Remember the kitchen maid? The one that went to Australia? The minutes of the St.Mark College have preserved her memory, but what of the maid herself. Who was she and what kind of person was she? The lack of details prevents us from getting anything concrete about her, but we can at least make some educated guesses. I present to you, the portrait of the kitchen maid of the college of St. Mark:
The record says that her service was long and faithful. She probably started young, maybe about fifteen. A long service might imply anything from five to ten years. She was about to receive books worth one pound, and that would be a little less than a month’s wages- a substantial amount. That’s not something you give a person that was with you for about five years. Let’s say she is about twenty five then, been with the College for a long time, maybe even since it was opened. A hard life filled with never-ending work, but the gift suggests that she was treated well.
She is going to Australia, but why? Was her husband sent ‘down under’ and she followed him there? But it is a bit late and the large transportations already ended. Except for Western Australia, you could be sent there as a convict as late as 1868. Or was it something else? Gold rush maybe, 1851 was the year they officially found gold in Australia. Were they going to find their fortune in a place where there would be no social standards to bind them to life in servitude? Whichever it was, I’d say she was a person of a substantial courage.
The board decided to gift her books. Books, not a bible. Our kitchen maid was most definitely literate. This is not the usual picture when we think about the servant class in the Victorian England, but the truth is that the literacy levels were growing at that time, even among the lower classes. That is the time when the literature, especially novel, began to gain momentum. Before, it was common to listen to the novel being read. One literate person would gather their neighbours and read them the most popular novels. Now anyone could get skills to read for themselves, even a lowly kitchen maid. She must have some education then, and there were couple of places.
There was the Jews’ Free School, opened in London in 1817. ‘It charged 1d a week to its pupils, but a child who could not produce his penny was never turned away’ (Picard, 2005). If her father was a Freemason, she might have attended The Freemasons’ Charity for Female Children, where she have learned the domestic tasks, but also to read and write. Finally, if she never learned to read and write as a child, she might go to Working Woman’s College in Queen Square, that was open for ‘teachers, shopgirls and even servant maids.’(Picard, 2005). There were of course other ways she might have gained her education, but one thing is almost certain. During her service in the college, she must have showed her interest in books and reading, hence the generous parting gift. Truly a woman after my own heart:-)
And there it is, a portrait of a person long dead, coming alive before you with the power of research. A young woman- courageous, loyal, hard-working and filled with curiosity about the world around her. Remember her-I will.
Quotes are from the book ‘Victorian London’ by Liza Picard