She thought herself lucky to get the job with so many people out of work, but for it to be so vastly different was what she was really happy about. Leaving behind the hard life of farming on the family farm – a daily grind of back breaking digging, picking, lugging heavy sacks of feed and all the other farm tasks was back breaking for a young girl.
She now worked for a young family in London. She was a smart girl and knew that to be able to read and write would have advantages when it came to employment.Her father used to say to her in his usual gruff manner “What use will that be to you? You stay up late reading and writing by the candle light for what?” But she knew that one day it would keep her in good stead.
The day she left the farm, her mother was crying and her father was telling her she would be back, along with all of her siblings telling her not to leave, was the day she knew in her heart, was the start of a new life for her.
Much as she loved them all, even her dad, short tempered from too much hard work, too little sleep and not enough money earned from the farm to feed all of the family at times, she was glad to be leaving.
“I’ll write to you all and one day I will bring you back some money. I love you all” and with that she was on the coach and on her way to London. Her mother had saved a few pennies for this day and as she handed them to her oldest daughter she cried and hugged her saying “We will always be here for you Bridie”.
The family she was going to work for lived in a very elegant town house. Mr and Mrs Billington-Smythe had two children, Sarah and William. Bridie had seen an ad for a housemaid on her local church noticeboard and had taken the time to write to them, telling them all about herself. The fact that she could read and write was an definitely an advantage, and the Billington-Smythe’s must have thought so too as they wrote back asking her to come to London and meet them, and if they were satisfied, then she could stay on. They told her that she would be able to find lodgings not far from their town house.
Bridie really didn’t know what to expect. She had never been to London before and she felt trepidation mingled with excitement.
As she neared the big city in the coach Bridie marvelled at the buildings, big stone places, crowds of people walking in and out of open doorways, bundles and sacks on their shoulders – she assumed these were some of the warehouses that she had been told about. Some of the carriers were young and fit looking but others looked older than her father and laboured under the heavy weight of whatever it was they were carrying.
Her head seemed as if it was on a swivel – back and forth it went, marvelling at what she saw for the first time in her life. She could hear shouting as they passed by and looking out from the window of the carriage she saw women selling wares, baskets hanging down in front of them from the straps around their necks – and shouting “Fresh fish, kippers, cod”. And a bit further down the street someone screeched “Eels, jellied eels – cheap – come and get ‘em”.
Bridie felt intoxicated with the sounds and smells of London. A part of her was scared at being all alone for the first time in her sixteen years but there was also a feeling of animation at the thought of what the future held for her.
She hoped with all of her heart that Mr and Mrs Billington-Smythe were kind people. Bridie feared that the rumours she had heard regarding the landed gentry not having a good bone in their body would be true and that she would end up working for tyrants - people who were so wealthy and driven only by money that the feelings of others didn’t fit into their lives.
In her interview, she was told that the children had a nanny, and that her role would be the domestic maid. She didn’t care what she would be doing. She had to pinch herself to make sure she was really here. No more mucking out the pigs, digging up potatoes or trudging in the freezing cold mornings to milk the cows. When the livestock were taken to market along the drovers road it was her father and the farm hand had taken them, so she never left the area.
The family she worked for had only lived in the city of London for a few months, prior to that their home had been a manor house in the countryside, a magnificent house passed down through the family, cream brick exterior adorned with rambling roses and pale lilac wisteria, soft and delicate. The country house they still owned, but left it in the capable hands of their farm manager. They would take the children back to the country house for weekends and holidays, taking the nanny with them and leaving Bridie with extra jobs to do!
Bridie only had a small bag with her – she didn’t own much and only ever really wore work clothes except on a Sunday when she wore her one special dress for church. There was never any spare money to buy clothes. She had been given a dress and shawl from her Aunt, passed down from her cousin who passed away last year. Bridie would wash and use the same clothes until she had saved up some money from her wages to buy another dress. She had a good strong pair of shoes and they would just have to do!
When she was told that the position was hers (just as well or what would she have done?) and given the directions to the boarding house recommended to her, she left their town house light of heart and relieved.
She was given directions to the Boarding House and set off, bag in hand to find it. Stepping out of the front door of her place of employment was like venturing out from the quiet of a church into a mad house.! There seemed to be so many people everywhere and she was being jostled and bumped into continually. Yelling and shouting but not in anger, just to be heard above everyone else was something she would have to get used to after the quiet farm life.
The cobbled stone was uneven and difficult to walk on and she was thankful for her study shoes, but having to look down quite a lot to keep her footing, she couldn’t help but notice how dirty some of the streets were and thought how a good rainfall would help.
She had stopped and stood and watched the busy roads, hackney coaches cantering back and forth along the street, and so many carts transporting goods to different addresses. Bridie had never seen a sedan chair before so was fascinated by them as they weaved their way up narrow streets to transport and drop wealthy passengers at their places of business.
It had been a shock to see people lying around on street corners, sprawled out or curled up in the foetus position. At first she thought they could be ill, but when some of them began talking gibberish and waving their arms around as she walked by, she realised what was wrong with them. ‘How strange to be drunk at this time of day’ she thought – ‘why aren’t you working?’
As she continued walking along the streets she could hear different accents being spoken – she recognised a strong Scottish brogue as the farm hand they had was Scottish – at first no one could understand a word he said, but as time went by everyone got used to it. Bridie’s younger brother and sisters picked up some of the words and would say “Ma I dinne have time _I canny tek the rubbish out I’ll do it ach aye the noo!” She could hear Irish sounding voices too – the Verger at her church was Irish and so much easier to understand than Billie the farm hand was!
On reaching her accommodation – an old house with lots of rooms that had been converted into a boarding house, and being introduced to the manager – a thin lipped and upright woman called Gladys who read the ‘house rules’ like the riot act, she unpacked her bag in her sparse room and lay on the bed to rest.
Before she knew it, Bridie was waking up in a dark and cold room. Not realising where she was at first, she panicked and jumped off the hard bed onto an even harder floor. Her mind began to clear and she remembered the events of the day and where she was. It seemed like a week since she was home on the farm not less than twenty four hours.
Her room had a small wooden bed, a cupboard with a little square drawer underneath it, and a wash stand with an enamel bowl in it where she had her daily wash. Having been shown where the sewerage hole was, Bridie tipped the dirty water and her ‘chamber pot’ content into it in the mornings. (She was allowed to come down and collect some hot water in her bowl in the morning and evening).
“I’m starving” she said out aloud and wondered if it was too late to go downstairs for her evening meal. Looking behind the lacy curtain that adorned her window, she tried to see what was out there but it was so dark, it wasn’t possible to see much. What she did see was a few lights dotted here and there, candles whose light shone through windows, much like her own. This reminded her that there was a candle in the room here somewhere, but finding it in the dark was ironic really!
She joined Gladys and two other boarders for dinner – a thin gruel, mainly liquid with not much else in it. At least it was hot and warmed her up. All she could think of was a thick piece of bread and cheese that she would have eaten at home, filling her much more than this gruel did!
No one had to sing a lullaby to Bridie or rock her to sleep at bedtime on her first night in London. She was so exhausted from the journey, meeting her employers and just finding her way. Exhausted she fell into her bed knowing that she had a very early start the next morning at her new place of employment. Having to rely on the ‘Knocker Uppers’ to wake her was such a strange idea to get her thoughts around. Knowing that someone was tapping on her window with a long pole made her laugh to herself. ‘Wait til I tell them back home’ she thought. At home on the farm the rooster woke the household, every day at the same time the rooster crowed a very loud ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ and no matter how tired Bridie’s father and mother were, they would get up immediately and light the fire in the kitchen.
Her blankets on the bed were hard and prickly and Bridie made a mental note that not only would she one day buy a new dress but before that it would be a softer blanket that she purchased.
Her first day at the home of the Billington-Smythe’s was long and tiring. She left her accommodation at 6.30am when it was just getting light, scurring along the rough roads not wanting to be late on her first day.
She was responsible for part of the domestic duties of the household. Of course being the newest member of the workforce there, one of her jobs was to empty and wash out all of the chamber pots – a job that even after having to shovel animal manure on the farm, made her stomach turn!
Her favourite chore was polishing the silver – she could take her time as it had to be smear- less and perfectly cleaned, so when she was left on her own with the valuable pieces of silverware, she occasionally sat down whilst rubbing it.
There were dishes to wash and dry in the kitchen after meals, washing to do by hand in the laundry tub, vegetable to peel if cook needed a hand and rugs to beat with a big thick stick at the side of the property – so not in view of ‘others’! She dusted the furniture and scrubbed the stone floors throughout the house.
At 7pm Bridie trudged back to her lodgings – this was by far the worst part of the day. It was so dark outside that she couldn’t see around her until she came to a building that had some candle light shining through its windows. A few times she tripped on the uneven cobblestone, rubbed her knees as she got up and carried on. Drunkards banged into and she walked even quicker – sometimes putting her arms out in front of her so she didn’t bang into someone or something.
On the farm she was never frightened. The familiar outhouses filled with chickens, pens with muddy pigs laying down, the hoots of owls as she traipsed around outside in the dark finishing off the day’s work didn’t startle her – instead the smells and noises were a comfort to her.
But here in London the dark scared her – the unfamiliar sounds and odours gave her a feeling of anxiety and she was always rushing to get to the door of her accommodation, and even though miserable, the face of Gladys.
Bridie’s situation changed after living and working in London for only six months.
She loved where she worked – had been able to save some money and had it hidden, tied in her square of cloth, under her mattress for when she was able to one day go back home for a visit.
There was so much hustle and bustle going on in the streets each day that she hadn’t noticed the major work that was being carried out daily all around her. It wasn’t until she heard people talking about the gas lights that would be in the streets before long that she realised that this was what was happening. It seemed like most of London was in a flurry about the wonder that gas light would be inside homes and out in the streets very soon
Bridie could see the progress each day as she walked along the roads to work – and was fascinated at the height and ornate look of the gas lights being erected.
The first night that the gas light was alight caused a lot of excitement in the area. It was the talk of the town and indeed in other countries it was being discussed with a degree of envy! People came from far and wide to see the bright lights in the town of London. Bridie even felt excited, no elated
that she could actually see where she was walking. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders – allowing her to break into a skip at times! The news got even better when she was told firstly by some of the other lodgers’ and then by Gladys herself that there would soon be some gas lighting inside their building – miraculously bringing a smile to Gladys’s face!