A stranger coming to Lark Rise would have looked in vain for the sweet country girl of tradition, with her sunbonnet, hay-rake, and air of rustic coquetry. If he had, by chance, seen a girl well on in her teens, she would be dressed in town clothes, complete with gloves and veil, for she would be home from service for her fortnight’s holiday, and her mother would insist upon her wearing her best every time she went out of doors, in order to impress the neighbours.
There was no girl over twelve or thirteen living permanently at home. Some were sent out to their first place at eleven. The way they were pushed out into the world at that tender age might have seemed heartless to a casual observer. As soon as a little girl approached school-leaving age, her mother would say, ‘About time you was earnin’ your own livin’, me gal,’ or, to a neighbour, ‘I shan’t be sorry when our young So-and-So gets her knees under somebody else’s table. Five slices for breakfast this mornin’, if you please!’ From that time onward the child was made to feel herself one too many in the overcrowded home; while her brothers, when they left school and began to bring home a few shillings weekly, were treated with a new consideration and made much of. The parents did not want the boys to leave home. Later on, if they wished to strike out for themselves, they might even meet with opposition, for their money, though barely sufficient to keep them in food, made a little more in the family purse, and every shilling was precious. The girls, while at home, could earn nothing.
Then there was the sleeping problem. None of the cottages had more than two bedrooms, and when children of both sexes were entering their teens it was difficult to arrange matters, and the departure of even one small girl of twelve made a little more room for those remaining.
When the older boys of a family began to grow up, the second bedroom became the boys’ room. Boys, big and little, were packed into it, and the girls still at home had to sleep in the parents’ room. They had their own standard of decency; a screen was placed or a curtain was drawn to form a partition between the parents’ and children’s beds; but it was, at best, a poor makeshift arrangement, irritating, cramped, and inconvenient. If there happened to be one big boy, with several girls following him in age, he would sleep downstairs on a bed made up every night and the second bedroom would be the girls’ room. When the girls came home from service for their summer holiday, it was the custom for the father to sleep downstairs that the girl might share her mother’s bed. It is common now to hear people say, when looking at some little old cottage, ‘And they brought up ten children there. Where on earth did they sleep?’ And the answer is, or should be, that they did not all sleep there at the same time. Obviously they could not. By the time the youngest of such a family was born, the eldest would probably be twenty and have been out in the world for years, as would those who came immediately after in age. The overcrowding was bad enough; but not quite as bad as people imagine.
Then, again, as the children grew up, they required more and more food, and the mother was often at her wits’ end to provide it. It was no wonder her thoughts and hopes sprang ahead to the time when one, at least, of her brood would be self-supporting. She should not have spoken her thoughts aloud, for many a poor, sensitive, little girl must have suffered. But the same mother would often at mealtimes slip the morsel of meat from her own to her child’s plate, with a ‘I don’t seem to feel peckish to-night. You have it. You’re growing.’
After the girls left school at ten or eleven, they were usually kept at home for a year to help with the younger children, then places were found for them locally in the households of tradesmen, schoolmasters, stud grooms, or farm bailiffs. Employment in a public house was looked upon with horror by the hamlet mothers, and farm-house servants were a class apart. ‘Once a farm-house servant, always a farm-house servant’ they used to say, and they were more ambitious for their daughters.
The first places were called ‘petty places’ and looked upon as stepping-stones to better things. It was considered unwise to allow a girl to remain in her petty place more than a year; but a year she must stay whether she liked it or not, for that was the custom. The food in such places was good and abundant, and in a year a girl of thirteen would grow tall and strong enough for the desired ‘gentlemen’s service’, her wages would buy her a few clothes, and she would be learning.
The employers were usually very kind to these small maids. In some houses they were treated as one of the family; in others they were put into caps and aprons and ate in the kitchen, often with one or two of the younger children of the house to keep them company. The wages were small, often only a shilling a week; but the remuneration did not end with the money payment. Material, already cut out and placed, was given them to make their underwear, and the Christmas gift of a best frock or a winter coat was common. Caps and aprons and morning print dresses, if worn, were provided by the employer. ‘She shan’t want for anything while she is with me’ was a promise frequently made by a shopkeeper’s wife when engaging a girl, and many were even better than their word in that respect. They worked with the girls themselves and trained them; then as they said, just as they were becoming useful they left to ‘better themselves’.
The mothers’ attitude towards these mistresses of small households was peculiar. If one of them had formerly been in service herself, her situation was avoided, for ‘a good servant makes a bad missis’ they said. In any case they considered it a favour to allow their small untrained daughters to ‘oblige’ (it was always spoken of as ‘obliging’) in a small household. They were jealous of their children’s rights, and ready to rush in and cause an upset if anything happened of which they did not approve; and they did not like it if the small maid became fond of her employer or her family, or wished to remain in her petty place after her year was up. One girl who had been sent out at eleven as maid to an elderly couple and had insisted upon remaining there through her teens, was always spoken of by her mother as ‘our poor Em’. ‘When I sees t’other girls and how they keeps on improvin’ an’ think of our poor Em wastin’ her life in a petty place, I could sit down an’ howl like a dog, that I could’, she would say, long after Em had been adopted as a daughter by the people to whom she had become attached.
Of course there were queer places and a few definitely bad places; but these were the exception and soon became known and avoided. Laura once accompanied a schoolfellow to interview a mistress who was said to require a maid. At ordinary times a mother took her daughter to such interviews; but Mrs. Beamish was near her time, and it was not thought safe for her to venture so far from home. So Martha and Laura set out, accompanied by a younger brother of Martha’s, aged about ten. Martha in her mother’s best coat with the sleeves turned back to the elbows and with her hair, done up for the first time that morning, plaited into an inverted saucer at the back of her head and bristling with black hairpins. Laura in a chimney-pot hat, a short brown cape, and buttoned boots reaching nearly to her knees. The little brother wore a pale grey astrakan coat, many sizes too small, a huge red knitted scarf, and carried no pocket-handkerchief.
It was a mild, grey November day with wisps of mist floating over the ploughed fields and water drops hanging on every twig and thorn of the hedgerows. The lonely country house they were bound for was said to be four miles from the hamlet; but, long before they reached it, the distance seemed to them more like forty. It was all cross-country going; over field-paths and stiles, through spinneys and past villages. They asked the way of everybody they met or saw working in the fields and were always directed to some short cut or other, which seemed to bring them out at the same place as before. Then there were delays. Martha’s newly done-up hair kept tumbling down and Laura had to take out all the hairpins and adjust it. The little brother got stones in his shoes, and all their feet felt tired from the rough travelling and the stiff mud which caked their insteps. The mud was a special source of worry to Laura, because she had put on her best boots without asking permission, and knew she would get into trouble about it when she returned.
Still, such small vexations and hindrances could not quite spoil her pleasure in the veiled grey day and the new fields and woods and villages, of which she did not even know the names.
It was late afternoon when, coming out of a deep, narrow lane with a stream trickling down the middle, they saw before them a grey-stone mansion with twisted chimney-stacks and a sundial standing in long grass before the front door. Martha and Laura were appalled at the size of the house. Gentry must live there. Which door should they go to and what should they say?
In a paved yard a man was brushing down a horse, hissing so loudly as he did so that he did not hear their first timid inquiry. When it was repeated he raised his head and smiled. ‘Ho! Ho!’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, it’s Missis at the house there you’ll be wanting, I’ll warrant.’
‘Please does she want a maid?’
‘I dare say she do. She generally do. But where’s the maid? Goin’ to roll yourselves up into one, all three of ye? You go on round by that harness-room and across the lawn by the big pear trees and you’ll find the back door. Go on; don’t be afraid. She’s not agoin’ to eat ye.’
In response to their timid knock, the door was opened by a youngish woman. She was like no one Laura had ever seen. Very slight — she would have been called ‘scraggy’ in the hamlet — with a dead white face, dark, arched brows, and black hair brushed straight back from her forehead, and with all this black and whiteness set off by a little scarlet jacket that, when Laura described it to her mother later, was identified as a garibaldi. She seemed glad to see the children, though she looked doubtful when she heard their errand and saw Martha’s size.
‘So you want a place?’ she asked as she conducted them into a kitchen as large as a church and not unlike one with its stone-paved floor and central pillar. Yes, she wanted a maid, and she thought Martha might do. How old was she? Twelve? And what could she do? Anything she was told? Well, that was right. It was not a hard place, for, although there were sixteen rooms, only three or four of them were in use. Could she get up at six without being called? There would be the kitchen range to light and the flues to be swept once a week, and the dining-room to be swept and dusted and the fire lighted before breakfast. She herself would be down in time to cook breakfast. No cooking was required, beyond preparing vegetables. After breakfast Martha would help her with the beds, turning out the rooms, paring the potatoes and so on; and after dinner there was plenty to do — washing up, cleaning knives and boots and polishing silver. And so she went on, mapping out Martha’s day, until at nine o’clock she would be free to go to bed, after placing hot water in her mistress’s bedroom.
Laura could see that Martha was bewildered. She stood, twisting her scarf, curtseying, and saying ‘Yes, mum’ to everything.
‘Then, as wages, I can offer you two pounds ten a year. It is not a great wage, but you are very small, and you’ll have an easy place and a comfortable home. How do you like your kitchen?’
Martha’s gaze wandered round the huge place, and once more she said, ‘Yes, mum.’
‘You’ll find it nice and cosy here, eating your meals by the fire. You won’t feel lonely, will you?’
This time Martha said, ‘No, mum.’
‘Tell your mother I shall expect her to fit you out well. You will want caps and aprons. I like my maids to look neat. And tell her to let you bring plenty of changes, for we only wash once in six weeks. I have a woman in to do it all up,’ and although Martha knew her mother had not a penny to spend on her outfit, and that she had been told the last thing before she left home that morning to ask her prospective employer to send her mother her first month’s wages in advance to buy necessaries, once again she said, ‘Yes, mum.’
‘Well, I shall expect you next Monday, then. And, now, are you hungry?’ and for the first time there was feeling in Martha’s tone as she answered, ‘Yes, mum.’
Soon a huge sirloin of cold beef was placed on the table and liberal helpings were being carved for the three children. It was such a joint of beef as one only sees in old pictures with an abbot carving; immense, and so rich in flavour and so tender that it seemed to melt in the mouth. The three plates were clean in a twinkling.
‘Would any of you like another helping?’
Laura, conscious that she was no principal in the affair, and only invited to partake out of courtesy, declined wistfully but firmly; Martha said she would like a little more if ‘mum’ pleased, and the little brother merely pushed his plate forward. Martha, mindful of her manners, refused a third helping. But the little brother had no such scruples; he was famishing, and accepted a third and a fourth plateful, the mistress of the house standing by with an amused smile on her face. She must have remembered him for the rest of her life as the little boy with the large appetite.
It was dark before they reached home, and Laura got into trouble, not only for spoiling her best boots, but still more for telling a lie, for she had led her mother to believe they were going into the market town shopping. But even when she lay in bed supperless she felt the experience was worth the punishment, for she had been where she had never been before and seen the old house and the lady in the scarlet jacket and tasted the beef and seen Tommy Beamish eat four large helpings.
After all, Martha did not go to live there. Her mother was not satisfied with her account of the place and her father heard the next day that the house was haunted. ‘She shan’t goo there while we’ve got a crust for her,’ said her Dad. ‘Not as I believes in ghostesses — lot o’ rubbish I calls ’em-but the child might think she seed summat and be scared out of her wits an’ maybe catch her death o’ cold in that girt, draughty, old kitchen.’
So Martha waited until two sisters, milliners in the market town, wanted a maid; and, once there, grew strong and rosy and, according to their report, learned to say a great deal more than ‘Yes, mum’; for their only complaint against her was that she was inclined to be saucy and sang so loudly about her work that the customers in the shop could hear her.
When the girls had been in their petty places a year, their mothers began to say it was time they ‘bettered themselves’ and the clergyman’s daughter was consulted. Did she know if a scullery-maid or a tweeny was required at any of the big country houses around? If not, she would wait until she had two or three such candidates for promotion on her list, then advertise in the Morning Post or the Church Times for situations for them. Other girls secured places through sisters or friends already serving in large establishments.
When the place was found, the girl set out alone on what was usually her first train journey, with her yellow tin trunk tied up with thick cord, her bunch of flowers and brown paper parcel bursting with left-overs.
The tin trunk would be sent on to the railway station by the carrier and the mother would walk the three miles to the station with her daughter. They would leave Lark Rise, perhaps before it was quite light on a winter morning, the girl in her best, would-be fashionable clothes and the mother carrying the baby of the family, rolled in its shawl. Neighbours would come to their garden gates to see them off and call after them ‘Pleasant journey! Hope you’ll have a good place!’ or ‘Mind you be a good gal, now, an’ does just as you be told!’ or, more comfortingly, ‘You’ll be back for y’r holidays before you knows where you are and then there won’t be no holdin’ you, you’ll have got that London proud!’ and the two would go off in good spirits, turning and waving repeatedly.
Laura once saw the departure of such a couple, the mother enveloped in a large plaid shawl, with her baby’s face looking out from its folds, and the girl in a bright blue, poplin frock which had been bought at the second-hand clothes shop in the town-a frock made in the extreme fashion of three years before, but by that time ridiculously obsolete. Laura’s mother, foreseeing the impression it would make at the journey’s end, shook her head and clicked her tongue and said, ‘Why ever couldn’t they spend the money on a bit of good navy serge!’ But they, poor innocents, were delighted with it.
They went off cheerfully, even proudly; but, some hours later, Laura met the mother returning alone. She was limping, for the sole of one of her old boots had parted company with the upper, and the eighteen-months-old child must have hung heavily on her arm. When asked if Aggie had gone off all right, she nodded, but could not answer; her heart was too full. After all, she was just a mother who had sent her young daughter into the unknown and was tormented with doubts and fears for her.
What the girl, bound for a strange and distant part of the country to live a new, strange life among strangers, felt when the train moved off with her can only be imagined. Probably those who saw her round, stolid little face and found her slow in learning her new duties for the next few days would have been surprised and even a little touched if they could have read her thoughts.
The girls who ‘went into the kitchen’ began as scullerymaids, washing up stacks of dishes, cleaning saucepans and dish covers, preparing vegetables, and doing the kitchen scrubbing and other rough work. After a year or two of this, they became under kitchen-maids and worked up gradually until they were second in command to the cook. When they reached that point, they did much of the actual cooking under supervision; sometimes they did it without any, for there were stories of cooks who never put hand to a dish, but, having taught the kitchen-maid, left all the cooking to her, excepting some spectacular dish for a dinner party. This pleased the ambitious kitchen-maid, for she was gaining experience and would soon be a professional cook herself; then, if she attained the summit of her ambition, cook-housekeeper.
Some girls preferred house to kitchen work, and they would be found a place in some mansion as third or fourth house-maid and work upward. Troops of men and maid-servants were kept in large town and country houses in those days.
The maids on the lower rungs of the ladder seldom saw their employers. If they happened to meet one or other of them about the house, her ladyship would ask kindly how they were getting on and how their parents were; or his lordship would smile and make some mild joke if he happened to be in a good humour. The upper servants were their real mistresses, and they treated beginners as a sergeant treated recruits, drilling them well in their duties by dint of much scolding; but the girl who was anxious to learn and did not mind hard work or hard words and could keep a respectful tongue in her head had nothing to fear from them.
The food of the maids in those large establishments was wholesome and abundant, though far from dainty. In some houses they would be given cold beef or mutton, or even hot Irish stew for breakfast, and the midday meal was always a heavy one, with suet pudding following a cut from a hot joint. Their bedrooms were poor according to modern standards; but, sleeping in a large attic, shared with two or three others, was not then looked upon as a hardship, provided they had a bed each and their own chest of drawers and washstands. The maids had no bathroom. Often their employers had none either. Some families had installed one for their own use; others preferred the individual tub in the bedroom. A hip-bath was part of the furniture of the maids’ room. Like the children of the family, they had no evenings out, unless they had somewhere definite to go and obtained special leave. They had to go to church on Sunday, whether they wanted to or not, and had to leave their best hats with the red roses and ostrich tips in the boxes under their beds and ‘make frights of themselves’ in funny little flat bonnets. When the Princess of Wales, afterwards Queen Alexandra, set the fashion of wearing the hair in a curled fringe over the forehead, and the fashion spread until it became universal, a fringe was forbidden to maids. They must wear their hair brushed straight back from their brows. A great hardship.
The wages paid would amuse the young housekeepers of today. At her petty place, a girl was paid from one to two shillings a week. A grown-up servant in a tradesman’s family received seven pounds a year, and that was about the wage of a farm-house servant. The Rectory cook had sixteen pounds a year; the Rectory house-maid twelve; both excellent servants. The under servants in big houses began at seven pounds a year, which was increased at each advancement, until, as head housemaid, they might receive as much as thirty. A good cook could ask fifty, and even obtain another five by threatening to leave. ‘Everybody who was anything,’ as they used to say, kept a maid in those days — stud grooms’ wives, village schoolmasters’ wives, and, of course, inn-keepers’ and shopkeepers’ wives. Even the wives of carpenters and masons paid a girl sixpence to clean the knives and boots and take out the children on Saturday.
As soon as a mother had even one daughter in service, the strain upon herself slackened a little. Not only was there one mouth less to feed, one pair of feet less to be shod, and a tiny space left free in the cramped sleeping quarters; but, every month, when the girl received her wages, a shilling or more would be sent to ‘our Mum’, and, as the wages increased, the mother’s portion grew larger. In addition to presents, some of the older girls undertook to pay their parents’ rent; others to give them a ton of coal for the winter; and all sent Christmas and birthday presents and parcels of left-off clothing.
The unselfish generosity of these poor girls was astonishing. It was said in the hamlet that some of them stripped themselves to help those at home. One girl did so literally. She had come for her holidays in her new best frock — a pale grey cashmere with white lace collar and cuffs. It had been much admired and she had obviously enjoyed wearing it during her fortnight at home; but when Laura said, ‘I do like your new frock, Clem,’ she replied in what was meant for an off-hand tone, ‘Oh, that! I’m leaving that for our young Sally. She hasn’t got hardly anything, and it don’t matter what I wear when I’m away. There’s nobody I care about to see it,’ and Clem went back in her second-best navy serge and Sally wore the pale grey to church the next Sunday.
Many of them must have kept themselves very short of money, for they would send half or even more of their wages home. Laura’s mother used to say that she would rather have starved than allow a child of hers to be placed at such a disadvantage among other girls at their places in service, not to mention the temptations to which they might be exposed through poverty. But the mothers were so poor, so barely able to feed their families and keep out of debt, that it was only human of them to take what their children sent and sometimes even pressed upon them.
Strange to say, although they were grateful to and fond of their daughters, their boys, who were always at home and whose money barely paid for their keep, seemed always to come first with them. If there was any inconvenience, it must not fall on the boys; if there was a limited quantity of anything, the boys must still have their full share; the boys’ best clothes must be brushed and put away for them; their shirts must be specially well ironed, and tit-bits must always be saved for their luncheon afield. No wonder the fathers were jealous at times and exclaimed, ‘Our Mum, she do make a reg’lar fool o’ that boo-oy!’
A few of the girls were engaged to youths at home, and, after several years of courtship, mostly conducted by letter, for they seldom met except during the girl’s summer holiday, they would marry and settle in or near the hamlet. Others married and settled away. Butchers and milkmen were favoured as husbands, perhaps because these were frequent callers at the houses where the girls were employed. A hamlet girl would marry a milkman or a butcher’s roundsman in London, or some other distant part of the country, and, after a few years, the couple would acquire a business of their own and become quite prosperous. One married a butler and with him set up an apartment house on the East Coast; another married a shopkeeper and, with astonishing want of tact, brought a nursemaid to help look after her children when she visited her parents. The nursemaid was invited into most of the cottages and well pumped for information about the home life; but Susie herself was eyed coldly; she had departed from the normal. The girls who had married away remained faithful to the old custom of spending a summer fortnight with their parents, and the outward and visible signs of their prosperity must have been trying to those who had married farm labourers and returned to the old style of living.
With the girls away, the young men of the hamlet would have had a dull time had there not been other girls from other homes in service within walking distance. On Sunday afternoons, those who were free would be off, dressed in their best, with their boots well polished and a flower stuck in the band of their Sunday hats, to court the dairy-maids at neighbouring farms or the under-servants at the big country houses. Those who were pledged would go upstairs to write their weekly love-letter, and a face might often be seen at an upper window, chewing a pen-holder and gazing sadly out at what must have appeared an empty world.
There were then no dances at village halls and no cinemas or cheap excursions to lead to the picking up of casual acquaintances; but, from time to time, one or other of the engaged youths would shock public opinion by walking out with another girl while his sweetheart was away. When taxed with not being ‘true to Nell’, he would declare it was only friendship or only a bit of fun; but Nell’s mother and his mother would think otherwise and upbraid him until the meetings were dropped or grew furtive.
But such sideslips were never mentioned when, at last, Nellie herself came home for her holiday. Then, every evening, neighbours peeping from behind window-curtains would see the couple come out of their respective homes and stroll in the same direction, but not together as yet, for that would have been thought too brazen. As soon as they were out of sight of the windows, they would link up, arm in arm, and saunter along field-paths between the ripening corn, or stand at stiles, whispering and kissing and making love until the dusk deepened and it was time for the girl to go home, for no respectable girl was supposed to be out after ten. Only fourteen nights of such bliss, and all the other nights of the year blank, and this not for one year, but for six or seven or eight. Poor lovers!
Mistresses used to say — and probably those who are fortunate enough to keep their maids from year to year still say — that the girls are sullen and absent-minded for the first few days after they return to their duties. No doubt they are, for their thoughts must still be with the dear ones left behind and the coming months must stretch out, an endless seeming blank, before they will see them again. That is the time for a little extra patience and a little human sympathy to help them to adjust themselves, and if this is forthcoming, as it still is in many homes, in spite of newspaper correspondence, the young mind will soon turn from memories of the past to hopes for the future.
The hamlet children saw little of such love-making. Had they attempted to follow or watch such couples, the young man would have threatened them with what he would have called ‘a good sock on the ear’ole’; but there was always a country courtship on view if they felt curious to witness it. This was that of an elderly pair called Chokey and Bess, who had at that time been walking out together for ten or twelve years and still had another five or six to go before they were married. Bessie, then about forty, was supposed not to be strong enough for service and lived at home, doing the housework for her mother, who was the last of the lacemakers. Chokey was a farm labourer, a great lumbering fellow who could lift a sack of wheat with ease, but was supposed to be ‘a bit soft in the upper storey’. He lived in a neighbouring village and came over every Sunday.
Bessie’s mother sat at the window with her lace-pillow all day long; but her earnings must have been small, for, although her husband received the same wages as the men who had families and they had only Bess, they were terribly poor. It was said that when the two women fried a rasher for their midday meal, the father being away at work, they took it in turn to have the rasher, the other one dipping her bread in the fat, day and day about. When they went out, they wore clothes of a bygone fashion, shawls and bonnets, instead of coats and hats, and short skirts and white stockings, when the rest of the hamlet world wore black stockings and skirts touching the ground. To see them set off to the market town for their Saturday shopping always raised a smile among the beholders; the mother carrying an old green gig umbrella and Bessie a double-lidded marketing basket over her arm. They were both long-faced and pale, and the mother lifted her feet high and touched earth with her umbrella at every step, while Bess trailed along a little in the rear with the point of her shawl dangling below her skirt at the back. ‘For all the world like an old white mare an’ her foal,’ as the hamlet funny man said.
Every Sunday evening, Chokey and Bess would appear, he in his best pale grey suit and pink tie, with a geranium, rose, or dahlia stuck in his hat. She in her Paisley shawl and little black bonnet with velvet strings tied in a bow under her chin. They were not shy. It was arm in arm with them from the door, and often a pale grey arm round the Paisley shawl before they were out of sight of the windows; although, to be sure, nobody took the trouble to watch, the sight was too familiar.
They always made for the turnpike and strolled a certain distance along it, then turned back and went to Bessie’s home. They seldom walked unattended; a little band of hamlet children usually accompanied them, walking about a dozen paces behind, stopping when they stopped and walking on when they walked on. ‘Going with Chokey and Bess’ was a favourite Sunday evening diversion. As one batch of children grew up, another took its place; though what amusement they found in following them was a mystery, for the lovers would walk a mile without exchanging a remark, and when they did it would only be: ‘Seems to me there’s rain in the air’, or ‘My! ain’t it hot!’ They did not seem to resent being followed. They would sometimes address a friendly remark to one of the children, or Chokey would say as he shut the garden gate on setting out, ‘Comin’ our way to-night?’
At last came their funny little wedding, with Bess still in the Paisley shawl, and only her father and mother to follow them on foot through the allotments and over the stile to church. After a wedding breakfast of sausages, they went to live in a funny little house with a thatched roof and a magpie in a wicker cage hanging beside the door.
The up-to-date lovers asked more of life than did Chokey and his Bess. More than their own parents had done.
There was a local saying, ‘Nobody ever dies at Lark Rise and nobody goes away.’ Had this been exact, there would have been no new homes in the hamlet; but, although no building had been done there for many years and there was no migration of families, a few aged people died, and from time to time a cottage was left vacant. It did not stand empty long, for there was always at least one young man waiting to get married and the joyful news of a house to let brought his bride-to-be home from service as soon as the requisite month’s notice to her employer had expired.
The homes of these newly married couples illustrated a new phase in the hamlet’s history. The furniture to be found in them might lack the solidity and comeliness of that belonging to their grandparents; but it showed a marked improvement on their parents’ possessions.
It had become the custom for the bride to buy the bulk of the furniture with her savings in service, while the bridegroom redecorated the interior of the house, planted the vegetable garden, and put a pig, or a couple of pigs, in the sty. When the bride bought the furniture, she would try to obtain things as nearly as possible like those in the houses in which she had been employed. Instead of the hard windsor chairs of her childhood’s home, she would have small ‘parlour’ chairs with round backs and seats covered with horsehair or American cloth. The deal centre table would be covered with a brightly coloured woollen cloth between meals and cookery operations. On the chest of drawers which served as a sideboard, her wedding presents from her employers and fellow servants would be displayed — a best tea-service, a shaded lamp, a case of silver tea-spoons with the lid propped open, or a pair of owl pepper-boxes with green-glass eyes and holes at the top of the head for the pepper to come through. Somewhere in the room would be seen a few books and a vase or two of flowers. The two wicker arm-chairs by the hearth would have cushions and antimacassars of the bride’s own working.
Except in a few cases, and those growing fewer, where the first child of a marriage followed immediately on the ceremony, the babies did not pour so quickly into these new homes as into the older ones. Often more than a year would elapse before the first child appeared, to be followed at reasonable intervals by four or five more. Families were beginning to be reckoned in half-dozens rather than dozens.
Those belonging to this new generation of housewives were well-trained in household work. Many of them were highly skilled in one or other of its branches. The young woman laying her own simple dinner table with knives and forks only could have told just how many knives, forks, spoons, and glasses were proper to each place at a dinner party and the order in which they should be placed. Another, blowing on her finger-tips to cool them as she unswathed the inevitable roly-poly, must have thought of the seven-course dinners she had cooked and dished up in other days. But, except for a few small innovations, such as a regular Sunday joint, roasted before the fire if no oven were available, and an Irish stew once in the week, they mostly reverted to the old hamlet dishes and style of cooking them. The square of bacon was cut, the roly-poly made, and the black cooking-pot was slung over the fire at four o’clock; for wages still stood at ten shillings a week and they knew that their mothers’ way was the only way to nourish their husbands and children on so small a sum.
In decorating their homes and managing their housework, they were able to let themselves go a little more. There were fancy touches, hitherto unknown in the hamlet. Cosy corners were built of old boxes and covered with cretonne; gridirons were covered with pink wool and tinsel and hung up to serve as letter racks; Japanese fans appeared above picture frames and window curtains were tied back with ribbon bows. Blue or pink ribbon bows figured largely in these new decorative schemes. There were bows on the curtains, on the corners of cushion covers, on the cloth that covered the chest of drawers, and sometimes even on photograph frames. Some of the older men used to say that one bride, an outstanding example of the new refinement, had actually put blue ribbon bows on the handle of her bedroom utensil. Another joke concerned the vase of flowers the same girl placed on her table at mealtimes. Her father-in-law, it was said, being entertained to tea at the new home, exclaimed, ‘Hemmed if I’ve ever heard of eatin’ flowers before!’ and the mother-in-law passed the vase to her son, saying, ‘Here, Georgie. Have a mouthful of sweet peas.’ But the brides only laughed and tossed their heads at such ignorance. The old hamlet ways were all very well, some of them; but they had seen the world and knew how things were done. It was their day now.
Changing ideas in the outer world were also reflected in the relationship between husband and wife. Marriage was becoming more of a partnership. The man of the house was no longer absolved of all further responsibility when he had brought his week’s wages home; he was made to feel that he had an interest in the management of the home and the bringing up of the children. A good, steady husband who could be depended upon was encouraged to keep part of his wages, out of which he paid the rent, bought the pig’s food, and often the family footwear. He would chop the wood, sweep the path and fetch water from the well.
‘So you be takin’ a turn at ‘ooman’s work?’ the older men would say teasingly, and the older women had plenty to say about the lazy, good-for-nothing wenches of these days; but the good example was not lost; the better-natured among the older men began to do odd jobs about their homes, and though, at first, their wives would tell them to ‘keep out o’ th’ road’, and say that they could do it themselves in half the time, they soon learned to appreciate, then to expect it.
Then the young wives, unused to never having a penny of their own and sorely tried by their straitened housekeeping, began to look round for some way of adding to the family income. One, with the remains of her savings, bought a few fowls and fowl-houses and sold the eggs to the grocer in the market town. Another who was clever with her needle made frocks for the servants at the neighbouring farm-houses; another left her only child with her mother and did the Rectory charring twice a week. The old country tradition of self-help was reviving; but, although there was a little extra money and there were fewer mouths to feed, the income was still woefully inadequate. Whichever way the young housewife turned, she was, as she said, ‘up against it’. ‘If only we had more money!’ was still the cry.
Early in the ‘nineties some measure of relief came, for then the weekly wage was raised to fifteen shillings; but rising prices and new requirements soon absorbed this rise and it took a world war to obtain for them anything like a living wage.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00