Life ‘in service’ 1914-1919

Thelma Dawson

[Nora Dawson worked as a domestic servant from 1914 till her marriage in 1919. These are some of her recollections as told to and recorded by her family.]

"I had never wanted to do anything except housework. I love it. (Nora did all her own until the age of 98). My oldest sister thought I was mad; she hated housework and learned to use the typewriting machine so she could work in an office. Another sister was apprenticed to a dressmaker. But all I wanted to do was housework.

When you were in service in those days you lived-in. From the beginning of 1914 for about 18 months I worked for a few people, but I wasn't happy. I didn't get enough to eat and I didn't like the way they treated me like a servant. I didn't stay long with these people. I wanted to live in a home and be treated like part of the family.

One day someone told my mother that a Doctor in a town not far from us was looking for someone to help out in the house. This person told my Mother that these were very nice people so she said she would let me have a try. I went to live with them. There were nine in the family, a mother and father and seven children, with three girls and two boys living at home. A girl and a boy were not living at home. The boy was serving in the army overseas and the girl had married and was living in Queensland. When I started work for the family the youngest child was a boy aged three.

I was happy there. They were very nice people. My duties were a little bit of everything – cooking, cleaning and washing. The lady of the house and her daughters helped with the washing. Every day except Friday I got up at six o'clock and took the Doctor and his wife their early-morning tea and then prepared breakfast for the whole family. I got the lunches too. On Fridays I got up at five o'clock because I had to black the coal stove with black lead and whitewash all around it before I did anything else. I was very proud of that stove. I kept it very nice.

At dinner time I would cook the dinner, with the lady of the house helping me. She was very kind and taught me how to cook a lot of tasty dishes. I would have my breakfast and lunch with their family but not dinner at night. The lady would serve the food and the girls would take it to the table and clear the dishes. While they were having dinner I would scour the pots and then wash the dishes. Then I would have my own dinner which I had kept hot on a plate over a pan of boiling water. The family had its own vegetable garden and kept a cow. The butcher, baker and grocer called. The food was excellent and plenty of it and I ate exactly the same food as the family.

Monday was washday, it was always a Monday. We had a scrubbing board and a huge copper heated by a fire underneath. The gardener chopped the wood for the fire and brought it in to the laundry. I think I said that the lady and her daughters all helped on washday. We were lucky that we had a wringer for the clothes. The washing was a big job. I didn't have to do much ironing; the girls did most of that, the 'fancy' things, anyway. Of course, I had general cleaning to do – bedrooms on a Tuesday, sitting room on Thursday, verandahs and hall (a huge long one) on Friday, etc. I never had any spare time but I liked it that way. As I said before, I like housework and I took pride in my work. You could see your face in the polished boards around the carpets.

I used to sit with the family in the evening and do knitting or fancy work. This was during the war and everyone knitted socks for soldiers. The lady and the daughters did this too. The Doctor went to his Library after dinner. Often he would be called out to a patient. We had a telephone. Not many ordinary houses had one in those days, but he had one because he was a Doctor. He was a fine man and highly regarded in the area.

I had one full day and off a month to spend with my family and every second Sunday I would go home after I had prepared lunch. Home was a half-hour trip in the train. It was a fair distance to the train station so the family I worked for had a horse and sulky and they would drive me to the station and pick me up when I came back. I was very lucky. They were very good to me and I was happy living with them. I was paid 15 shillings a week. The lady paid it in cash. It was good money for those days, because I was housed and fed, so I could save quite a bit. My Mother refused to take any of it so I had a handy little sum for my "glory box" when I married my husband in 1919, after he came home from the war. He had been at Gallipoli, but he never talked about it. He said there were things he would rather forget, and Gallipoli was one of them."