The Canterbury Ladies’ Slaves

Imagine you were born 100 years ago… what job would you have done?

If you are female, part of the working class and living in England, then there is a one in three chance that you would be part of the largest women’s industry in the Kingdom – domestic service.

Maid at work in kitchen
Maid at work in kitchen, 1915. Source: The Press. Photograph taken circa 1915, probably in Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-017707-G

If you are under fifteen years of age, you would be earning around £6 a year. If aged sixteen to twenty years old, £17.  For older servants, it is highly likely you won’t be receiving over £20 for your labours. However,  your position will be ‘all found’, meaning food and lodging are taken care of, and that counts for £15-20 per annum. 1 In addition, if you are lucky, you might “receive quite a large sum in the year in tips from visitors”.2

You might be thinking you would be better off joining the ranks of girls who ‘go out‘ to work – and become a shop girl, typist or clerk. “To most girls of the present day, the factory or shop offer superior inducements than domestic service. They pay higher wages than the housewife, and hold out other attractions in the shape of more license and freedom.”3

‘What girls wanted was freedom to use the bathroom, permission to receive their sweethearts at the mistresses’ homes, better regulation of hours and also the prevention of loneliness by the establishment of a domestics’ club. Many were opposed to the inconvenience and indignity of being compelled to have a bath in their own small rooms, when they might easily use the bathroom. It was shown that scores would not enter service because of class prejudice between servants and business girls. There was more snobbery in domestic service than elsewhere. One witness (reporting to an inquiry by the British Ministry of Labour) said there was a big “black list” of mistresses, where offices would not send domestics on account of their treatment. He was convinced that mistresses were no longer the good housekeepers they used to be. A training course for mistresses was wanted.” 4

NZ wants domestic servants
New Zealand wants domestic servants, poster. 1912. Source: High Commission (Great Britain). Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: Eph-A-IMMIGRATION-1912-cover

You’ve heard that there is a shortage of domestics in the Colonies, so you decide to try your luck in New Zealand.

The British Women’s Emigration Association will offer you a contract of work with the Canterbury Syndicate of Ladies. You will receive an advance on the £14 16s cost of your passage to New Zealand, and the C.S.L will find you a suitable position when you arrive. In return, you must agree to take a position for twelve months, for which you will be paid no less than 15s a week, and to repay the passage at 16s a month. If you break the contract, you will be fined £2, and you also must pay a £2 10s fee if you take a position outside the Syndicate, which you must not do without the Syndicate secretary’s permission, giving one month’s written notice.

You board a ship to New Zealand full of new hopes and dreams of your new life, but ignorant of local conditions.

After an arduous trip out, you hear talk that some girls who have come before you have complained that they are no more than ‘syndicate slaves’, with no choice over where they were sent and the type of work they would be doing. They warn that if you are used to working in a large house with other domestics, you may well find yourself in a sole charge position in the country, performing duties you are not trained for, under the command of an overbearing mistress. 5

You may well be treated fairly by your employer, but benevolent employers are a rarity, such as Allen McLean of Holly Lea, who left money in his will to the domestic staff he employed. Even domestics who had been in his employ for less than a year received the equivalent of around three years wages – £30. His housekeeper, Emily Philips, was able to retire in grand style on the large stipend she was left.

If unlucky, you could find yourself alone, far from your family, like poor Catherine Hastie, a domestic from the country without money or friends. In desperation, she was seen taking herself to the beach where she threw herself into the surf, only to be rescued – and likely face a charge of attempted suicide. 6

Abuse, Deaths and Thefts

Newspapers of the day are not short of salacious stories of suicides, infanticides, deaths from miscarriages, ‘illegal procedures’ and thefts – mostly involving young female domestic servants.

Some ‘domestics’ give into temptation, like Annie Gordon. Employed as a domestic at Riccarton, she was charged with stealing her employer, Charles Owen’s gold watch, guard and a shirt, valued at £4 15s. She was also charged with committing mischief by wilfully damaging two panes of glass in her mistress’ house, value 12s.

Annie was reported to have felt ‘her position keenly’. Through her tears she listened to the evidence against her and then pleaded guilty. The stolen articles had been recovered. She was convicted, discharge and ordered to pay 23s, damage done to the watch, and 12s, the value of the broken windows. 7

Fire is a constant problem for domestics. Working in close conditions wearing long bulky dresses, it was relatively easy for a domestic’s garments to catch fire, causing dreadful and sometimes fatal burns.

Violet Reid, parlour maid in the home of the Woodruffs in Middleton, had come to Christchurch to work from her home in the Wairarapa. She was lighting the stove fire with kerosene when the resulting flash set her cotton clothes alight. The cook, Priscilla Prendergast and Mr Woodruff, hearing her screams, rushed to her aid and put the fire out with the aid of a sheepskin rug. Violet was conveyed to hospital, where she died from shock. She was only 26 years of age. 8

Another who ‘felt her position keenly’ was young Ethel Bright, a domestic in the service of the Danish Consul and Christchurch chemist, Emil Skog and his wife Ann, who lived in Montreal Street.

Ethel had gone to Strange and Co and ordered clothes for herself, instructing the sales assistant to charge them to a former mistress, claiming they were for her. Strange and Co were quick to discover her wrongdoing and threatened her with police arrest for attempting to obtain goods using false pretences. So distressed was she that three days later she consumed a part bottle of spirit of salts, taken from the bathroom, in an attempt to ‘escape the consequences’. Mrs Skogs discovered her staggering about in the kitchen before falling unconscious. Prompt medical assistance averted fatal consequences. A charge of Attempting to Commit Suicide followed. Unlike Catherine Hastie, Ethel had a supportive family, and she was discharged into the care of her mother who took her home to Ashburton. 9

Domestic servants are also vulnerable to becoming abused and victims of their employers crimes. Jane Stanley, a domestic employed by a Mrs Williams in Christchurch, was assaulted and beaten by her mistress’ son, Frederick. Arising one Sunday morning, he found that Jane had not made his breakfast and punished her accordingly. The evidence against Frederick was corroborated by a lad who had witnessed the affray. Frederick was fined 40s and costs, but said he could not pay, so received 96 hours hard labour instead. It seems that Frederick  had a history of treating Jane badly, and he had told the Magistrate that Jane had threatened to “stick him with a knife” on a number of occasions, to which the Magistrate replied “Well, I don’t wonder at it.” 10

The young Irish domestic maid, Margaret Burke, paid the ultimate price whilst employed in the home of ‘Ready Money Robinson’ in Christchurch. What appeared to be ‘harmless taunting’ by the maids, Simon Cedano, the butler, lost his mind and went after Margaret and another maid with a knife, on January 9th, 1871, killing Margaret and brutally injuring the other.

Burnham Industrial School Dining Room
Girls training for domestic service in the Dining Room at the Burnham Industrial School, circa 1921. Source: The Imperial album of New Zealand scenery, p. 126. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 12, IMG0025
Burnham Industrial School

‘Any child found wandering about or frequenting any street, thoroughfare, or any public place, or sleeping in the open air, not having any house or settled abode; any child residing in any brothel, or dwelling with any prostitute, habitual drunkard, or person committed of vagrancy’ was likely to end up as a ward of the State. Orphans and delinquents lived side by side in Industrial Schools, the largest one was located at Burnham.

Boys received training to become farm labourers, whilst girls were taught the duties of the domestic servant, with the goal that they will be ‘put into service‘. When employed, they were entitled to receive food, lodging, clothing and pay, but in reality they were treated as a source of free or cheap labour. “Industrial children receive little charity from the public and too often victimised by their employers. They are worse off than the ordinary servant because of the prevalent feeling that they are somehow an inferior order of being“. 11

Fair play for domestic servants
A maid at work, 1908
A maid of all work, 1908. Source: The Canterbury times, 9 Dec. 1908, p. 46. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0091.

“In this age of reform, when there is so much agitation to lessen the hours of labour, there is one class which has been forgotten viz., domestic servants, who all along have had a hard time of it.” wrote ‘Fair play’ to the Evening Post in February, 1893.

“It is a well-known fact that very many of them have a stretch of from 14 to 16 hours daily. I have known ladies (save the mark) who would not allow their domestics to rest a little, at times when it was absolutely necessary, and the poor creatures dare not remonstrate, for fear of being turned away without a proper reference. I know at present a case in which the young woman has to sleep at home to make room for visitors nothing wrong in that, but if she is not at her post about 6 a.m. she is severely scolded. After being let go home the previous evening after 10 o’clock, on one occasion, she had to go home alone between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning. Such treatment is enough to ruin the health of anyone, and it is high time a remedy was found for this state of thing.” 12

It is no wonder that a high number of patients committed to ‘lunatic asylums‘ throughout New Zealand during the 1890s was dominated by domestic servants. 13

The last social survival of serfdom

“The present system of domestic service is, broadly speaking, the last social survival of serfdom.” wrote Miss Jessie Mackay, famous poet, pioneer feminist, idealist and woman editor of the Canterbury Times. She wrote a paper supporting the idea of a weekly half-holiday for domestics, which was presented at a meeting of the National Council of Women in May, 1901.

By this time, many women have entered into industrial life where they have specified holidays during the year, and a weekly half-holiday. This had prompted the National Council of Women to petition for a legally entitled weekly half-holiday for domestic servants. The “Domestic Servants’ Half Holiday Bill” had been originally proposed in 1895 by Mr J. W. Kelly, M.P. for Invercargill, as an amendment to the Shop and Shop Assistants’ Act. It was designed to give servants the same right enjoyed by male and female employees in shops and factories. The Bill passed through two readings in the Lower House, before going before “the gentlemen of the Upper House, who are not concerned about the servants’ votes“, where it was subsequently ‘killed’ in a 21 to 8 vote.

Jessie Mackay
Miss Jessie Mackay, champion of the domestic servant, poet, pioneer feminist, idealist and woman editor of the Canterbury Times. 1905. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library ID: 1/4-017416-F

Miss Mackay writes about the domestic,

“..at least six times out of ten that she is spoken to, and naturally looked upon, as a helot, an inferior. I speak more particularly of the largest class of servants, the Jill of all trades whom we call the general. Her day begins some time between half-past four and six a.m. There is a wild scurry of black-leading, sweeping, dusting, polishing door-plates, washing supper dishes, taking to the bedrooms and cooking before 8 o’clock breakfast. From Monday to Saturday a constant round of duties keeps her on her feet with little intermission till 7.30 p.m. at least, and seldom ends entirely till 9 or after.”

If the ‘general‘ domestic maid was fortunate to have a considerate employee, she will enjoy a reasonable amount of time off during the afternoon or evening, even though she may be expected to spend it indoors ‘attending to the door bell and tea tray‘ or outside attending to small children.

“As to Sunday,” wrote Mackay, “extra cooking, extra visitors, and late suppers often make it a day as hard as ordinary, and probably longer.”

At the same meeting, Christina Henderson, another Christchurch feminist and social reformer, stated that “in Christchurch, domestic service was looked upon as degrading; at dances, social gatherings, etc. ‘domestics’ were ‘tabooed’.”  She was adamant that all girls should receive instruction in domestic science, including ‘educated girls’, a concept that was supported amongst her peers in the Council. Many were also advocates of the Eight Hours’ Bill for domestic servants, which Miss Makay described as “an ideal for the future“. 14


Sources: Papers Past

  1. Emma Brewer, writing in ‘The Girl’s Own Paper” 1901, Wages of Domestic Servants.
  2. Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXI, Issue 5442, 10 August 1901, Page 2.
  3. Star , Issue 7240, 29 October 1901, Page 2
  4. Unpalatable Truths. Evening Post, Volume CV, Issue 131, 4 June 1923, Page 7
  5. “Mary Ann” Revolts. Marlborough Express, Volume XLVI, Issue 263, 6 November 1912, Page 6
  6. Star , Issue 6022, 2 September 1887, Page 4
  7. Star , Issue 6387, 18 January 1899, Page 3
  8. Star , Issue 6509, 12 June 1899, Page 3
  9. Star , Issue 6408, 11 February 1899, Page 5
  10. Star , Issue 3382, 10 February 1879, Page 2. Star , Issue 3383, 11 February 1879, Page 2.
  11. Otago Witness , Issue 2380, 19 October 1899, Page 61
  12. OVER-WORKED DOMESTICS. Evening Post, Volume XLV, Issue 41, 18 February 1893, Page 2
  13. LUNACY IN NEW ZEALAND. Auckland Star, Volume XXI, Issue 170, 21 July 1890, Page 2. Thames Star, Volume XXIX, Issue 8930, 30 November 1897, Page 2
  14. THE DOMESTIC SERVANT QUESTION. Wanganui Chronicle, 16 May 1901, Page 2.
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