Life in service in Ipswich

FEW 'normal' homes today are able to employ domestic staff. Yet the divide between 'working', 'middle' and 'upper class' was still clear before the Second World War, when even relatively small houses kept domestic staff.

FEW 'normal' homes today are able to employ domestic staff.

Yet the divide between 'working', 'middle' and 'upper class' was still clear before the Second World War, when even relatively small houses kept domestic staff. Some were kind families who treated the young girls that took the jobs with consideration, others abused their relative wealth and position.

Dorothy Cross (nee Palmer), who still lives in the same part of Ipswich where she grew up, started domestic work aged just 14.

She tells a story that will make many teenagers think how lucky they are today.

Dorothy left Rosehill Girls School, Ipswich in July 1926 at a time when the career prospects for a 14-year-old were severely limited.

She sad: “Only a few scholarship girls had the opportunity to continue their education. For the rest, it was pretty much a choice between employment in the big clothing factories, such as Phillips and Piper, or William Pretty and Sons, working as a shop assistant locally or in the bigger stores in town, or entering domestic service.

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“None of these I found very appealing. When my eldest brother Charles heard of a family seeking a full-time housemaid to replace their part-time cleaning lady, my future was decided for me. Eighty-one years ago, without the conveniences of everyday life now taken for granted, running a home was a full-time occupation. The housewife couldn't simply load the dishwasher and switch on the washing machine, run the vacuum cleaner quickly over the carpet and pop the evening's ready-made meal into the microwave. Everything had to be done manually, which took time and often demanded physical effort. Well-off families were only too keen to employ a housemaid or domestic servant to carry out such chores for them.

“After finishing at school on the Friday, I set off from my home in Orwell Road, Ipswich the following Monday morning for my first day at work. Wearing my navy blue dress and black flat-soled shoes, I walked nervously along Foxhall Road, Cauldwell Hall Road and into Marlborough Road. Compared to mine, these houses looked positively opulent with grand names such as Balmoral, Windsor and Belgrave. Eventually I found the one I was looking for, opened the door and entered what would be my workplace for seven long years.

“I was working for a family of four. There was the lady of the house and her husband, a sales rep for a pet food company. They had an eight-year-old daughter, who was a day girl at the Convent Boarding School in Woodbridge Road, and a son of just nine months. Initially my hours were from 8.30pm in the morning until 3pm in the afternoon. Apart from a short break for lunch, usually cold meat and vegetables, I worked non-stop. Each day I had to dust every room in the house; sweep the floors with a dustpan and brush; polish the furniture and brasses; clean the inside of the windows; lay the table and clear away, wash up and wipe up after every meal. In cold weather I also had to empty the ashes from the hearth, fetch in the coal and prepare fires in both the kitchen and dining room.

“Outside there were the paths to be swept, the window-sills to be washed and the doorsteps to be whitened with a chalk-like substance called hearthstone.

Once a week I had to clean all the windows on the outside. To reach the upstairs windows involved sitting outside on the window sill with just my legs and feet inside. It was a very cold job in winter and dangerous too.

“Another weekly task took me to Pike and Barrell's garage in Foxhall Road where the family's Morris Ten saloon was housed. I had not only to sweep out its interior but also polish the woodwork and upholstery till it shone.

“Taking the little boy for walks in his pram, then as he got bigger in his pushchair, or tripper, provided the only bright spot in an otherwise gruelling day. Sometimes we'd be gone for as long as an hour and a half in the morning and a further half hour in the afternoon. At five years old he started school at the convent like his sister. However, as his mother would not walk to school with him, it fell on me to take him. The route was far from easy, down Tokio Road hill and into St John's Road, up Spring Road, left into Nelson Road, then all the way along Woodbridge Road to the Albion Mills. There were alternative routes we sometimes took, but this was shortest. The journey of nearly a mile meant that since he came home for lunch, I was walking about eight miles a day, just doing the school run!

“Throughout my working hours the lady of the house watched me like a hawk, inspecting everything I did and making me repeat the task if not done to her satisfaction. Checking for dust on picture rails and in the bedrooms were particular favourites of hers. I did catch her out once when she complained that I had not dusted properly under her bed. I didn't re-do it, but when she checked again later, she said how much better it was!

“I worked seven days a week. For this, I received the princely sum of five shillings (25 pence), of which half was given to my stepmother to pay for my keep at home. This left me just half a crown (12.5p) to spend on myself. I even had to work on Christmas Day, though I was allowed to leave a little earlier than usual. If I was given a Christmas present, it was always something practical, a new apron perhaps.

“Just about the only tasks I was not required to do were the washing and the shopping. The former was done by Akester's Sunlight Laundry in Handford Road. Once a fortnight their van would call and exchange the dirty linen for clean. Groceries came from Driver's at the corner of Alexandra Road and Nottidge Road, just below Belle Vue Road hill, where the family formerly lived. The order was phoned through on an old bakelite phone and delivered the next day by a boy on a tradesman's bicycle. Cole's dairy at the corner of Melville Road and Wellesley Road delivered the milk from a hand-cart, the bread came from Hunt's Bakery, whilst Buscall's in Spring Road supplied the family meat. The joint was always cooked and eaten hot on the Saturday. Cold meat was served up every other day.

“As the years passed, I was finishing later and later, though my wages did not increase accordingly. On one occasion the demands became so great that I walked out and went home. However, the lady of the house came after me and persuaded my stepmother to send me back. Such was the job market at the time that I had little choice.

“Things were particularly bad on Thursday nights when the parents either went to the cinema, theatre or visited friends. On these occasions I had to babysit often until 10pm. I was provided with a tea of sorts, meat paste sandwiches and a bun. I did get taken home by car, but it was still a long day. What made it worse was that rather than being allowed to listen to the wireless or read, I was given jobs to keep me busy during the time they were out. These might include mending dust sheets, polishing tins with 'Brasso' or buffing up the silver cutlery and ornaments.

“For a time I used to walk to work in the mornings with Ida Warren, a friend who lived nearby. Ida was in service close to them in Weymouth Road and used to tell me how she was treated as a family member. When I mentioned this to the lady of the house she was furious and ordered me to begin work half an hour earlier so that I would have no further contact with Ida.

“In 1933 the family I worked for were moving back to East Sussex. At the same time Ida terminated her job with the family in Weymouth Road who were then seeking a new housemaid. It seemed an ideal opportunity so I approached the lady of the house for a reference. Despite seven years of loyal service, I was told: “You came without a reference and you can go without one. So much for gratitude! Fortunately the family already knew of me and took me on without a reference of any kind.

“So began the second chapter of my life in service, a complete and utter contrast to the first! Right from the start I was treated as one of the family, just as Ida had said. I even had my own bedroom, which saved me the walk to and from work each day. It also meant that I no longer had to hand over half my wages to my stepmother! I still had all the housework to do; it took place within a calm and non-threatening atmosphere. Maybe it helped that the couple were older with grown-up children, only one of whom was still living at home. It certainly helped that the husband was a sales rep', not for a pet food company, but for Clarnico sweets and chocolates. The free samples alone made the job worth having! “For five happy years I worked there until in 1938. It was time to leave so that I could set up my own home. I said my farewells reluctantly. I had sampled the two extremes of life in the service of others. Now I could settle down to do what I wanted. Little did I know that in less than 12 months all that was to change, as my life was disrupted for a second time by the outbreak of the Second World War.”


Do you have a story to tell of life in the past? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN.

This pair of housemaids was photographed by Ipswich photographer Charles Trudgill who had studios at 131 Handford Road, Ipswich. Their uniforms are typical of around a century ago.

Dorothy did not fancy joining the many young girls found work in local factories during the 1920s. This was Firmin and Company's sack factory in Handford Road, Ipswich in the 1920s. This was before plastic sacks were available and there was a large sack hiring trade for industry and farming. The company also made canvas goods and rope.

Generations of mainly females found work at William Pretty's clothing factory at Tower Ramparts in the centre of Ipswich. The huge factory mainly made corsets and ladies underwear. The building was still in operation in the 1980's. The site is now a car park behind Debenhams store.

One of the few chores Dorothy avoided was the laundry. The Ipswich Sanitary Steam Laundry in Alderman Road, Ipswich. There were several laundries serving the town before the days of washing machines. It was a service only the better off could afford. This is a photograph from the mid-1920s.

Dorothy recalls when milk was delivered to homes from hand carts. This was the Alderney Dairy at the corner of Grimwade Street and St Helens Street. A photograph from the mid 1920s.

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