Working in Service
The three episodes in this programme follow Martha Tibbot as she begins a new life as a maid in a big country house in the 1870s.
One of the most common jobs for a girl in Victorian times was going ‘into service’ - which meant becoming a maid in the house of a wealthier family. Servants were common in Victorian times and a wealthy family in a large house might employ several different servants - butlers, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners and several different types of maid – while even middle class families often had one maid, called a ‘maid of all work’.
Girls often went into service aged just 12 or 13, sometimes younger. Girls from rural villages were in demand as maids, as it was often thought that they would work harder than children from cities.
It was common for young girls to be placed in a house 30 or 40 kilometres away from their family home because it made it harder for her to run away to be with her family again.
1. Martha’s first day
It is Martha’s first day as a maid. She arrives at ‘the big house’ at 7 in the morning and is met by Mrs Arnett, the housekeeper. She changes into uniform and is introduced to Mr Jones - the butler - and to Sally, a chambermaid.
When Sally plays a trick on Martha by spreading ash on her pinafore she knows her knew life is going to present some challenges...
2. Martha’s duties
It is a little later and Sally has begun to learn her daily routine as a maid: up at 6, then constant work until about 10 in the evening, with just half a day off on Sunday to recover. She has also learnt some of the rules of being in ‘service’ from Mrs Arnett: always ‘give room’ to the members of the household; never speak to any of them unless asked a question; no friends or family to visit.
One day Martha is helping Sally when a mirror belonging to her ladyship – smuggled into some bedclothes – falls to the ground and smashes. Clearly Sally was trying to steal the mirror but she attempts to put the blame on Martha. Mrs Arnett is able to deduce what has happened and Sally is dismissed on the spot.
3. Christmas for servants
Martha’s first Christmas is approaching and she is feeling lonely. She would like to be spending Christmas Day with her family just a few miles away, but this year Martha will be expected to work throughout the festivities.
Mrs Arnett and Mr Jones take pity on Martha. While carols are being sung upstairs, the servants downstairs organise their own Christmas celebrations...and at the height of the celebrations Martha’s family arrive at the servant’s entrance.