'Here's me, eight months pregnant, scrubbing the floors on my hands and knees. But it kept my muscles supple which probably made the birth easier.'
A 1968 study suggested that typically the homes were of poor material standards, and that the old, rambling houses in poor repair were exhausting and unrewarding to manage and difficult to keep clean. These conditions had a negative impact on the morale of staff and residents alike. Some perceived the poor condition of the home as part of the ‘workhouse’ or ‘prison’ environment requiring them to pay penance for their sins. This need for atonement directly correlates to the social stigmatization of unmarried motherhood, and the earlier generations of rescue homes rooted in rehabilitating so-called ‘fallen’ women.
Some matrons confirmed these suspicions by indicating that chores were indeed intended as part of the women’s ‘recovery’ to higher moral standards, a necessary step to pay penance for their sins. However, many regarded the poor material conditions and outdated equipment in the homes as simply a result of little funding, and were frustrated that it was perceived as penance by the inmates as it created a barrier to establishing a good relationship with the women trusted to their care.
Indeed, the equipment was often outdated with old-fashioned boilers and wringers for the laundry, or old-fashioned stoves and sinks demanding greater amounts of labour. However, of the women interviewed for this project the majority described chores as nothing more arduous than the general upkeep of a home, anywhere from dusting, cleaning the floors, cooking, carrying coal or water, laundry, or other domestic duties.
Interestingly many project interviewees mentioned the ‘ubiquitous staircase’ that the homes had, and which required some heavily pregnant woman to scrub by hand. One participant specified that in the home which she resided the pregnant girls and new mothers were strictly forbidden to use the main staircase, which was reserved only for guests, requiring women in their eighth month of pregnancy to use the narrow winding servant’s stairwells, including when they went into labour and had to be taken to hospital. Yet, these same women were responsible for keeping the main staircase spotless for others. One woman recalled having to carry buckets of coal to the basement just days after giving birth, when the matron interrupted her chore to tell another staff member that the new mothers should not be doing such heavy lifting until two weeks after the birth. At this point she was relieved of that particular duty. Another remembered scrubbing the maternity ward floors on her hands and knees at eight months pregnant, but in the end felt the hard labour made her muscles more supple for the birth.
For those new mothers who had already given birth, their schedule was often dictated by the babies’ feeding times, though they still generally followed the morning routine of housework, followed by an afternoon rest or recreation interspersed with the needs of their infant. For new mothers the day was typically long, beginning with a first feed around 5:30am and ending only when the babies were settled for the night near 11:00pm. For the expectant mothers they typically rose around 7:00am and could go to bed as early as they wished after their chores had been completed. This indicates that while the women had to fulfil certain duties as part of their daily routine, they also had a fair amount of license in how to spend their free time once their chores had been completed.
The overall amount of chores and labour required depended very much upon the Matron and her beliefs around whether it was primarily of import to keep the home clean, to keep the women busy, or to keep them physically active prior to their confinement. It was frequently perceived that the residents in the homes could provide an accessible and cheap alternative source of labour rather than hiring domestic help, while some historical attitudes carried over from the days of the Rescue Homes in which domestic work was viewed as one of the few activities to which penitents were suited. Some of the women in my study did feel their domestic chores excessive and implied their duties suggested an act of penitence, while others felt they were no more extreme than managing one’s own house and was a somewhat welcome way to pass the time.
'When you came in you were sort of shown the ropes and you just learned what to do. We had to work, we had to do the cleaning. And everyone will tell you that's been in a mother and baby home because they were usually these old buildings, there was always a staircase and there was always a bannister you had to polish. So you were always doing the stairs. Sometimes you helped cook in the kitchen.'
What sort of chores did you do?
'When I first got there I had to sweep down the main staircase. Which was only for visitors, you know the girls were not allowed to use it. We had to use the back servants stairs.'