayed in the countryside. So the whole family moved to town in order that the son could learn a trade – he became an electrician. Thus when my mother left school at 14 she became a shopgirl at Boots, the urban equivalent, it was felt, of domestic service in a rural milieu. My mother, though, regarded this turn of events as a very lucky break and I’m not sure she was wrong.