Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 4 - The problems of getting domestic help in early 20th century Australia

On Saturday 7th June, 1913, two weeks before Ethel made landfall in Adelaide, the Adelaide Daily Herald had carried a lengthy article entitled “Our Adelaide Women of Interest”, and coyly subtitled: The problem of domestic help – a little chat with Mrs Moore, the superintendant of the house at 5 Charles Street – the hostel where Ethel undoubtedly first lodged. The superintendent was an apparently worthy, motherly figure called Bessie Moore.

Further research turned up a letter to the Adelaide Register in July 1906, where the correspondent praised the influence of Mrs Moore and others like her, in creating positive and intellectually nourishing environments for the rising generation. She was then teaching at a school in Upper Sturt, a suburb of south Adelaide, a school which was founded in 1878 and still operates today. Bessie Moore began her teacher training in 1884 and thus had been in teaching for over 25 years before she was appointed matron-in-charge of the immigrant domestic helpers. After that scheme ended, presumably after the end of WW1, she was made officer in charge of the women’s department of the South Australian Government Labour Bureau. Her last position was as housekeeper at the Adelaide Hospital, where she died on 31st March 1923, probably only in her mid to late fifties.

The domestic helpers’ hostel in Charles Street would appear to have been in the process of preparation during 1912: it was located in a former “gentleman’s residence”, and the Adelaide Advertiser, in November of that year, describes it thus:

The interior architectural adornment of the place is in keeping with the pleasing exterior view, so the house lends itself admirably to beautification. On many of the door panels there are artistic hand-paintings. From the high balcony, which faces Charles Street, one gets capital views of the Mount Lofty Ranges. This fact specially appealed to the English girls, some of whom had expected to find Australia to be flat country. The roses and other bright blooms in the garden also appeared to give them much pleasure. The home will always be available to the girls during the intervals between changes of employment, or when they are in need of a rest.

The Adelaide Daily Herald article confirmed Bessie Moore’s bona fides as a former State School headmistress, and that the hostel had been at the Charles Street address for only seven or eight months:

Previous to this it had been located at the Exhibition, [a complex of buildings erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee] but it was decided to find a more suitable place to carry on the work on a more comprehensive scale, and the present building was rented by the Government for a period of three years, and if this experiment is successful, it is probable that at the end of that term the building will either be purchased or suitable premises erected to carry on the work successfully.

Ethel had confided to her Journal that she was “leaving Home and Dear Ones far behind, to commence life in a Strange Land”. It’s comforting to note that, as far as we can possibly know after a hundred years, efforts were made to make that emotional wrench less distressing for the British girls:

The home is a link in the great chain of organisation of the immigration to Australia, and its object is to provide a suitable place for domestic helpers coming from overseas where they can be provided with employment under the direct supervision of the Government. The domestic helpers are originally selected by Miss Walker in Great Britain, who interviews every candidate personally, and they are then conducted to Australia under the care of matrons fully qualified to take charge of them and deal with all the difficulties that confront the domestic helpers in their change of country and the different conditions prevailing in Australia as compared with Great Britain.

And the above extract seems to identify one of the mysterious contacts Ethel writes of in her postcard correspondence to Minnie two years beforehand. From time to time other accounts of the house in Charles Street and its occupants appear in the pages of Adelaide newspapers, and they mostly speak of positive experiences:

There is a young lady, Miss Eaton, at the Immigration Home for Domestic Helpers in Charles Street, Norwood, who came out to Adelaide in the steamer Irishman to take a position as a domestic servant, and who says she cannot speak too highly of the treatment accorded her during her residence in the State. Evidently she is the right type of girl to introduce - industrious, ladylike, and careful. She landed from the Irishman in November, 1912, a stranger in a strange land, but not altogether friendless, because she was one of a batch of immigrant girls brought out by the Government. [Adelaide Advertiser Nov. 1912]

Note from the tone of this extract how the South Australians were looking for “industrious, ladylike” girls to offer to their usually middle class clientele: they would not have wanted women of doubtful morals in any way. Of course, the authorities could not completely be sure of the girls’ backgrounds, but much care was taken to cultivate and maintain a respectable ambience, so that prospective employers could comfort themselves they were allowing ‘proper’ young ladies into their households.

We work under splendid conditions, I think because everyone is only too pleased to do everything possible to make our attempts a success. We have a strong committee of ladies, representing every religious denomination, with Mrs. Nutter Thomas as president, [Staffordshire-born wife of the Bishop of Adelaide] and on the first evening of arrival they come in to see the girls and find out which church they attend, and so forth. Then when the girls find situations they find her church and write to the ministers, and perhaps put her in the care of other church friends, and so give her an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome in her new sphere. Every Tuesday evening Miss Boyer, B.A., gives us a talk on literature and books, on Wednesday we have a dressmaking class, and on Fridays a musical evening. [Adelaide Daily Herald June 1913]

Curiously, the article from which this last extract is taken, Our Adelaide Women of Interest: a little chat with Mrs Moore, goes on to state the following:

One very sensible thing I was quite glad to hear about – the girls are allowed and encouraged to bring friends of the opposite sex to spend afternoons or evenings at the home. They gladly avail themselves of this privilege, and spend the evening playing games or chatting over the fire. There is little need to enlarge on the value of this.

This would seem to have been designed to stop the girls from venturing out alone of an evening, and to cater for the natural urges of young people far away from familial influence. Even more curious, however, is the conclusion of the article which sees the worthy Mrs Moore confiding to the interviewer that she was:

a student of many occult sciences, deeply interested in the great questions of the day, which no open mind can afford to leave undiscussed with its fellows. As we turned over magazines and books concerned with psychic matters and talked of experiences that transcend the common daily round, we drifted far away from the solution of the domestic problem.

Perhaps those sentiments merely reflected nothing more sinister than the turn-of-the-century fascination in western society with spiritualism. The movement appealed to women, and to those who supported specific causes such as suffrage. But well-known figures, such as the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had also taken it up to console themselves in bereavement. There was another surge in the popularity of spiritualism during and after the approaching World War, of course. Anyhow, from these accounts we can be fairly certain that Ethel met Mrs Bessie Moore, was welcomed and advised by her, and was sent out to her first position.

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