18 Sept. 2013: More on servants and their employers

What was it like to be a 16-year-old girl arriving in a strange household where she would live and work for a year? Or for her young brother starting life as a farm boy, also living in for the year while he was trained in farming, brewing and working with horses?

Mary Hardy tells us a great deal about the working lives of those who lived in her home; also about the members of the workforce with their own families who lived in tied cottages. Other sources often overlooked, such as the diocesan visitation returns, can be also be valuable as we try to piece together the lives of the largely unrecorded.

On Wednesday 18 September 2013 Margaret Bird will give an illustrated talk to the Mid-Norfolk Family History Society on “Working lives in the late 18th century,” in which these topics are discussed.

It will be held at the Trinity Methodist Church Hall, Theatre Street, Dereham, NR19 2EP. The fee of £2.00 goes towards expenses including tea and coffee. Everyone is welcome. Details are on the Mid-Norfolk FHS website.

The maidservant lottery

Mistress and maidservant were in a mutually dependent situation, and it was in both their interests that their relationship should be generally harmonious. Mary Hardy, who employed two living-in maids in her extremely busy household, shows us that friction would arise between the maids as much as with the employer; very occasionally this escalated into violent assault when one maid attacked the other.

The Bull, Litcham

Hiring sessions for maidservants and farm servants were often held here at Litcham, in central Norfolk. The Bull was also William Hardy’s excise office when he was stationed here 1768–69

At the hiring even a very young teenager would handle the negotiations herself with her prospective future employer, her mother being brought in extremely rarely.

It is clear that where possible the maid, who generally stayed only a year and then chose to move on, liked to line up her next post herself some weeks before her hiring year ended at Old Michaelmas (10 October). The mistress would give the girl time to go off in search of her next job, even if this were miles away and entailed a long absence from her duties. At Coltishall Mary Hardy’s maid might go as far as Norwich or Aylsham if she heard there was an attractive post to be had.

Sometimes the maid would be let down just before her new job was to begin. Then she had to throw herself on the open market and attend a hiring session. For the maid this was a lottery. The event, classed as a petty sessions, might be held at a fairly minor public house, such as those at Colkirk, Litcham, Rackheath, Crostwick or Horstead; the sessions were often not held at market-town inns.

It was also a lottery for the employer, who, like the maid, preferred to make enquiries in advance and obtain a testimonial from a trusted source.

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Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

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