For working-class girls in Victorian Leeds, there were two options, mills or maids. It wasn’t an easy life, there were no luxuries.
For Annabelle Harper, the mill was purgatory. Maybe becoming a maid might be better. Her experience was that of so many girls. This is a fragment of her story. To know more, come and see The Empress on the Corner.
When you’re muck, you’re muck. Soon as they see you, everyone knows it and they don’t forget it. Not them upstairs, the ones who pay for it all. I mean down in the servants’ hall. Got a pecking order so strict you’d think Moses had handed it down himself. And right at the bottom was muggins here. Scullery maid. Up before anyone to lay a fire, put the kettle on the range and make tea, and God help you if you’re late. Scrub the pans after every meal. But not the good china, because I can’t be trusted with it. Can’t even eat with the other servants. Dish the food out to them, clear it away when they’re done, then skulk away in a cubbyhole with whatever’s left. Mills or maids? When you’re muck it doesn’t seem to make much difference. I found that out soon enough. Kitchen maid, downstairs maid, it’s like climbing a ladder. You go up rung by rung. But very slowly. The lass who replaced me in the scullery lasted a fortnight. Can’t say I blame her. If I’d an ounce of sense I’d have done exactly the same thing. But I was bloody-minded. I wasn’t going home with me tail between me legs. I wasn’t going to give me da the satisfaction. They could have set me to shovelling the sewers and I wouldn’t have left. Sixteen and I’m finally an upstairs maid. Polish the glass on the windows, look out and there’s the whole world in front of you. Out towards Otley, that big valley just spread there, all green. I used to gaze out at that every minute I could get. Didn’t matter the season. Because that looked like freedom. The little farmhouses with the smoke curling up to the sky. I used to think if I could just live in one of those places I could be happy for the rest of me life. My brain must have been addled. As if a life in the back of beyond with mud and pigs and cows would ever be anything for me. Then the housekeeper would come along, all silent because the rugs were so thick. She’d give me a clout and tell me to get back to work.
I turned seventeen and I was used to the job. I should have been by then, five years there. That house had become my world. Half day off every other week. Walk into Leeds to see me da and me family. An hour sitting in silence, then the walk back. Maybe visit a lass or two I knew who worked at Black Dog. Didn’t tell them I was still sharing a bed with one of the other maids up in the attic. Or that the second son of the house had started noticing me. Some things you’re better off keeping to yourself. He had hands everywhere. Didn’t think he had to take no for an answer. Wasn’t too bad at first. I threatened to tell his ma and he left me alone for a few weeks. But all I had was empty words. I knew that and he realised it soon enough. After that he didn’t care. Why would he? I couldn’t do anything. Pinched my bum until it was black and blue. His family owned mills. They had the money, they had the power. I was just muck. I knew what was going to happen. Might as well have been written right there on the wall. I knew, but that didn’t mean he was going to get it easy. I’d make damn sure he’d never want to come for me again. I fought him. I made him pay. I bit, scratched, shouted. Went for his eyes. Hurt him. For all the good it did. He was always going to win. His kind always does. Once he started it wasn’t even a minute and he was done. I’ll never forget the sneer on his face as he buttoned himself up. I told him that if he ever came back and tried that again I’d slide a knife across his throat and let him bleed like a pig at slaughter. I spat in his face. I wasn’t going to let the tears start while he was there. I wasn’t going to let him see me weak. He might have got what he wanted but I wasn’t going to give him any bloody satisfaction. Then he was gone and I was lying there, crying my eyes out, pushing my face into the pillow. Did anyone come? Course they didn’t. I hurt right enough. Not just in my body. Here. And here. And when I was cried out I wiped my eyes and I had to make the bed where he’d had me, as if nothing had happened. Had to make it the next day, too, and all the ones after, and pretend nothing had happened there. But I’ll tell you what, he never tried it on with me again. I kept a knife in my pocket, just in case. I’d have hung for him, I’d have done it without thinking. I thought I’d hated people before that, but it didn’t even compare. I wasn’t about to leave, though. That would be running. Instead he was going to have to see me every day, to have his guilt staring him in the face. I was going to be there to remind him of what he’d done. He didn’t come sniffing round me and he didn’t bother any of the other girls. That was something. It wasn’t ever going to be over, of course. As long as I saw him, as long as I had to clean that room, it was like ripping the wound open again every day. But I’d do that, I’d grit me teeth and change the sheets and put on a smile for as long as it took to throw it all back at him. When you’re muck, though, nothing goes right. Six week later and I hadn’t come on yet. I knew what that meant. Up the spout, bun in the oven, whatever you want to call it. Not that I was going to say a word. Soon as the mistress heard she’d be throwing her hands up in horror, telling me how wicked I was. They’d have me out on me ear before you could say Jack Robinson, and not a word of a reference. Problem is, you can only go so long before people can tell. A question or two from the housekeeper and that was that. Didn’t even get the pleasure of telling the mistress it was her precious boy who’d caused it. Not that she’d have believed me or done owt about it. If you had money you were untouchable. I was on my way, wages paid, everything I had wrapped up in a shawl. God, it were like something from one of them penny novelettes. Should have seen my da’s face when I turned up on the doorstep. “Got the sack, have you? Don’t be thinking you can loll around here all day.” Aye, that’s the sort of welcome a daughter needs. He was always on at me. Put money in for me keep. Cook for him. Wash the pots and the clothes. I did me bit. He was down the pub when it happened. Where else would he be of a night? I’d just finished all the jobs and I was going to put me feet up. All of a sudden I had a pain like someone was trying to tear my insides out. Couldn’t hardly stand. I looked down and I saw blood. I didn’t know one body could have that much of it inside and it was all coming out. I knew what was happening but it didn’t matter. All I could think was ‘I’m going to die.’ I must have started screaming blue murder. I don’t know, I don’t remember. The next thing I knew old Mrs. Riley from next door was there. Sixteen stone if she was an ounce and a voice that could strip paint. But she looked after me. Got a pair of women in to help, then bullied a doctor into coming to Leather Street. That might have been a first. Stayed with me until me da rolled back and told him to take care of me or else. I’d lost the babby, of course. For the best, that’s what I reckoned. Didn’t stop me crying like a little lass, though. It kept coming back, that empty feeling like something had been stolen from me. And all the time me da was saying I had to get myself well and find some work. That let me know how welcome I was. And soon as I could, I started looking. Anything that got me away from him. Then I ran into Mary McLaughlin when I went for a quarter of tea to the shop. She told me they were looking for someone to work at the Victoria in Sheepscar.