Making a stand with Mary: Precarious Employment in Pandemic Times

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Kate Brooks, Bath Spa University

We are pleased to share this blog by Kate Brooks, the winner of the 2020 SHS Postgraduate Prize.

In 1851, Joseph Lowe was working as a barber in Willenhall, Staffordshire, with four children and a house servant named Jane. Willenhall was an overcrowded, impoverished district, known for locksmithery and metalwork, hot, gritty, filthy occupations. Perhaps it was through washing customers’ hair, swilling away the industrial grime, which in the 1854 epidemic, spread the cholera through Joseph’s packed house.

He may have ignored the official advice, as many did, assuming this was government propaganda to prevent unrest, and workers’ demonstrations. Maybe, like so many in our current pandemic, he couldn’t afford to stop work, and had to take the risks to feed his family. In November 1854, both Joseph and his wife Charlotte died of cholera within ten days of each other, a few days after the birth of their fifth child. Their children were sent to the workhouse, and then Muller’s orphanage, Bristol.

Image courtesy of the Muller Archive

Mary and Eliza, two of the older sisters, would have been trained in domestic skills, in order to be placed as servants. Eliza went to Hackney, and Mary may have gone to work for Quaker tea merchants in Bath, who may have been charitably inclined to have a ‘Muller girl’. Generally, workhouse and orphanage servants were not seen as appropriate for more elite families, or as high class ‘lady’s maids’: they were not used to small kitchens and fine fabrics, used as they were to large institutional kitchens, to large laundries, to hard scrubbing. An 1862 report quoted concerns that such a ‘raw girl’ may not ‘understand the language of educated people’. But for less wealthy families, or charitable families, or families of ‘new’ industrial or commercial fortunes, such detail was not so important.

So the girls who started life with a servant, became servants themselves. They would have set off from Muller’s with a gift of a bible, and a trunk containing two outfits suitable for a respectable young woman of their class and position. Wearing the right clothes was vital to social standing: without the right outfit, they wouldn’t be able to attend church, for example, and would be thus excluded from respectable society.

It was not uncommon for girls like Mary and Eliza to move up and down the class ladder like this- respectability for the working classes in the nineteenth century was precarious, especially for women. What might get you out of poverty and low status were the right clothes, and a good ‘character’ – a reference, from the all-powerful employer. Character was central to Victorian thinking: as well as referring to one’s recommendation for work, it meant good citizenship, personal responsibility, moral fibre. For girls, it also meant virtue.

I write all this as great -great niece of Eliza and Mary, and as a doctorate researcher of the Muller archives. I am also an hourly paid lecturer, and their precariousness strikes a chord. I too, am looking for a way in to respectability, a contract, an academic profile, a character.

I also cleaned the houses of educated people, lecturers’ houses, whilst supporting myself through my undergraduate degree, so it doesn’t feel that far away, Now I write conference papers, I network, I try to look, speak and act like those people myself. I hustle a little bit for teaching opportunities, a way in. I attend workshops on creating a media presence, creating my own ‘character’ as a lecturer: I may not have a trunk of a decent uniforms but I do arrange to get a nice photograph of myself on the staff profile page, in a linen top from Zara.

A recent Guardian report on the state of HE post-pandemic, found that over half of all academic staff were on precarious, short term contracts, the majority of whom were PhD students.  Without us, the universities could not run the courses they do. Like my great-great aunts’ jobs, such work is often taken up by women and chronically poorly paid, their situations ‘hidden’, open to exploitation, as a recent UCU report showed. Did people ask them to do extra duties, for ‘the experience’, I wonder? Did they fear losing a contract if they spoke up, or being excluded, sent away?  Did they keep this placement, or were they unlucky enough to become the sort of servants poorer families hired by the day, even by the hour?

I may not need ‘character,’ in the same way as Mary and Eliza, but it can be challenging trying to integrate with colleagues – and hear of likely work opportunities, and networking events – when it takes six weeks of a twelve week teaching contract to get a lanyard in order to swipe myself through the door to the staff common room. I am very aware that one year I may have a part time contract, and maybe even lead a module – as with servants, there is a hierarchy!-  but the next year may be scrabbling around for the occasional hour of free guest lecturing, to keep myself in, to keep myself decent. Kitchen chats are vital and impossible now we are all working from home. Plus, when I am there, I don’t have an office space, and have to carry my coat and bag around with me. Even though this is my second career, and I am older and supposedly confident, I feel temporary, an outsider, a raw girl.

The ‘zero hour’ situation is not new. In the current post-lockdown situation, even that work  is increasingly hard to come by, and still often relies on contacts and connections, recommendations. Nevertheless, my family at least believe I’m ‘a proper lecturer’, although my mother is not happy with me ‘telling everyone our business’. Shame of workhouse poverty casts a long shadow, for generations.

As the HE sector adjusts to life after lockdown, it is not looking hopeful for those of us in such precarious situations.

I can quite appreciate that Mary, who would have lived and worked a few minutes’ drive from my campus, set in the beautiful grounds of a manor house, would have given me short shrift comparing myself to her and her sister. I imagine her, smoothing down her starched pinafore, looking at me, exhausted and exasperated: ‘it’s not like the Head of Department is expecting you to black their grate before dawn, is it?! And hang on – did you make that coffee?’. But, nevertheless, I salute her and all my fellow workers managing similarly vulnerable situations. We all need to make a stand, Mary – and I think you know where I am coming from.


About the author: Kate is an Associate Lecturer in Education History and a Doctoral researcher at Bath Spa University, researching late nineteenth century education in a Victorian orphanage. Kate has also worked as a foster carer and recently collaborated with Bristol City Council on a project engaging young people in care with the history of ‘looked after children’. In addition to her PhD research, Kate has also written articles on aspects of the student experience and widening participation in Higher Education, and has written and performed poetry, including performing her prizewinning poem ‘Scrap’, based on her fostering experiences, at the Coram Foundling Museum in 2018. Kate is founding member of ‘the People’s University of Fishponds’ which provides accessible talks and workshops to the wider community, currently based at Glenside Hospital Museum, Bristol’s Victorian ‘lunatic asylum’.

7 responses to “Making a stand with Mary: Precarious Employment in Pandemic Times

  1. Fascinating facts Kate . I had no idea that you were related to a muller girl .I really Love social history. The comparisons with today’s challenges and our current situation during the pandemic were interesting. Well done on your award .

    1. Thanks! Although as I say in my piece I’m not sure Mary would see my situation as quite the same! 🙂

  2. A really fascinating read, weaving together the vulnerability of women across the generations. I particularly liked your honesty about being a part time worker on short term contracts. So much of my working experience was very similar; always a bit of an outsider, keeping up appearances, always networking but trying not to appear too desperate!

    1. Yes it’s a fine balance isn’t it, Rowena! Plus the pressure to do extra work in order to get noticed or just so as not to make a fuss, or to appear collegiate. I am getting better at NOT doing that, but it’s hard. And as floating members of staff we do miss out on that collegiate community (which can be a good thing in some ways…). Thanks for your comments.

  3. Kate, that was really fascinating! How interesting that you have family connections with Muller home! I know the couple who ran the home in its last few years.They are wonderful to talk to about all their experience there.
    Brilliant writing Kate xx

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