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Domestic service

Throughout the C19th and well into the C20th, domestic service was the largest single source of employment for young women nationally and locally.  For example, in the 1881 census for Ipswich, nearly half the female workforce was recorded as being in domestic service (3431 out of 7592 women workers) either as live-in servants or as daily help.  Most of the live-in servants were recorded in just two parishes, St Matthew’s and St Margaret’s, where there were many comfortably-off households with sufficient rooms and household income to accommodate and pay for domestic staff.  Poorer parishes like St Helen’s and St Clements tended to ‘export’ servants to these more affluent areas.

Although many young women left domestic service for factory work during the First World War, in peacetime their jobs were frequently reclaimed by demobbed servicemen.  This meant a return to domestic service for many working women, whether they liked it or not. In the 1920s and 30s, it appears from census data that the number of Ipswich women working as domestic servants fell but, even so, still amounted to over one third of the local female workforce.

During the Second World War, women were again called on for war work in factories and a variety of other non-traditional female occupations.  This time, however, they did not go back to domestic service in peacetime in large numbers.  By 1951, only 5% of working women nationally were in domestic service. 


Many girls grew up helping their mothers with domestic duties and so learned at their elbows.  Families tended to be large and there were very few labour-saving devices except for daughters.  For example, Mrs Cox, born in 1905, rarely went to school.  As the oldest girl in the family, she was kept at home to help her mother. Later, she went into service as a non-residential maid of all work before getting married. She never learned to read or write fluently.

Some girls – usually the poorest of the poor - did have formal training. In Ipswich, several establishments provided this, including the Girls’ Industrial School for ‘penitent’ girls in Black Horse Lane, the Oglivie Girls Home and Hope House orphanage.

The foundations of Hope House were laid in Foxhall Road in 1882, new and larger premises for Harriet Grimwade’s orphanage which was moving from St Clement’s Church Lane. (There is more on Harriet Grimwade in my Votes for Women section.)  It was designed to take up to fifty poverty-stricken girls, mostly from Ipswich, and train them so that they could earn a living in later life.

'The girls are, as a rule, are trained for domestic service, and do all the work of the house under the supervision of the Matron, who takes every care to make them thoroughly good servants.  They receive a plain elementary education, learn to make and to mend their own clothing, and are also taught to knit.'

All admissions were decided by the Management Committee which met frequently. Girls’ relatives were expected to make a financial contribution to their upkeep. Sometimes a particular girl would be sponsored by a church congregation with members each paying a few pence towards her fees. As girls’ places needed to be funded, often the orphanage was not full.  There was no fixed age for admission, but the Management Committee preferred them to be ‘quite young’ as the younger the girl, the easier she fitted in. 

Until the 1920s, Hope House girls were schooled within the orphanage by their own teachers.  (There are photos of the schoolroom at SRO DD5/2/4),  After this time, the schoolroom closed and they learned their 3Rs at Clifford Road School although they continued to learn domestic skills at the home.

The Orphanage always prided itself on its standards and success.  As an early C20th Annual Report stated:

‘in most cases the girls look forward to entering good domestic employment.  There is always a demand for girls trained at Hope House.’

There was less need for the orphanage after the state widow's benefits were introduced in 1925.  This coincided with the gradual decline in domestic service.  Hope House closed around the time of the Second World War and became a hostel for girls serving with the Woman's Land Army.


Domestic service was characterised by its low status, poor pay, long hours and entailed hard, dirty, physical labour.  In addition, women in residential service had very little privacy - their lives were quite different from other young female workers.   Servants worked for all sorts of people in society – from dukes, to doctors, to businessmen and pub landlords.  In the grandest houses, they would be part of a huge establishment of precisely stratified and specialised staff under the housekeeper.   In the smallest, one woman would have to do the lot .  

A maid of all work photographed for Living London by George Robert Sims 







Mrs Roper, born in Ipswich in 1895, described her hateful experience as a live-in servant in an interview for the Suffolk Voices Project.  She loathed the long hours and hard work and had little respect for her employers:

‘In the First World War, I went into service in Finsbury Park for a Mr and Mrs Morris. I got the job through an advert in the paper. They made me work all the time – scrubbing on my hands and knees, blacking those old-fashioned stoves, doing the laundry, making the tea and so on.  Their son was a boozer and their daughters had lots of gentlemen callers.  I was always answering the door. … I had no time off.  When Mother came down and saw me, she took me home it was so bad. Then I went on munitions in Ipswich at Tibbenhams in Portman Road. There were eight of us girls – great spirit!’

One of the pinnacles of domestic service was becoming a lady’s maid.  Mrs Hardy recalled that her mother passed the scholarship in the 1920s but her parents did not allow her to take the place.  She was a bright woman so, although she went into domestic service, she rose to be a lady’s maid. She would have been hired by and reported directly to the mistress of the house, rather than the housekeeper. Required qualities would have been a pleasant manner and appearance, good written and spoken skills and to be loyal and trustworthy to her mistress.

Unknown lady’s maid, 1920s.  Ladies’ maids were often isolated in the household.  Her station remained down among the servants although she worked intimately with the highest-ranking female in the house.




Some married women did domestic work from home to boost the family income.  Working from home meant they were on hand to provide family services.  For example, Charlotte Alderton took in mangling in the 1870s and 80s to support her disabled husband.  He wrote in his journal:

‘Bought a old mangle.  It was an old wreck.  Did not give much for it - had to have new end chains.  I scrubbed it, paint and grained it.  Looked up to mark.  That is a good many years ago.  Mother worked that a good many years. …  She only earned about 1s 6d a week mangling, so we had not much money to fly about with.’ (Joe Alderton)

And into the twentieth century, Mrs Harvey recalled:

‘Mother used to take in mangling.  She’d charge 2d for a great big basket.  Us kids fetched and carried it, tied on to our pram.’

Getting a situation

Hope House helped its girls secure their first job.  There was no fixed age for sending girls out into paid service.  The Management Committee would decide, depending on individual circumstances.  If the job didn't work out, girls could come back to the orphanage until they found another post.  Some girls took jobs overseas and worked in Canada and Australia.

Ads in the paper and agencies



Prospective employers could, and often did, specify the age, height and religious denomination of applicants.  Here, a tall girl is required at St Helen's House and an Anglican in Yoxford.  (Situation vacant ads, East Anglian Daily Times, November 1908)




Word of mouth

Often a recommendation would have been given in the course of a simple conversation between two employers but sometimes prospective mistresses went to greater lengths to find out more.  For example, Mrs Elizabeth Cotton, a farmer’s wife living just outside Ipswich in Washbrook, wrote in her diary that she often spoke to previous employers when choosing new domestic staff.  For example, in March 1862, she travelled seven miles to Tattingstone ‘to hear the character of Miss Cooper’.  Mrs Cotton took on Miss Cooper on the strength of the recommendation but the young woman left within three weeks.  This was a common pattern for Mrs Cotton.  Her diary is full of cooks, housekeepers and parlour maids coming and going.  No-one stayed long.  Over the years, she dismissed staff  for quarrelling, drunkenness, dishonesty.  Perhaps she was a bad judge of character, a difficult employer - or the wages she paid were just too low.

To be continued ...


Sources include

SRO records

UK Census returns and tables

Diary of a Suffolk Farmer's Wife, 1854-1869 by Sheila Hardy (Macmillan Academic, 1992)