Most domestic service performed these days in Dulwich is done by migrant East Europeans with a predominance of young women from Poland and parts of the former Yugoslavia. Few live in these days and those that do usually double up as nannies. A century ago most workers in what was then an industry employing over a million workers lived in. By the Edwardian period however it was becoming more difficult for middle-class households to find domestic help. A Mission church report issued in 1898 stated: "The demand for servants exceeds the supply and the tendency for girls to leave domestic service for other kinds of employment increases yearly." There was competition for staff from the newly opening factories. In south London for example there were a number of textile manufacturers making men's shirts, and other factories were making tin boxes, biscuits and confectionery. Girls leaving school at the age of 12 or 13 often preferred the company of friends in a factory to the closely supervised life as a live-in maid.
The usual way to recruit domestic servants was to advertise in magazines or newspapers. However the best way to overcome the difficulty of securing the service of an honest and reliable maid was to obtain recommendations from friends or acquaintances or through the recommendation of leaders of Sunday Schools in working- class districts. These leaders were paid for this service by the employer. A Sunday school teacher in East Street, Walworth received a small commission from employers for girls she recommended from a register she kept, while the Sunday School Funds received the larger share.
In Dulwich in this period even the more modest homes had the service of a domestic servant. Servants' bells may still be found in houses in Turney Road or Burbage Road where they remain a curiosity from the past. Elderly uniformed maids who had spent their lifetimes in the service to local families were still in evidence in small numbers around Dulwich in the early 1950's. Over twenty-five years ago I interviewed several ladies living in the Village who had been in service. This their story.
Sarah Robertson was born in Scotland in 1897. Her father's trade of deep sea line fishing brought her and her step-mother to North Shields where she spent her early teenage years. On nearing the age of 21 she noticed an advertisement in a local northern newspaper, offering a position for a maid to work for a local family soon to move south, to Woodvale, near Dulwich. Seizing the opportunity to get away from her step-mother, Sarah (or Sadie as she was called) applied and got the position. This was not to last long after arrival in Dulwich however. An unfortunate incident in which the favourite dog escaped led to an exchange of heated words with her employer. This exchange was overheard by the laundry-lady who persuaded Sarah to throw up her job and stay a few days with her in her cottage in Lloyds Yard.
Today Lloyds Yard is a gated development leading off Aysgarth Road in the centre of the Village. In 1918 it belonged to W.J. Mitchell & Company, builders. It dated back several centuries and at one time was also the site of a blacksmith's forge. It had three cottages arranged down its north side, backing on to Boxall Road. On one side of the laundry lady lived Mr Davis, the Village lamplighter, and on the other side were two elderly sisters who also took in laundry.
Sarah's new found friend suggested that she went to the hostel for female domestic servants in Peckham. Sarah was lucky enough to get accommodation there and after only a few days she was engaged by what turned out to be a delightful family named Negus (related to the later famous Arthur Negus). The family took Sarah at face value and did not require references, which after the dog incident might have been difficult to obtain!
So Sarah commenced her duties at Camden House, Dulwich Village, which stood next to the Crown & Greyhound but which was destroyed in World War II and the site is now occupied by a terrace of reproduction Georgian houses. As a living-in maid, Sarah wore an apron and print dress in the mornings and a black dress with white cap, cuffs and apron in the afternoon. Her wages were a generous fifteen shillings per week plus meals and accommodation (by comparison, a female shirt machinist at this time earned 10/- per week). The household also employed a nursemaid, who was to become a lifelong friend.
She recalled a particular New Year's Eve when she was despatched to Rumsey's Chemists to buy a siphon of soda and was bidden by her mistress to invite a couple of friends back that evening to Camden House. That evening the Negus's gave a Hogmanay party for the young Scottish maid and her friends. It was a party she remembered vividly down the years. Mrs Negus had prepared the buffet herself, in the sunken drawing room and later around the grand piano Sarah sang 'Annie Laurie' which made such an impression on the assembled party that she was encouraged to sing professionally. Plucking up courage a few days later she placed her name on the list of an agency run by the Village newsagent, Arthur Bedell.
Elsie Barrett was born in 1909 and at the age of 14 she travelled with her mother from her home in Southampton to the vicarage in Mill Hill where her mother was to be housekeeper and Elsie a housemaid, to the Reverend E. H. Cobb, Vicar of Mill Hill.
Previously, the Revd Cobb had been an assistant curate at St Barnabas, Dulwich and had become a great friend of the then vicar, Howard Nixon.
Not long after her arrival the Revd Cobb developed a type of 'sleeping sickness' and became very ill and prayers were said for him in church. It was while Elsie was in the house that a faith healer visited the Vicar and over a period of a number of such visits, the sick man made a full recovery.
The effect on the Revd Cobb was quite startling recalled Elsie, and it was not long before Cobb and his wife, together with Elsie and her mother, plus furniture, made a move to the village of Crowhurst in Sussex where the cleric founded a hospital for those who wished to be healed by faith as well as by medicine. Elsie and mother continued to perform their usual duties, but in these new and different surroundings. She recalled that the hospital had a chapel and was staffed by two nurses as well as the Cobbs. The patients numbered twelve, often including children suffering from polio.
In 1927, through the connection with Cobb's curacy in Dulwich and his continued friendship with Howard Nixon, Elsie and her mother learnt of a new position in Dulwich, at Lake House (now the site of the 'new' building of Dulwich Village Infants' School), and formerly the home of the Revd. Nixon before the present vicarage was built. Lake House was then the home of a widow named Mrs Moore, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria. Here she lived with her companion, Miss Dean, and her pet dog. Lake House had long been used by the parish as a Sunday school, a rehearsal room for the dramatic society and as a venue for numerous other parish groups.
Mrs Moore's friendship with Howard Nixon and his sister ensured that much of the use the parish made of Lake House during Nixon's occupancy continued. It was no doubt a reciprocal gesture which prompted Nixon to write to his old friend Cobb and bring up the subject of a housekeeper and maid to live in at Lake House.
Elsie's wage was £25 per annum and all found. As maid, Elsie was to wear two changes of uniform daily; blue in the morning, with white apron and straps, green and coffee in the afternoon. Permission was required at all times to leave the house and a hat had to be worn even if to post a letter at the box in East Dulwich Grove. The day started for Elsie at 6.30am when tea had to be taken to Mrs Moore and Miss Dean. Then fireplaces had to be cleared, cleaned and re-laid and lit. A certain amount of attendance was necessary when the parish had use of the house and Elsie recalled the rehearsals which continued to be held in a small cottage adjacent to the main house (St Barnabas had a long established Shakespearian dramatic society). The sewing class used Lake House and as the house was built in a Chinese style the St Barnabas Bazaars (also held at Lake House over three days) often had a Chinese flavour with the ladies looking after the stalls dressed in the appropriate costume. Elsie remained in service at Lake House for eight years.