For women desperate to escape from Fascism, nursing or domestic service were major means of entering Britain legally from the late 1930s to the onset of World War Two in September 1939 (when paid work was otherwise normally prohibited as a condition of entry). These life-saving measures were widely sought after through agencies and charities, and posts were often obtained on the women’s behalf by family members or friends already in Britain. But whilst the women were grateful to be safe, few were content. Overall, the domestic service experience was not a happy one.
Several factors contributed to the women’s unhappiness, quite apart from homesickness and anxiety about loved ones left behind. Grievances centre on their treatment/mistreatment as ‘lowly servants’ regardless of their education, qualifications or social standing (not unusually equal to, or greater than that of the respective mistress). Unfamiliar language, customs and practices could heighten a woman’s humiliation or sense of lost identity in a class-conscious and alien society that had not endured foreign domination for centuries.
Despite the Domestic Bureau’s guidance in Mistress and Maid, tensions inevitably arose, especially when the ‘domestic’ could not cook or light an open coal fire… Nevertheless, it is broadly held that the women were generally exploited. Read more here.
– Dr Jana Buresova
That was wonderful, it was beshert that I should come to a family like that, not a wealthy family, just an ordinary family who signed for them, and because of that they came in March 1939.
I had to go in the attic there, because they had a maid before me, and it was a bit difficult because I wasn’t used to, it was cold, because there was these blankets, and I was used to feather beds, like you are used to duvets, but that wasn’t all. I, there were two little children and I tried to do whatever she asked me to do, wash the nappies and do some baking which I said I knew how to bake, but it turned out the flour was self raising and not plain, it didn’t turn out as good, but I did my best.
I worked there [the Oceano Laundry in Haringey, North London] for a year, the only reason I left was that during air raids we had to go to a shelter and the salt of the earth that these ladies were, they used to sing songs, by then I could understand quite a lot of English, and I had a feeling they weren’t the kind of songs I wanted to learn. They were raucous, they were rude, they were wartime songs. So I thought, what I need is an office, I need to work in an office I need to become posh.
I found out that two or three girls were in the same area, refugee girls, working. And we were all in the same boat. They all complained the same as I did, how badly treated they were. We got together on our day off. We used to go to Lyon’s Corner House and sat all afternoon with a cup of coffee, crying. We were-. That was really unbelievable. And I was not frightened of work, I was healthy, I was young, I didn’t mind the work, but I did mind-, I objected to the way I was treated.
It was a doctor’s house with 23 rooms, including the surgeries. That’s what I had to do. That’s what I had to do. And, after seven weeks, my hands were shaking, then it was really-, I couldn’t do that. It was such hard work. It was from 8 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night, with one hour lunch-time and nothing else, so it was very, very hard going. And, I’m sorry to say, I don’t know if I should say it, I’m sorry to say, my brother phoned my employer to say that it’s such hard, long hours and so on, and she said: ‘Well, if it’s too much for her, I send her back to Hitler.’ True. And I left. I had to leave. My next job was as a nanny with a little child. And there we were friends, they were so kind, they were really friends to me and to my brother, he came to visit, and they helped me to bring my parents over.
When she heard I was leaving she went out of her mind, screamed & shouted. Ordered me into the kitchen but I was out that door so quickly you couldn’t see me for dust. She wouldn't give me my belongings. She was going to report me to police. She was going to have me sent back to Vienna which was rubbish, because war had broken out anyway.
The one thing that always stuck in my head is when I took this little boy out for the walk, she used to give me a few pennies to buy him a sweet bun. And God forbid I should take a tiny bit of this money but tell his mother and she would go bananas. That chocolate that my mother gave me [for the Kindertransport journey] - the box of chocolate. This is honestly true; I rationed myself to half a chocolate a night...because I craved it.
When I was sent to that Jewish convalescent home in Broadstairs, I must say it was not the hard work that made us unhappy, but the fact that we got so little to eat. The matron wasn’t very kind to us and we were always hungry and then we walked along the beach in Broadstairs and we met Czech soldiers, Jewish Czech soldiers, that had come from Czechoslovakia and they took us to their canteen and the cook fed us, so that was quite good.
We were all put into hotels round Bloomsbury Square and we spent some time in the hotel and then they had to decide what to do with us subsequently, because as you know, there was no social security in those days, and you weren’t allowed to do any work except cleaning, and so one of the girls on the boat and I were sent to a Jewish convalescent home in Broadstairs to do the cleaning there. I was fifteen then.
I lived in Hendon with that family. I think they really relied on me for everything because the woman went to work, and when she didn’t work, she stayed in bed reading novels, and I had to write the notes to school when the kids were ill. Now what the notes were like I don’t know, the teacher must have been very amused, because after three months in England, what did I know?
After war had broken out, I met a Jewish family on the beach and they needed an au pair girl, and so they asked me to come with them to London and be an au pair girl. And in the convalescent home I got half a crown a week, I don’t know how you work that out the equivalent of it now, and these people offered me ten shillings a week, which was half a pound then, wasn’t it, which was wonderful and also I could go back to London and see my mother. So I went with that family to their home in Hendon and I looked after two children of six and eleven. By that time I was sixteen and I did all the cooking and all the cleaning. And I’d never done anything at home. I used to phone my mother and ask her how to cook a meal. But it seemed to work alright because they put my money up by another half a crown very quickly and had a nice outfit tailored for me and although I did all the work, I always ate with them, they treated me like a member of the family.
Because I didn’t do exactly what they expected, she started fighting me and gave me a smack. I thought, ‘Well that’s enough now’, that was after a week, I gave her a hook, like this, and she flew in that corner and I run up in my room, just took what I thought I need for the moment, and I run away. And then I run away and I didn’t know where I run, you know, and I thought, ‘What am I doing now?’
Finally I got my auntie and uncle to come and take me to Macclesfield to live with them. That was absolutely wonderful. I was a free person. I could go out when I wanted. You cannot imagine it. I started going into Manchester, going to dances, to Austria House and going to the Ritz in the afternoon on Sunday. It was a wonderful life for me. I met Sydney soon after and that was it.
I was cleaning - cleaning in Auntie Lena's shop. I helped to prepare meals, wash up,do the washing, the ironing and the cleaning. Later on, when my Uncle Nat was called up into the army, she didn't want to stay in the house. She was having a baby. That's what it was, she was having a baby then, Vivienne, and she had to go to Blackpool for a fortnight because they would not allow them to have the children in Manchester. So she went to Blackpool during her time of having the baby. I went to live with her mother and father in Heywood Street and her sister and me would come and open the shop every day. It was a wallpaper shop and paint shop. Gradually I started cleaning the other house as well and washing and ironing. I did that besides having to look after Vivienne when she was old enough for me to be able to handle her. Don't forget, I had never handled a baby. I did nothing else. I cleaned, washed, I ironed, I cooked and that was it. I did that for seven years.
They were very nice, I was quite obviously one of the family. I mean it is really funny when I think back now, because my mother had insisted on giving me our maid’s black dress and little apron and things, in case I needed it there, but they weren’t that sort of family at all, as they would have been in a stately home. And I had friends who had friends in stately homes, and it was like that. Anyhow, she laughed her head off when I unpacked it as you can imagine.
Mrs Green said, “You will come and live with us, part of the family,” he was a doctor. She said, “Can you answer the phone?”
I said, “Yes, I speak English more or less.”
“You answer the phone for the doctor and you help me to dust a little, I have got a cleaning lady and I have got a washer woman.”
It sounds wonderful, yeah, life of Reilly. I wasn’t there for more than three weeks when she sacked the washer woman, and she said, “I don’t know why you can't do the washing.” And then she sacked the char woman, and I worked there very hard for a pound a week, and until I put my foot down. She had a daughter who had had a baby, and she said to me I should wash the baby’s nappies and I said, “Sorry,” I said to her,”If your daughter would to live with my mother, she wouldn’t ask her to wash the nappies.” I said, “I am not going to do the nappies.”
The Moncrieffs were unbelievably good. With a tact that really needs remembering. The first day we came and you feel like the last dirt on earth. You have no money; your language is very bad; and you have nobody. You have no doctor; you have no uncle; you have no aunt; you have nobody, in a strange city, in Edinburgh had no relatives .. and what did they do? She lays the breakfast table for me, my husband and Hannah, who was nine months old, in the lounge, and she lays a table for herself, her husband and the boy in the kitchen. Wonderful! You know, makes you feel like a Mensch again. Wonderful! So they were very, very good to us. And I mean I did the housework for them.
I think the worst job was that terrible woman who hated me and I hated her. In Surrey. ‘The Master’ and ‘the Mistress’. I don’t think we could stand the sight of each other. And she was really- You know, people always felt they could say anything because, you know, domestic servants didn’t count. They weren’t human beings. They were just something.
I was trying to get Claire over. And I thought she would have made a wonderful domestic servant. And I tried, I pleaded with the people you know to find a sponsor for her. To find somebody who would employ here. And I assured her that she would be a treasure, unlike me. [half-laughs] And she did find somebody. But the Home Office wouldn’t have her because she was two years too old. She was fifty-seven, and they said the age limit was fifty-five. But although I know people who were older and got over. My aunt was older, and she got over, because the Quakers got her over. I suppose it depended on the sort of clout you have. And, and I couldn’t get- And I never got over that, you know, that I... I couldn’t save her.
And we came, and Aunty Gussie took us to their business. They had a gown place in London, in the West End. They were making evening gowns. And she spoke to us in Yiddish, which-, we knew German, we knew a little bit of Yiddish, but not an awful lot. And we stayed in their place for a little while. But my uncle and aunt with their whole family was there and another aunt. They had too many people there. So they put me in these domestic jobs, which were no good at all.
Well strange was of course the food and me being cook. I found it very strange because a lot of the food, of course, I didn’t even know. For instance, one of the daughters got married just as the war broke out, and the reception was at home, and I was asked to make veal and ham pie. Well the ham didn’t worry me, the veal didn’t worry me, but the pie bit worried me, because that’s a totally not continental thing, to serve meat and pastry. Pastry is jam or cheese, or God knows what, but certainly not meat. And it was an absolute disaster that I produced there, and somehow we survived it, I don’t know, the pastry, so called, was that hard, they needed a chain saw to cut it. However, it was OK.
When war was declared? It was a lovely sunny day. None of you know this, but it was a lovely sunny day. It was a Sunday, and I was cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and peas and was podding the peas. And Mrs Hunt came in the kitchen and said, ‘War, we are now at war with Germany’. And that of course was very traumatic because one knew that everything was, well, cut off then. But still work was so demanding one didn’t even have time to think about it.
It was an opportunity to have a cheap maid. I'm quite sure of it. But how could you not understand, being a Jew? That you know, I mean I didn't go there- I told them what was happening in Vienna, what happened to us... that we lost everything, et cetera. So it wasn't that she was ignorant and didn't know. She just was not a very nice person.
I had the domestic permit. We had to clean the rooms every day - although there was nobody in them. I also had to clear the grates, then the butler came after and laid the fire. The butler and the cook were the most important people. We were supposed to be in the servants’ hall with the others. So if I sat in the room, I had either the choice of sitting there in the cold or joining the others in the servants’ room.