To start this chapter it would be instructive to look at figures for the proportion of children employed as domestics within the period of this book. The definition of ‘domestic servant’ is rather elastic, as it may include or exclude, for example, laundresses doing contract washing, waitresses and cleaners in lodging- and eating-houses, charwomen coming in as ‘dailies’, and ‘nurses’ who looked after babies or attended the sick or elderly; while the child moonlighters who did paid domestic odd jobs for other households, or served as unpaid ‘little mothers’ and ‘helpers’ at home, would not figure in the census classifications as domestics. Despite these limitations, the censuses do provide a good idea of the extent to which child service was employed in the home.
Of the 1,230,000 females in ‘general domestic service’ (excluding laundresses and charwomen) in 1881 over 98,000 were girls under 15; in 1891 this peaked to 107,000 girls out of 1,386,000 general female domestics, but by 1901 it had fallen to 64,800 out of 1,331,000. This fall reflects the rise in the school-leaving age and the widening alternative opportunities in shop work and light industry. In the earlier Victorian period some paid servants could be surprisingly young; thus in 1861 15,332 10-14-year-old girls were recorded as ‘nurses’; and 983 ‘nurses’ were 5-9 years old, while 729 5-9s were given as general domestics. 1 In fact the censuses probably understate the proportion of under-15s, as girls were kown to exaggerate their ages to improve their chances when applying for work. 2
In 1871 23 per cent of ‘nurses’ were under 14, and they were on average younger than all other servants; even at their tender years they would have had prior experience of looking after younger siblings at home. 3