BooksNewsPaintingsJournalismPhoto GalleryBiographyContact MarkHome


Happy Sad Land
No Worries
Jack and Zena
The Craic
1900 House

Robbie Williams
- Somebody Someday

1900 HOUSE (1999) - Extract

Read the reviews


After a month or so working her fingers to the bone in the 1900 House, Joyce Bowler decided to do as a lady in her position would have done at that time - and employ a servant. It was to be an educational experience, for both parties...

In 1900 a family like the Bowlers would have had, not servants, but a daily maid-of-all-work. For some time now Joyce had been speculating about how the novelty of actually employing someone might work out. She had read the chapter on Mistress and Servant in Cassell's. 'This talks about mutual respect,' she wrote in her diary, 'and not commanding or ordering the poor old servant about. Will I give her the rotten dirty jobs? Mind you, I think there are enough for two, so I don't think we'll run out of things to do. It'll be nice to have someone to talk to but I am worried about the whole servant-mistress thing. Lots of people do have cleaning ladies (I've worked as a mother's help and nanny) so it isn't unheard of. Apparently I should supply a plan for her weekly work.

'Oh gawd,' she continued, after studying Cassell's a bit further. 'What are my priorities for a good servant?

1. Even tempered, cheerful.

2. GSOH.

3. Not afraid of hard work.

4. Good at keeping confidences.

5. Bloody marvellous person.

6. Not a know-it-all.

7. Not too fussy about anything much at all.

Sounds like an ad in the Lonely Hearts column!'

Five applicants answered the little advert placed in the local paper, offering the job of cleaner for a television company, but only two turned up for interview. Joyce was a little disappointed not to meet the New Zealand rugger player who had applied. But in the end they were very happy with Elizabeth Lillington, a Peckham woman of Glaswegian origins, who came, she said, from four generations of professional cleaners and was, as Joyce observed, 'tall enough to reach things'.

Joyce was still concerned about how she should behave with her new servant. 'It's terrible,' she explained, 'because I keep thinking, "We can get loads done, Elizabeth and I." Then I think, "I'm not supposed to be doing it with her, am I?" She's supposed to be doing it for me. I'm paying her to do it, therefore I'm supposed to be doing other things, so possibly my hands will begin to heal, the cracks and sore skin may go away, perhaps I'll be able to do some sewing on the sewing machine. If I was musically inclined I could sit and play the piano. With the thought that at the end of it, when she goes home, I can come upstairs and look around and it will all be clean, like magic. Which is exactly what my little electrical slaves do for me in 1999. I load up the washing machine, I go to work, I come back, it's done. But I feel more comfortable about having an electronic device do it for me than a human being. Though of course in 1900 the thought around was that I was giving someone gainful employment, so instead of this poor woman having to walk the streets and starve I was actually employing her.

'So I want to be a benevolent employer. While I'm not actually going to clean up before she arrives, because that's mad, I suppose I'll be giving her cups of tea, free access to the outside toilet - I mean what else can I give her, there aren't really a lot of perks to this job. As much fluff as you can take home!'

After Elizabeth's first day, complete with nineteenth-century clothes, Joyce was delighted. 'She's fabulous,' she reported that evening. 'The house looks extremely clean and I am starting to feel freer inside. I'm starting to think, "Ooh, I can be a lady who lunches, I can go to my suffragette rallies, I can go to lectures."'

Elizabeth was now experiencing what Joyce had been through at the start of the project. 'I am absolutely exhausted,' she reported after her first day. 'All I've done is the stairs and brushing the dust under the bed. It took an hour and a half to brush the stairs and mop them, well not mop them, because we don't have a mop, but literally wash it down on hands and knees. I can't believe that women used to do this with a corset on, because I can hardly breathe, it is so impossible to keep bending down and brushing and then going back over it with a cloth, it's really hard work. I'm ready to go to bed now and it' s only one o'clock in the afternoon.'

Seeing Elizabeth at work gave Joyce pause. 'I don't come from a privileged background,' she mused, 'I come from - if you've got to label it, some kind of working class. I come from south London, from intelligent people who have no money, no background, little or no education, no contacts. So a hundred years ago Joyce would have been the girl that came and scrubbed your floor.' Indeed, she went on, her own great-aunt Kate, whom she'd known as Aunty Kit, had worked as a scullery maid for Sir Stafford Cripps. (In line with his socialist beliefs, he had been, 'quite a benevolent employer, and allowed his servants access to the library'.)

'But look what's happened in a hundred years. Joyce is a girl that went to the local school, then on to Grammar School and then was allowed by society, by everybody, was funded, because she had the intelligence, to go on and get a further education.'

A Lady Who Lunches

Freed up by her maid-of-all-work Joyce took a trip into town to see the Millais exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. She was accompanied by her sister Katrina, who was visiting. This time the experience of going out was not a bad one. 'No-one pointed,' Joyce wrote in her diary, 'laughed, was abusive or intrusive. All I was asked directly was "Do you know the way to Chelsea?" To which I could answer, honestly, "No".'

She loved the exhibition. 'The paintings and drawings were beautiful. Some which captured me were those of the older Mr Gladstone, Lily Langtry and a poor soul who committed suicide at thirty-eight. I do love to visit art galleries but as a mock-Victorian the thrill of it all is much heightened. We relish our entertainment much more as 1900 people than 1999 ones. Nowadays we have grown too used to constant stimulation. The shows, the TV programmes, books, everything must be more shocking and explicit, more TITILLATING than the last.'

Afterwards the sisters went to Liberty's for a cup of tea. 'There were some ladies sat to one side and I noticed how beautifully dressed they were, how lithe and slim they appeared. I mean I can remember feeling like that and I don't feel like that now. I feel fat and lumpy, constricted, dirty. I turned to my sister and said, "Do I smell?" She told me I didn't, but it was very odd, because I'm only washing with soap and water, not wearing any deodorant, or perfume or body lotion.'

By Wednesday the holiday was over. Elizabeth was ill with a throat infection. Secretly Joyce wondered if she would ever return. 'On a purely selfish level I hope she does come back, because she was fabulous.'

An Important Visitor

For some time now the family had been looking forward to the visit of Daru Rooke, the social historian who had supervised the transformation of the house and decided on its contents. Joyce was, frankly, rather nervous. 'I hope that Daru doesn't resent our presence,' she wrote in her diary. 'I don't know why I'm saying this because he was saying such lovely positive things to us and he is such a gentle and sensitive person. But I worry: Are we the 1900 family he would like to see living in Elliscombe Rd? He is passionate about this experiment and I don't want to let him down. Does that seem silly?'

Meanwhile both she and her daughters were planning an entertainment for after the big dinner they were going to cook for their visitor. The twins were going to put on a short play about a ghost called Alice who was, Hilary explained, a little girl who had lived in the house in Victorian times. Joyce and Kathryn, meanwhile, were working on an improving drama of their own. In her diary Joyce wrote out her draft script:

My Script (plus AD LIBS)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Here I stand before you a woman of the year 1900. Womanhood personified! A picture of all a modern lady of our times could wish to be! Or am I? Please close your eyes and cast your minds into the future, one hundred years away to the year 2000. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the woman of the year 1999, as she enters the next Millennium in the year 2000. (Applause as Kathryn enters.)

This is my manifesto for the woman of the future. By the year 2000 women will have:

1) Got the vote.

2) Got into parliament.

3) Come out again for a nice cup of tea.

4) Gone in again to give everyone What-for!

5) Invented a lovely stuff to wash hair which leaves it all soft and shiny.

6) Invented a way of washing dishes without getting their hands all dry and sore. (Kathryn holds up PLACARD: Get a man to do it.)

7) Bought bigger wardrobes to hold more clothes.

8) Bought more clothes.

9) Got the right to hold public office.

10) Got the right to choose which colour goes with their hair (whatever colour their hair may be that week!)

11) Restructured their whole wardrobe to go with the colour of their hair.

12) Spent years in selfless research into effective anti-ageing creams and lotions in the search for a scientific breakthrough which will help all other women.

13) Discovered one which works and decided not to share this secret with all other women.

14) Decided that, well, we can't have it all, don't want it all but it's JUST SO NICE to have the choice should we really want to.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here she is, Miss Year 2000. But don't despair gentlemen, she won't neglect you and no doubt she will still have a place in her heart for a military man.



Elizabeth had by now recovered from her viral infection and was back at work. The maid-of-all-work had started her own diary and was somewhat critical of her employer's cleaning efforts. 'The main room looked clean enough,' she wrote, 'until I touched the ornaments and water bowl which was all covered in thick dust. The two small rooms were thick with dust especially the floors, which being without carpets had at least two inches of dust under the bed. She is not coping with the housework at all.'

Nonetheless, she and Joyce got on well. 'I admire her a lot,' Elizabeth wrote, and then a day or two later, 'We have become friends, rather than employer and maid. She did tell me,' she added, 'that she feels embarrassed that I am there to clean for her and really she should be embarrassed as the house is filthy.' A day later she wrote, 'She admitted to me that she only brushed the stairs once by hand and it nearly killed her, she just isn't used to physical work, she is more of an intellect.'

'Today,' Elizabeth wrote on the Thursday, 'I spent most of the morning cleaning and polishing as Joyce has told me that tomorrow they are expecting a visitor who is an historian. He is an expert on the social history of the 1900s. Joyce is nervous and excited at the same time. She's said this is because he is an expert, but really she is the one who has become expert. She is living the history that he is studying.'

The Big Day

'The Big Day' Elizabeth headed her diary entry. She got the breakfast dishes out of the way while Paul and Joyce prepared the parlour for Daru Rooke's arrival. Then mistress and maid discussed what they were going to cook for dinner: tomato and vegetable stew with spaghetti, followed by rhubarb custard, meringues, banana fritters and sponge cake.

The morning was spent cleaning. 'Then at 2 p.m. exactly,' Elizabeth wrote, 'Daru arrived. He looked immaculate, dressed in a black suit with a yellow cravat. I answered the door to him. "Good afternoon, sir," I said, "won't you come in." He came into the hall. I then asked him if he had a calling card. He replied "No". Then he asked if Mr and Mrs Bowler were at home. I made him wait in the hall while I told Paul that he had a visitor. They then came into the kitchen for their tea. I had everything prepared for them and the three sat round the table for a chat. I stayed in the scullery.

'They talked of how they were getting on. Daru asked how they are coping. Straightaway Paul answered saying he was handling it OK and enjoying it. Joyce said the opposite. She said while she was finding the life fascinating it was also much harder than she had anticipated.

'Then I was introduced properly to Daru, who is a most charming and interesting man. I wanted to ask him if in fact a maid-of-all-work would have worn a corset while working. I was a bit disappointed when he said yes, as it is very uncomfortable to work in. He explained that if, a hundred years ago, I would have lived at the house, I would most likely have slept on the floor in the kitchen and been fed on scraps. He painted a very dire picture of a maid's life. He went on to say that I would have perhaps come from the country where there was no work. I would not have known anyone in the city, which is what my employers would have liked and I would have tried to better myself by learning domestic skills and perhaps met the butcher or baker boy who may have become my husband. I wondered if I would have been taught to read and write, but Daru said probably not as I would have received basic education at the village school.'

Elizabeth and Joyce had already planned the preparation of the dinner, bearing in mind such logistical difficulties as the fact that water still took half an hour to boil on the range. By 5.30 they were ready. 'Paul came in and wanted to know what he should do. I told him I could manage but he insisted on getting the water ready. I realised that he had a small chip on his shoulder as I am doing all the jobs that he would have done. Eventually Joyce sent him off to lay the table - what a relief, he was out of the kitchen! I started on the batter. I was scared of the outcome as I'd never made banana fritters in the 1990s, let alone the 1890s.

'When the table was set it looked really lovely. The youngest child Joseph threw a wobbler and refused to get his clean shirt on. I grabbed him by his arm and dragged him upstairs and all the way he was punching me, but I had him by the neck so he wasn't hitting me too hard. By the time I got him to his room he was fine and ready to change. We were having a laugh when Paul came in and ordered me out of the room and reprimanded Joe. It was totally unnecessary. He blew it all out of proportion and made himself look ridiculous. I let it wash over my head as it is not my business to interfere. I carried on with the cooking and when the family was ready and seated I served the food. The spaghetti was sticky and Joyce said it was a stupid idea to serve it at the table but it wasn't my idea, it was the TV director's. By this time I was fed up with the moaning and wished they would get on with things and relax. I mean, I was having fun and I was doing all the work so what was their problem? I served up the main course and everything was fine, apart from Paul calling me every minute to ask for things I had already taken care of. To make matters worse Joe kept calling me "Maid". I got the feeling he would have made my life hell if this was a real-life situation. If he was my child he would have got put over my knee and spanked.

'Once the main course was finished and cleared away by me I served pudding. All in all, everything went really well and I was looking forward to the entertainment, but the dishes kept piling up. It took me twenty minutes to wash and dry the main dishes and pots.

'Once the entertainment started I put on my best apron and waited in the kitchen. I waited and waited, then Paul called me in. I was happy to be invited, but he only wanted me to make the tea, which I did and still no invite. I spent the rest of the evening on my own in the kitchen cleaning up. I could hear them all laughing and clapping. My feet were aching, my back hurt and my hands were red raw, and although everyone thanked me and said I did a great job, I would have been more grateful if I was invited to join in like a member of the family. I did not ever think I would not be invited in, as Joyce has always said she would never have a maid or get used to one being in her house, yet here I am two weeks into the work and her husband is treating me like a real skivvy.

'It changed my attitude towards the family and I felt rather sad for the young girl who would have done my work 100 years ago, as she would have had nowhere to go. The house would have been her life and it must have been very hard and lonely for her, always being treated as if she was beneath her master. If she was unlucky enough not to be able to afford books I do not think she would have had any escape from the grim reality of her life.'

Elizabeth, however, had been the only one to have a disappointing time on that splendid evening. 'It's five past eleven at night,' an excited Joyce confided later. 'I'm trying not to shout because everyone's in bed. I've just taken my corset off, after seventeen hours of wearing it, so I think I've broken my own record. I've had a fabulous day.

'I was nervous about the meal, about getting everything just right, making sure the children were happy about their entertainments, which I must say went down so well. I was so proud of them. They were all fantastic. And our wonderful maid who was shoving plates down and snatching them up and doling out the food - it was just an absolute scream, from start to finish.'
back to the top
site design by pedalo limited