P AT THE CRACK OF DAWN to begin an endless list of daily chores from cleaning fireplaces to polishing silver to serving tea — and anything else the mistress deemed necessary — before finally falling into bed by midnight more often than not. Day in and day out, the only respite a weekly half day off and one full day a month. And no husbands or “followers” unless you wanted to find yourself on the street without a reference.
While dramas like Downtown Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs provide a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of servants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they don’t really give a true measure of how long, hard, and dreary their days really were.
Daisy Shoebridge ~ a name that could stand alongside any fictional below stairs staff ~ was my paternal grandmother and like her counterparts at Downton or 165 Eaton Place, she spent a good deal of her youth in service. Born to James Shoebridge and Elizabeth Fuller on May 30, 1886,1 she was the 5th of 10 children to survive infancy and learning to earn her keep came at a very early age. Her home village of Tonbridge, Kent was close by the beautiful resort town of Tunbridge Wells where many of England’s rich and royal kept holiday homes. Along with it’s fine residences the town boasted several private girl’s schools apparently catering to the upper middle class desiring a kind of finishing school education for their daughters. All of which meant there was no shortage of servant positions.
It was at one of these schools my grandmother was employed as a housemaid in 1901.2 And though her voice has long been silent I can well imagine what her response might have been to the question ~ “What was life really like below stairs, Granny?”
“They was sisters, see, Miss Annie and Miss Fannie and they operated two schools for girls in Tunbridge Wells.3 I was a housemaid at the one in Park Road. I was only 15 so Ethel, the other housemaid, who was 19, was above me meaning I got most the heavy work. I was going hard by 6:00 every morning, first down to the kitchen — we slept in the attic, and a nasty, cold place it was too in winter, stifling hot in summer… Anyways, the first order of business was to clean and black the fireplace and get the fire laid.”
“After filling the buckets in the yard I set them to boil and headed upstairs to finish the fireplaces. Ethel did the ground floor, I did the bedrooms then went down to haul up the heated water for the morning toilet. The stairs! The endless up and down, I could hardly drag myself to bed after a day of it. Sometimes I wished I could just crawl into the kitchen cupboard and go to asleep… till I thought of the spiders and the mice.”
“Ethel always took Miss Annie her morning tea by 7:00am. And Miss Guibow too, she was the French governess.4 She had 6 girls to instruct5 and we had to have them up and dressed and fed to begin their lessons every morning. After clearing away breakfast I was back upstairs to sweep and dust the bedrooms, make the beds and collect and clean the chamber pots. Then there was carpets to sweep and brass to polish and floors to scrub before getting the luncheon laid out.”
“Afternoons were for mending sheets and doing other kinds of needlework and such till it was time to lay up for supper. It never stopped really and I looked forward to my half day, I can tell you, and even more to my full day. It was the only time I got to see my family. ‘Course, my half day was really special once I’d met Henry. We weren’t supposed to have followers but it never stopped any of us from finding a young man. When Henry immigrated to Canada he promised to send for me and a year later he made good on that promise and I left England — and service — forever.
A New Life in a New Land
On July 21, 1909 Daisy Shoebridge boarded the Lake Manitoba in Liverpool6 and crossed the Atlantic to finally reunite with her fiancée and marry in Manitoba, Canada. Interestingly, the passenger manifest lists her occupation as Cook rather than Housemaid. Whether she had moved on to a new situation or had simply risen to the position at the school is uncertain but the fact that Granny was a fabulous cook is undisputed — as anyone who ever tasted her baking powder biscuits or shortbread cookies can attest to.
The loneliness and isolation of the homestead she came to was no doubt a shock to my grandmother as it was for many immigrant women in the early 20th century. But she was no stranger to hard work and it would’ve served her well when she became a pioneer farmer’s wife. She and Henry had 2 sons while living in Manitoba and a third after moving to Calgary, Alberta. When Henry died in 1915 she married his brother (my grandfather) Sidney and spent the remainder of her life in Alberta. She died on Janaury 2, 1979 at the age of 92 and was buried in Queen’s Park Cemetery in Calgary.
Sources for information on servant’s lives:
- Newby, Jennifer. Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800–1939. Pen & Sword, ©2011.
- Higgs, Michelle. Tracing Your Servant Ancestors. Pen & Sword, ©2012.