by Barbara Baynton

“Do use your influence to send out a shipload of good servants. There are none to be got here for love or money. All the old ones are too independent and the young ones are all going to the factories.”

In short, with a difference it was the old Macedonian cry. “Come over and help us,” that time and again has wafted to me across the wide water way between Australia and England. But help is wanted in England also for I have had experience of housekeeping in both countries and am fully seized of the manifold demands attached to the adjective “good,” and I state authoritatively that it no longer sheathes every known virtue of domesticity in England.

No, the utterly servile obedient self-negating servant now belongs to where it fits – the obsolete or decadent generation. Decidedly there is the distinction – desired by those who love the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of power, conveyed by the European “Madam,” “Ma’am,” and “Sir,” as against the friendliness or, perhaps, familiarity of the Australian “Mr,” and “Mrs.” But the veneered deference of the British workers for their employers is disappearing slowly but as surely as the one-time general curtsey.

“Education” is the English lament. “Education – the Board Schools are to blame for teaching them above their station. There are no good servants now. They all flood to the shops and tearooms offices and even factories, rather than come well paid to a comfortable home.”

And compared with a few years back domestics are well paid now in Britain, and wages are steadily on the increase. The old scale of six per annum, entailing a quarter’s notice and paid quarterly or spent, at the mistress’s will, on clothing, prevails only in remote villages – and there even, it is only the ground-down products of “The Man with the Hoe” who are content to work for this pittance. And there are tales of how sometimes, even in those stagnant spots where life and land alike are moss grown, the shrill blare of the factory whistle has penetrated. For there is an immutable rule that at some time, however rate, leisure be given to all animals, higher and lower, to think, so the factory whistle sometimes causes the family drudge to down kitchen tools and join the renegade domestic ranks, which factory workers so largely are.

The solution is apparent – mankind is naturally gregarious, and factory life, at its worst, teems with companionship, not only coming and going to work, but at mealtimes, and again on all holiday occasions. And even in England, factory work ceases from about 2 pm on Saturday till Monday morning, with an hour daily for dinner and every night free, or overtime paid for, and with the Parliamentary decree of four bank holidays yearly.

No hated caps, or other “I serve” insignia, and, above all, that paramount privilege, men as masters.

It may sound disloyal to my sex, yet, it is a common truth; show me a woman in power, and I will show you a despot. Indeed, in my anti-suffrage canvass in London, my surest and most successful weapon for anti-votes was to just ask shopgirls, “Would you rather have a woman over you than a man?”

Now, put factory conditions against those hedging the duties of the “general.” Begin with her outings. In England these are one night a week and every other Sunday afternoon, spent generally at her parents’ home, if she has one, where it is her custom to assist her mother in some sordid capacity. Consider the monotony of the daily routine. Scrubbing and scouring her kitchen, cleaning rooms she enters for this purpose only, lighting fires, cooking food of which her portion is the unpalatable refuse – this article could not contain the day, and, worse still, the night’s demands on the ordinary general. “It is the little foxes that spoil the grapes,” and it is the petty tyrannies of the mistress that sink the “family drudge” into the dull-headed, heavy-heeled creature she is. She knows that neither day nor night belongs to her, nor is any hour in the 24 absolutely hers. Nor does any portion of the premises afford her sanctuary from her ofttimes exacting mistress. Recall her when, as within your rights, you paid a surprise visit to her kitchen, her startled attitude always is one of defence, begot by in the bondage of fear. If your mood is captious, your unjust complaints may who her your ignorance, but she must be discreetly dumb. Though sometimes when she gets or gives notice she dares, with language decidedly her own, to limn her disconcerting estimate of you. So her obedience is only I securities, and her respect from her lips only seeming, and her respect from her lips only and as natural to her nature as it is to cook food that she never tastes. And what uplifting influence can ensue from what she eats amongst the usual malodorous surroundings.

Carlyle, the cynic, says man is a “cooking animal.” And the recipes handed down to us from long dead days, show that our Fore-dames must have kept their subtle hold over him by much knowledge of what ministered to the comforts of the inner man; moreover, antique instructions for lace washing, renovating, remedies, whatsoever appertained to skilful housekeeping, was also in their ken; while the large basins, sometimes to be met with in our precious possessions of old china, were manufactured for the mistress’ use in washing up their choicest breakfast and tea sets. But modern housewives with the besetting sin of the beckoning bridge tables, have neither love nor leisure for this womanly occupation, though they thereby relieve even practised hands of an unnerving responsibility.

The servants in large establishments are generally the offspring of old retainers, but the sullen power of discontent creeps in even at these pretentious portals. The housekeeper, the butler, the ladies’ maids, through the housekeeper’s key, have an “open sesame” to the delicacies in the otherwise locked larders; but certainly this is the principal factor of the lower servants’ grievance. Hotels, tea-rooms, and shops become their objective, and though these occupations for over debar them from a return to patrician halls, they seldom want to take up their old life with its dreary routine, for who, having tried domestic duties, are gainsay its monotony.

Monotony that is the keynote of domestic revolt. Since I have been in Sydney I have heard of a Chinaman appearing in his Sunday suit in the middle of the week, and being asked to explain, said: “Too muchee washee-up,” only he emphasised it with unprintable fervour. “Washee-up all day, washee-up all night, allee same next day, allee time washee-up.”

Regard the soda-shrivelled skin surmounting the parboiled flesh of the washer-up’s hands. The lye-burnt and discoloured nails, the laundry-enlarged joints, think upon these things; then say, with what womanly handicraft will this worker’s inflexible fingers plan the garments of her offspring, should she become a wife and mother. This is the secret or the success of the kitchen literature.

The narrative containing the perils of the peerless Paulina takes the place or the nimble needle. The romance may have a sinister influence, but for the time it lifts the engrossed servant out of her surroundings. Small wonder if in middle life is so resorts to some stimulant for this purpose.

The shop girl does feel the strain of set hours and continued standing, and the fastidious caprices of women customers, but her efforts to serve are not confined to our sex; there is the male customer to break her monotony, and sharpen nor palate with the spice of life, variety – this subtle mind cure.

I was very young when I got my first lesson in metaphysics; an elder brother had taken a younger one and me on an unwisely long walk, and on the return journey we both knocked up, and demanded to be carried; his ingenuity met the situation. “Knocked up, are you; then you must ride home.” He cut us two stick horses, which we mounted, and with the aid of two switches flogged the rest of the way, as we thought, out of our steeds.

“Servants are like children, and I treat them accordingly,” one arbitrary mistress told me once, but I am sure she never stopped to think if they regarded her in the light of a bad stepmother, nor are domestic duties well and intelligently performed the accomplishment of a child. Most of us housewives, at one time or other, have had to enter the kitchen and try our ‘prentice hand at preparing meals, therefore we know the strenuous exigencies that encompass every action of well-rendered services.

Manhood suffrage in Australia most certainly limited the working man’s labours to eight hours. Out sex have had the coveted blessing or the franchise for many years, but in all those years there has never been a concerted earnest movement to make the Eight Hours Act apply to household workers, though I know something has been done for shopgirls and factory workers.

The domestic life is in the – to women – political wilderness just the one oasis which they understand, and the personal inconvenience ensuing to themselves which the Eight Hours Act applied to domestics would entail. Yet, considering the absolute necessity of domestic duties, the marvel is by what unnatural means it occupies its present undignified position. It is selfish thoughtlessness that has made girls leave this most womanly pursuit for the demoralising factory life, with its pernicious, far-reaching after-effects. For domestic service, as it now is, is but a survival of slavery, and acknowledging it’s the slave that makes the tyrant – how does the magnanimity of the mistress stand?

The present system existing between mistress and maid is threatening the very foundations of home life. The axe is laid at its roots with a severing menace. To protect this human birthright employers must surrender obsolete prejudices. The kitchen must be classed among the high places, and those who steer this helm of home must be called no longer “servants,” but benefactors,” for a competent cook has much to do with the making of a Christian.


Barbara Baynton, “Indignity of domestic service“, The Sydney morning herald, 10 June 1911: 4.