Shetland Life History: Past Life

From Shetland Life, September 1983, No. 35

Domestic Service before the war
by Catherine Robertson

I liked my job as a machine-knitter, and loved the weekly “hops”, but now that I had mastered the intricacies of the knitting-machine, I knew it was like riding a bike – once learned, you never lose it. So I wanted a change – I wanted “To See The World”.

That’s how I came to be sitting in the steerage of the “North Boat”, next to the livestock section, bound for Leith. What with the “baain” of sheep, “bruillin” of kye, and the exasperated blowing of horses, there wasn’t much sleep but a trio of fiddlers, on their way to the South Shetlands, made it bearable. They, too, like me, were going into the unknown.

Eventually, dawn came, with the clanking of chains and stamping of feet overhead. Ships don’t have soundproof walls, and there must be a reason for that. With the others, I stepped ashore, clutching my brand new suitcase, price 7/6, and looked around me. Was this my New World – Leith Docks on a cold and freezing October morning? I was suddenly assailed with a crushing attack of homesickness – what was I doing here? But I couldn’t go back, I had got myself a job in Domestic Service, hadn’t I? I looked again at the grey depressing scene. Lay-a-bouts were standing around, completely motionless, like tigers in a zoo. People and animals are more frightening like that than if they are rushing around.

With some relief, I got myself up to the station, got a train at last and heaving my fine new suitcase on the luggage-rack, sat back to have a look at the scenery before I fell asleep. Off we went, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, until finally I arrived at Barford, in green and lush Warwickshire.

It was not far from the station to the largest house I had ever been in, my new “home from home”. I was met at the door by the Mistress, holding in her arms a small dog with a long-suffering expression on its face, which she introduced to me as Teegris. Having done that I was led into the kitchen where the scullery maid showed me to my quarters.

I was the “in-between” maid, or “tweeny” as they were called, the name being self-explanatory – I was “between” everything, but never staying long. I was issued with a plain white apron and plain white cap. The lace-trimmed uniform was for the parlour maid – I wondered if I would ever graduate to that. Getting up at 6.15am polishing boots and brass, shaking mats, carrying coal, lighting the kitchen range, scrubbing the floor and occasionally wiping up Teegris puddles (he barked all day as well) it seemed very unlikely.

The scullery maid liked an unusual breakfast, consisting of some raw oatmeal in a bowl of milk on top of which she had a boiled beetroot which she proceeded to cut into slices, all the red gooey stuff seeping in among the oatmeal mixture. On top of that she spread butter and brown sugar, and sometimes cloves and cinnamon. She, the gardener and myself, had breakfast in the kitchen; the parlour maid, housekeeper and cook had theirs in the Morning Room. The gardener brought in the beetroot which was boiled the previous evening. I just heard him saying five words in the six months I was there – “Have you got a match?” After three mornings of watching the breakfast ritual – even worse when Teegris came in, and the scullery maid (I never knew her name) would spit out a portion which the dog caught expertly – I made an excuse to make up my bed and tidy up my room, then came back and had mine when they had finished. I did not have much time, as I had to wash up the Morning Room’s breakfast things, but it was worth it not to be sick.

One day I was polishing the front door brasses when the Mistress stopped on her way out and said “Have you missed Teegris – have you heard?”

Teegris! Now I came to think of it, there had been a peaceful feeling about the house lately. “Oh, yes, Teegris, yea, I have missed him,” I lied.

“They’ve put him down, you know – an internal complaint.”

“I suppose you will be getting another dog, Madam?”

“Another dog!” she retorted. “How can you say such a thing. There will never be another dog like Teegris.”

I supposed not. Maybe just as well, I thought. She produced a minute lace-trimmed hanky, wiped her eyes, smiled a watery smile, and went off to wherever ladies of leisure went to.

The Master of the house was “something” in Agricultural Machinery Equipment Manufacture, which meant he was the head of it. He was actually hardly ever seen around the house, but we were aware he was there, as things were moved from where we had put them. He was like a benevolent aura hovering around, keeping things discreetly as they should be, without confrontation.

I never did see the inside of the dining room. What they ate was a mystery – that was the parlour maid’s domain. And what the cook was doing, we never saw, as we were busy elsewhere in the house, and I never was in any bedroom except my own.

The village was lovely, rather like a Constable painting with a church and steeple, an avenue of lilac and cherry-blossom, a huge oak tree, a duck pond, a bowling green, seats for the elderly, some Tudor cottages, horses grazing contentedly, children playing with hoops and marbles – such was Barford.

My next venture in domestic service was at Corstorphine St. in Edinburgh. It was a smaller house – just one washer-woman and myself. I had the run of the house from top to bottom – nine rooms and mine, which was little more than a cubby hole. One room had to be turned-out each day, except on my half-day and Sunday. That meant two weeks between each room, but with dusting, polishing and cleaning silver, in between. There were seven pairs of boots and shoes to clean every morning – they had five sons, mostly school age. They had been in India for many years, so she did most of the cooking herself, as it was mostly Indian fare. She was a good mistress as mistresses went, and I stayed with them quite a while.

My next place was with a headmaster in Heriot Row. He presented me with, would you believe it, a lace-trimmed apron and a perky lace-trimmed cap, but I had a sneaking suspicion it had belonged to the previous maid. However, I soon found he was the best boss I had ever had in domestic service. I did things in my own way and there was no complaint.

He did not say that the custard was ghastly, the toast burned, the tea weak or the soup too thick. Sometimes they were, so discretion being the better part of valour I discreetly disappeared after serving them up. I knew he was too much of a gentleman to come into the kitchen and accuse me.

It was a quiet and lonely kind of house, and I found myself thinking a lot about home, and as if by telepathy, I soon had to prepare for going home on compassionate grounds.

Sitting on the upper deck of a tram going down Princes Street in the early morning to catch the North Boat, with the sun shining, the air like wine, the birds singing, I felt absolutely wonderful. I was free! I knew with certainty I would never be back in domestic service.

The date was May, 1939.


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