Why was a Birkenhead household seeking a West Cumbrian servant?

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22 June 2017 7:33PM

In 1887, a Birkenhead house owner was looking to employ a servant girl.

He was pretty specific as to his requirements.

The advert read “Industrious, clean, good-tempered girl wanted; must know how to cook well; none but a superior need apply.

“Three in family; no washing done.”

There was none of this applying to a box number.

The name of the employer was given, along with his full address in Birkenhead.

Nothing unusual in the ad.

The papers of the day often carried adverts from wealthier folk wishing to engage domestic staff – but why was a Birkenhead home owner advertising for staff in The West Cumberland Times?

This was no vague job advert. A successful applicant would know what the job entailed and that the future workplace was in Birkenhead. A long way from home.

Surely he could have found someone for the job who lived on Merseyside! So why was he looking for a West Cumbrian girl?

As I’ve often mentioned before – more questions than answers!

And the answer has no real historical significance at all.

So why have I even bothered mentioning it?

I do so to point out that history doesn’t always have to be dry and dusty.

Unless you are engaged in working towards an academic qualification, it can often be a case of just being curious!

And the reason I spotted this advert is that, having spent much of my early life in Birkenhead, this ad just caught my eye and that’s all there is to it.

I don’t suppose I will ever know who, if anyone, from West Cumbria went all the way down to Merseyside to work for him.

It will remain just another low priority entry in my to be researched file.

It was quite common for wealthier families to employ servants in late Victorian times.

Whenever you call on friends who live in large Victorian or Edwardian houses keep your eyes open when you enter their hallway.

The chances are that you will see the remains of a bell system or, if the house owner is interested in retaining period features, the servant bell system might even be intact.

I have come across a few houses which would have permitted the lady of the house to sit by the fire in her armchair and pull on a cord to summon a servant.

Many of these servants were employed on a live-in basis – their sleeping quarters often being located up in some remote attic.

It’s probably not true of all employers, but many did treat their servants – many little older than children – as skivvies.

Some 40 or so years ago I have talked to a number of women who had turned up at various local history talks about their early working experiences.

Initially I was quite surprised just how many of them had spent their early years working in a big house somewhere or in some distant hotel establishment.

A few of them told me that they had to work a six-and-a-half day week, going home only if they lived a short distance from their place of employment.

And very often they were never paid cash in hand, their wages being paid to their parents. It was a hard life.

In 1887 anyone wishing to get a job in domestic service locally could have made their way to New Street, Cockermouth, where Mrs Sisson used to run her Registry Office for Servants.

Apart from its title I know nothing about the operation of this organisation save that she stated in her ad that “registered applications would be promptly attended to”.

Forward to 1931 – and the paper carried more detailed adverts.

The Central Registry in Cockermouth, run by a Mrs Eland, required “an experienced cook, also a house-parlour maid – aged 20 to 35”.

Laycock’s Registry Catherine Street, Whitehaven, was looking to find a cook and other maids for Darwen and Manchester.

It was also looking for a “betweenmaid for Ravenglass”.

Scanning these ads from 1931 reveals that domestic service job adverts were listed for many north western towns.

It seems that a great many local people were, out of necessity, forced to seek employment out of the area.

I wonder just how many of them were ever able to return to West Cumbria?

So how many people nowadays work as full time house servants?

I get the impression that not that many do – but I could be wrong. Anyone know?

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