At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time, but with Eliza in better health, and the little ones to help her, it was decided I’d be of more use earning a regular wage in a respectable house. It was Ma who heard of a position with the Tukes; Lord only knew how, but when that woman set her mind to something, it had a way of coming to pass.
Set a little ways out of the city, through the old Bar on Walmgate, 29 Lawrence Street, or more commonly, the Tuke House, was a fine imposing red brick building. Standing three floors tall, it was pleasing to the eye with big windows to the front, an impressive porch with a glossy blue front door with a shiny brass knocker and knob, additional wings each side and strong iron railings set in a stone wall encasing it. It couldn’t have been more different than my home in Bedern. I’d be both glad and lucky to get a place here.
I caught myself before anyone saw me staring like a fool, and searched around for the servants’ entrance, which I found to the right of the house: a gate in the railings with a staircase swept clean leading down to the kitchen and cellars. I wished I had the chance to knock on the door and compose myself, but it was standing ajar to let a fresh breeze through and I was spotted almost at once.
By rights, it should have been the cook to interview me for the job as kitchen maid but it was the housekeeper, a Mrs Nelson, who stood across the scarred and stained oak table in the sweltering heat of the kitchens and addressed me. Apparently there was some misunderstanding. There was no job for me as a kitchen maid, there was, however, an opening for a housemaid.
“A housemaid, ma’am?”
“Mrs Nelson,” she corrected me. “And yes; that’s right, Alice. Mrs Murray, our cook, is training up the kitchen maid Eileen to join her in the kitchen properly; she has no wish to enter into house service,” she said, rather testily, implying that the loss was Eileen’s.
I tried desperately to recall what my ma said about housemaids. I knew they were higher up the pecking order than kitchen maids, and I reckoned that meant a bigger wage too.
“You’re a little old to be starting in service.”
“Yes, ma’a-Mrs Nelson. I’m used to helping my ma. She takes sheets and the like in, but our Eliza is fit to be helping her now, but she’s still delicate, like. They reckoned I was the best fit, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”
She nodded, and took my hands into hers, turned them over.
“Strong hands, used to hauling wet sheets around, I’ll be bound. Fine looking girl too; that’ll give Nanette something to think about. No shame in having you above stairs. Flatten that accent off. Yes, you’ll do.”
I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I had even been holding. Never one to mince her words, Ma had said I’d be more suitable than Eliza, not just because I was stronger, but because of my looks. The only one of the Haxbys to have fair hair, today it was pinned in a thick flaxen coil to my scalp, and while my hands may have been chapped from the washing, my skin was clear with rosy cheeks I’d pinched not a minute before, my eyes bright and my teeth my own without a rotten one to be seen.
“Yes; you’ll do. You’ll start Monday.”
“Do you have somewhere else to be?” she said, with a hint of a snort.
“No, no; Monday is grand. Thank you very much, Mrs Nelson,” and I bobbed an uncertain curtsey, unsure of what I was to do.
“You don’t curtsey to me, girl, just the family. Now, mind you’re here by the dinner bell on Sunday evening, Alice.”
She saw me looking down at my brown serge dress; my mother’s best but even in that light I could see the patches and darns, as well as the fabric worn thin on one of the elbows, while my shoes were held together with wishful thinking rather than substance.
“You’ll be provided with a uniform, like the rest of the girls. It’ll come out of your wage. A day dress, and one for afternoons and evenings; which you’ll be expected to wear on Sundays, and we’ll get you a pair of good solid leather shoes. Of course, you’ll bring your own stockings and shifts.”
I wondered how we’d manage that. The few items of clothing I did own would hardly be considered acceptable or appropriate attire in this household.
“And you’ll have your day off once a month. Any questions? No. Well, we’ll see you on Sunday, Miss Haxby. And welcome to 29 Lawrence Street.”
Ma organised stockings and a shift almost as good as new; for there they were, sat on top of the bed Eliza, Hannah and I shared, with the rest of my bundle; a bible taking pride of place.
“A bible, Ma?” I asked.
“They’re good folk, the Tukes. Respectable, like, but I don’t want you to be a party to their Quaker ways. Nowt wrong with the way we do things here, if you ask me, and you’d do well to remember that, my girl. This is an opportunity for you to better yourself, and no mistake. You get out of this filth, and don’t you look back.” She gestured to the Bible, “Thought it would be good if at least one of us could learn to read the thing.”
“Ma,” I said. “Don’t be daft. I’ll come back and see you on my day off; see you, Eliza and all the rest of them. I ain’t leaving you behind.”
“Hmmm,” was her response. “You’d best be going if you want to be there in time.”
“Yes, Ma.” I gave her a quick peck on the cheek; we were not a kissing family, nor a hugging one for that matter but I’d never left home before. Never spent a single night apart from my family.
For 19 years I’d fallen asleep to the grunts, farts and the moans of three, four, five, 10 other people; been comforted from bad dreams by the warmth of my sister, Eliza, and done the same for her. But that night I’d be sleeping in a house of strangers.
The work turned out not to be too bad; I’d done worse. Lord knows that having your hands in a barrel of sudsy water for hours at a time will teach you the meaning of pain when you’re left with cracked and bleeding palms that never get the chance to heal up properly.
My day began before dawn but that was no change, indeed, I liked to be up with the sun. Rightly, the work should have been divided almost equally between Rachel, the upper housemaid, or head housemaid as she liked to be called, and myself, but I was not trusted upstairs yet; not to the bedrooms and such. I didn’t speak flat enough; never mind the hours Mrs Nelson nagged me over it. My ‘t’s weren’t what they ought, while my ‘h’s also left a lot to be desired. I’d get it in the end though; I’d be damned if I didn’t.
Instead, I headed down the backstairs from the attic room I shared with Rachel and Nanette, who turned out to be the lady’s maid, to the lower floor where the shutters were opened to let the light break in through the rooms. There was a very particular order in which my work was to be carried out, which both Mrs Nelson and Rachel were keen to remind me of.
“First there’s the shutters to be opened,” said Rachel. “And then you sprinkle some tea leaves-”
“Don’t interrupt me, Alice. Yes, tea leaves. It gives everything a nice fragrance. Sprinkle them over the floor like this, see? Push all the dust to the fireplace… No, move the fender out of the way first, you silly girl. That’s right. Now, in the summer you’d usually only have to clean the grate when necessary, but in the winter it has to be swept and laid before the family rise for breakfast every morning. Lay your cloth here. Now where did you put your box? You must keep it with you at all times, Alice. A housemaid’s box is her most prized possession.”
I looked disbelievingly at the wooden box at my feet. It contained black lead brushes, leathers, emery paper, cloth, black lead, and numerous other tools for the correct cleaning not just of the grate, but of the entire house. I couldn’t promise, but I was almost certain that it would never become my most prized possession, but I got to my knees as Rachel demonstrated, sweeping the remaining ashes into a pail to go to the kitchen.
“And now you must blacken the grate. No, not the emery paper, that’s only for the bars! Get the tin of black lead. That one. Now lay it on with the soft brush. Get into all the nooks.”
All the rubbing was beginning to bring a glow to my cheeks so I stopped for a moment to roll my sleeves up.
“Alice! What on earth do you think you’re doing? Stop that at once!”
I paused, guiltily caught with my right hand at my left wrist.
“You must never be anything other than perfectly dressed at all times. To fail to do so is a disgrace. The master and mistress have no wish to see you with your arms exposed like a tavern girl or a slattern. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Rachel. Sorry, Rachel.”
“Good. Now, back to the grate. Polish off the blacking, and see how it begins to shine.”
I pulled my head back to observe the effect of the polishing, and while it didn’t shine like silver, there was a pleasing glow to the grate; something to be seen for the effort.
“I have a receipt for Brunswick black which will help move even the most stubborn marks.”
I gave her only half an ear as she mentioned linseed oil, turpentine and asphaltum, instead worked on getting a glow from the entire grate. I have always thought there something satisfying in watching dirt disappear; a useful trait in a housemaid, I think. When it was polished to mine, and Rachel’s, liking, she turned my attention to the lighting of the fire.
“You’ll find Mrs Nelson and I differ in our methods. She prefers the older practice of first laying cinders, followed by paper, dry wood, and finally pieces of coal, before setting light to the paper. By all means try her way. You may find it suits you. I, myself, lean towards a newer, more efficacious technique.”
She got to her knees beside me, for the first time all morning, and with almost a hint of enthusiasm reached into the coalscuttle.
“First, I like to lay some good sized pieces of coal which you mix with cinders, like so. Then you add your wood and another layer of coal, before popping your paper on the top, and then you light in the usual way,” she said, striking a match and setting it to the paper. “See? And now the fire burns from the top downward, instead of from the bottom. It uses less coal this way. Something the mistress approves of, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
I nodded my head wordlessly while trying to hide a small smile; I never thought my mornings would be filled with wondering whether to lay cinders first or coal; at home, a fire was a fire, and there was always a fight to get close to it before it was covered by the great copper pan Ma used to heat up the water for laundering.
One thing was for sure, I was grateful to discover that the laundry was taken care of by the scullery maid; it was no hardship to leave that task behind.
After the fires were lit, there was more dusting and polishing ensuring no surface was left untouched, and that all in the breakfast room was in perfect order for the family. The other rooms of the lower floor now also fell to me: the library, the morning room and drawing room, as well as sweeping the stairs, hall, doorway and passages, while Rachel took charge of the mistress’ dressing room: lighting the fire and bringing up pitchers of hot water, leaving Nanette to dress and take care of the mistress’s toilette.
The butler, Mr Roberts, dealt with the master, it being unseemly for a maid to do so, and no valet being employed; the footman, James, laid the breakfast cloth which seemed a ritual in itself with the tea urn, knives, forks and salt cellars before returning with the milk, cream, bread, butter, hot plates, egg cups and so forth.
The breakfast room bell would ring, and after seeing breakfast served, Rachel returned upstairs to throw up the sashes and curtains. I followed very briefly to empty the slop pails, scalding them with hot water or adding a drop of turpentine if there was stubborn night soil. Once that task was done, I quickly and quietly went downstairs once more leaving her to make the beds, dust and polish.
The drawing room and dining room required even more care and attention in cleaning, and still yet more tools: hard brushes for the velvet pile carpets, a feather brush and soft cloth for the furniture. After this was accomplished, it was time to dress for the day ahead.
Not that I had been wandering around the Tuke house in a state of undress! I laughed at the thought, and Rachel’s face at seeing such a thing. But the blacking of grates and emptying of slop pails could have an injurious effect on one’s clothes and so it was not until these early morning tasks were undertaken that my proper day dress was assumed.
As I climbed the servants’ stairs to the attic again, I reflected that it was not even nine o’clock; I had been awake barely three hours but already I was tired, although I did not quite yet long for my bed. This was different work entirely to that I was used to, but I knew enough that all I lacked was a little time to settle in. I hoped.
Even though I was not yet there long, and I was barely allowed upstairs, I could see what Ma meant; these people, they didn’t live like us. I knew that before, but it was different to see for yourself.
Every day Rachel laid out a fresh shift for Mrs Tuke and took water for bathing while the little ones in the nursery were treated with as much care. I was the eldest, but even I didn’t recall ever having something new to call my own, always hand-me-downs and cast-offs, yet the Tuke children had whole sets of outfits each.
And the food! It had to be seen to be believed! Eight courses, one after another. It fair made you gawp. And these Tukes weren’t even fancy folk. Mrs Nelson said that to see the way they carried on in London was to see something else. I bet Nanette would have something to say and all, if she’d deign to open her stuck up pinched little mouth. Seemed to me that just because a proper lady’s maid has to be French, she didn’t have to be a right little madam too; airs and graces like you’ve never.
But they seemed nice folk, the Tukes. Quakers, like Ma said, though I didn’t have much idea what that meant, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure she did, neither. I soon learnt it meant to live peacefully with others, and to live in a plain way.
They called themselves Friends, and Ma needn’t have worried, they read the Bible just like us, well, if we Haxbys could have read. Rachel told me piety, faith and love were their beliefs, adding with pride that the Tukes were well known in the community, philan-something or others apparently.
Mr Tuke, Samuel, the master of the house, was often called on by his grandfather, William; I’d never seen a man so old. There were whispers that he was over a hundred years old. I doubted that myself, for no man could live so long, and the Bible only allotted us three score years and ten, but he was a decrepit specimen with a nose so hooked he looked like a shrivelled bird of prey.
Despite his benevolent reputation, people tended to make themselves scarce when he was around. A will of iron, you did well not to get caught in his path. He founded The Retreat, which caught up so much of my master’s time; a lunatic asylum. Just the thought of it gave me the heebie jeebies when really I should have known better. There were more crazy people living in the slums of York than The Retreat would ever see, and most of them, were no more evil than you and me, simply lonely, sad and haunted by demons.
I’d not had call to see a great deal of Mrs Priscilla; Mrs Tuke, that was. She kept to her rooms and she certainly didn’t venture below stairs to discuss house affairs with Mrs Nelson. Instead, it was the latter who climbed the narrow spiralling staircase to the ground floor and met the mistress in the morning room once a week to plan out menus, entertaining and the like. But I’d seen her likeness in the portrait hanging in the drawing room; not a handsome woman, to my mind – dark hair that Nanette curled into tight sausages that clustered around her head but were mostly covered by a plain cap, skin scarred by childhood smallpox, thin lips too often pursed, a face already heavily lined, and bushy eyebrows which hung low over her eyes. Like old Mr Tuke, she seemed to have a strong mind of her own, which I couldn’t help but admire until I came to be on the receiving end of it. I should have known better; we all learned to fear her scathing remarks.
Lucy, the nursemaid, said to me, “It’s not so much that you’ve angered her, but that you’ve let her down. I’ve never felt so mortified in my entire life!”
Not a woman who suffered fools gladly then. A strong Quaker herself, like Mr Tuke, she eschewed the fancy fashions of the time. No swagged sleeves and scarlet dresses for her, much to Nanette’s dismay, yet, the severe black and navy woollen gowns that I saw being washed were of the highest quality, her linens expertly woven, time was still taken to rag her hair, and there were even lace collars from French convents. A sort of luxurious modesty was practised. Mind you, I couldn’t and didn’t complain; despite the money for my own dresses coming from my wages, the name Tuke ensured that the fabric I was sent was better quality that anything I’d ever owned before or since.
Anyway, clothing aside, there was a bleeding great lot of Tukes, and it took me a good few weeks to get them sorted in my head, but not as many as I’d left at home, thankfully. If you’d not got old Mr Tuke visiting, his son Henry was, while Mrs Tuke entertained her sisters and other female Friends, with a capital F, daily.
As for the children, Hannah was the eldest, and at only eight, a child very much still. Young Henry was the heir, and a more opinionated five year old I’d never met, which was to say, I’d never actually met him at this stage, but Lucy said he was a right so-and-so. Mind you, our James could probably give him a run for his money, the cheeky sod. Maria was next, then Sarah, and Priscilla (after her mother) and another one just out of her belly, the oddly named Gulielma. A quintet of girls, with only one boy to rule the roost, but, if the rumours were to be believed from Nanette, Mrs Tuke’s courses hadn’t been seen for a month or so. Another baby on the way perhaps? Maybe a little brother for Henry to play with, Lord knew he needed one.
Lucy had her hands full in the nursery, and I couldn’t say I was sorry to be relegated far below stairs. I had had enough looking after our lot.
Despite the Tukes numbering eight, 29 Lawrence Street didn’t boast a great staff, but that was another lot of names to get in my head. Ruth, the scullery maid was at the bottom of the pecking order, followed by Eileen, the kitchen maid, and then myself. The upper housemaid, Rachel, was next and we both answered to Mrs Nelson, the housekeeper. Rightly Lucy, the nursemaid should have answered to a governess, but one hadn’t been appointed yet, and I suspected Lucy, who knew her letters and numbers, had made her own bed when she showed her learning. She was in a sort of limbo, Lucy.
Nanette should really have answered to Mrs Nelson too but that would never have happened in a month of Sundays; far too uppity, that one. A day in Bedern would soon change that, which was as unlikely as me becoming a lady. Then there was Mrs Murray, the cook, who rightly wasn’t anyone’s Missus, but all cooks and housekeepers took the title. I doubted there was a Mr Nelson on the scene, either; certainly not one I saw.
Jefferson, the gardener and Parkin, the coachman, were both outdoor servants, but answered to Mr Roberts, the butler, as did James, the footman.
It took me almost a month to be properly sure of who everyone was and where they all went. By rights, considering our master’s position in society, Mrs Nelson told me we should also have had a tweeny, a valet, a steward and several more housemaids, a governess and a matching set of footmen. Heaven knows where we’d have fit everyone! As it is, I shared a tiny attic room with Nanette and Rachel, while Eileen and Ruth bunked up next to us, Lucy slept in the night nursery with the children, and Mrs Murray and Mrs Nelson both had their own rooms.
The men slept across the corridor but I’d no call to know their sleeping arrangements, nor had any wish to, Rachel reminded me, if I wanted to keep my position.
Whatever Mrs Nelson said, once I’d grown accustomed to them my duties there seemed much less arduous than helping Ma wash clothes all day long. Days took on a routine as I shook Rachel awake, who slept harder than our Eliza, while Nanette dozed a while longer in her narrow bed and threw mumbled French curses at us.
Little Ruth was always up an hour since, poor lass; stoking the kitchen fire for Mrs Murray and boiling the water for the breakfast, and the family. There was just enough time for me to pour some cold water from the jug into the chipped bowl in its iron stand and throw it under my arms before putting on my first dress of the day.
I learnt more each day and had less need for Rachel’s guidance; soon I’d be trained enough to help her but in the meantime she grumbled loud and long about her extra duties. Personally, I couldn’t see that flattening my vowels would make a difference as my role was to be neither seen nor heard. Anyhow, until Mrs Nelson deemed my ‘h’s and ‘t’s acceptable, I did as I was told, only venturing upstairs for the slops, and to change into my morning dress while the family was at breakfast, and besides, from dawn long past dusk there was plenty that kept me occupied. It was not long before the end of my first month drew near, and with it, my day off.
It had been raining for days, but whatever the weather in the morning, nothing was going to stop me from taking off through the city to see Eliza and Ma. That day hadn’t been a bad day, far from it. I was getting into the rhythms of the house and finding my place there. I thought I could even sense a softening in the attitude of Rachel, and perhaps a friend in Lucy. I had much to tell my sister and closest confidante.
As it was my day off, either Rachel or maybe Ruth would have to take care of my duties, including laying the fires in the morning. I was conscious that the coalscuttles were low, and Ruth was only a little thing. She was wiry, but I bet it took me half the time it did her to get the coal hauled up there. No harm in helping out now, was there?
It was past midnight and the rarely glimpsed Mr and Mrs Tuke had dined hours before, while the children had long since disappeared to bed. It was only the servants left awake, but all had retreated to their rooms, their heads sensibly hitting their pillows, or a few precious moments snatched to themselves, and I was the only one still dithering, Rachel having dragged her weary legs upstairs several minutes before.
Gathering some coal would take only a few minutes and I was too excited to see my family tomorrow to sleep just then. The scuttle in the breakfast room needed a full top up as did the drawing room – the most favoured room of the house, it got through a lot of coal, and I was on my third trip up the stairs before I reached the dining room. It still smelled of their supper.
Being only the two of them to dine, a plain supper had been served of green pea soup, roast fowl garnished with watercress, gravy, and bread sauce, followed by cold veal and salad, and finished with a cherry tart. Mrs Murray had even made some cherry tart for us as well although below stairs we ate plainer still; sometimes though, the smells of their fancy dinners with blancmange, lobster salads, pigeon pie and strawberry ices, I swore they could almost sustain you. My ma would have laughed at that.
I breathed it all in. Whatever the smell, even in July, it was a damn sight better than Bedern. With only the library left, I glanced at the bucket at my feet. There was only a third left but in this weather there had not been a great need for fires in there. It was only Mr Tuke who used it anyway. A third should have been more than enough, and I’d no wish to go downstairs again.
I opened the door to the library, heaved the bucket across to the fireplace and was down on my hands and knees about to start refilling the copper bucket set to one side when a muffled cough stopped me in my tracks.
“Please be James,” I thought to myself. “Or even Mr Roberts.”
I turned my head ever so slightly, and Lord help me, but who should have been in one of the high-backed wing chairs but Mr Tuke himself; the master. His head was slumped on to his chest, starched white collar biting into his neck slightly, arms folded tightly with shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and legs crossed at the ankle revealing pale woollen stockings.
Still dozing, although my entrance had disturbed him, I was in a quandary. Instructed to remain invisible at all times, we were the hidden clockwork of the house, and Mrs Nelson had been very clear that the family were only to be aware of our presence should they demand.
If there was one thing Mr Tuke, a reserved Quaker gentleman, respected throughout the city, didn’t need, it was to be caught snoozing in a chair with his stockings on show, jacket-less with his arms bared by the new housemaid.
I shouldn’t even have been in there, doing that now, anyway! I knew that I needed to make my exit as quickly and as quietly as I could, but instead I stayed on my knees and examined him. It was the first time I’d seen him up close, and who knew when I’d get another chance.
He was handsome, no one could say otherwise, and far removed in looks from his beak nosed grandfather. I would have placed him no older than 35, with a full head of thick curling brown hair that was kept long as fashion dictated but neatly tied behind at the nape. Full eyebrows framed his face, although what colour his eyes were could have been anyone’s guess, tightly closed as they were.
His face was relaxed in sleep, his cheeks smooth without a popular moustache. I found I was glad about that. Yes, he was definitely well made. Sat in the chair he gave me little indication to his build, but from the few glimpses I had had of him in the distance, I knew him to be tall, although not overly so, and without any great breadth in his shoulders. Unlike our James or even William, who was only seven, there was no hint of the labourer in him. He was unmistakably a gentleman born and bred, as his hands bore witness: smooth and lined only with age and design, rather than wear.
Even I, unused to quality, could see the fineness of his clothes, despite their plainness; the woollen navy jacket slung carelessly over the nearby settle with a thick white cravat thrown on top, his beautifully embroidered brocade waistcoat, its twin rows of golden buttons undone revealed more of the cream linen shirt beneath, leading down towards the woollen breeches, not yet upgraded to the more fashionable trousers, and stockings woven of the finest cream wool.
He even smelled like a gentleman, not that I could put my finger on how, probably it was simply the smell, or lack of, a clean person. I’d never seen anything like him.
As if aware of my scrutiny, he stirred again slightly, and I realised my situation. I had to get out of the library. I prayed I could get to my feet quietly, but feared that my new shoes, which, even after a month, I’d yet to wear in properly and were causing agonising blisters to form across my toes and the back of my ankles, would betray me once more (having already caused disgrace earlier in the week as the combination of them with the polished marble flooring of the hallway saw me fall head over heels).
Using the palms of my hands, I put first my left, and then my right, foot beneath my knees, and pushed myself up, hoping the creaking of my knees was only discernable to myself. My bottom rose in the air, and as I straightened my back, I heard the sleeper clear his throat. Hoping against hope that God was still on my side and that he was merely disturbed, I reached for the bucket and was about to leave when his throat was cleared once more.
Silently cursing, I turned around as slowly as I dared, wasting time until my inevitable dressing down. I faced the wingchair and while I lowered my eyes respectfully, I refused to hang my head like a dog waiting for a whipping.
However, as the silence grew between us, I couldn’t resist raising my eyes. He was smiling, I’d have sworn it, and even though I knew it was not my place to talk, and by doing so, I was committing a far greater crime, I couldn’t help myself.
“Mr Tuke, sir. I’m very sorry for disturbing you. I thought the room was empty, you see, and- and I can assure you it will never happen again.”
In my haste, I dropped my ‘h’s, and it was that that brought colour to my cheeks; the thought that I was disgracing myself. My words trailed off. His silence was unnerving and yet the smile still remained, and his eyes, grey I then discovered, were smiling too. Finally, he cleared his throat again and I had to stifle the urge to offer to get him a glass of water.
“Well, it seems you know who I am, but I am at a disadvantage. Who might you be?”
“I’m your new housemaid, sir.”
“And am I to know the name of my new housemaid?”
“Alice, sir. That is to say, Miss Haxby, sir. Or Alice. Or, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re to call me.”
This time I did hang my head with my cheeks burning brightly.
“Alice,” he said. “I shall call you Alice.”
“Well Alice, it is time I went to bed, and you to yours, I suspect.”
“Goodnight, sir,” I said, and bobbed a small, decidedly wonky curtsey. Before he left the room, he gathered his discarded jacket and cravat into his arms, buttoned his waistcoat, and as he left I thought I caught a chuckle, and the whisper of my name.