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A Delicate Position

Anne Wilkinson Member FACHRS

The 1891 Census Enumerators' Books for Roundhay, a rural township some four miles north of Leeds, favoured by those who could afford to move out from the dirt and grime of the city, show that although the area was middle class in character it was not a single class suburb. Wherever the middle classes spread they took with them servants to keep them and their families in the style to which they aspired. Only the wealthiest of these many layers of sub-classes that made up the middle class as a whole could afford to employ a governess to educate their younger children and older daughters. Indeed a figure of 55,000 women so employed in 1871 over the whole country suggests that there would not have been enough governesses to go round the middle class as a whole; with an average wage of between 20 and 45 p.a. a governess would have been within the reach only of upper middle class families.

In Roundhay in 1891 there were governesses in five households. This was the only work considered respectable for a middle class woman, for these were women being paid to work for their own class, being unfortunate enough to have fallen on hard times, perhaps through the financial failure of their own families. Although they may have considered themselves superior to the other servants in the households in which they lived they were nevertheless still in service themselves. The Roundhay governesses ranged in age from 22 to 31 and in the numbers of children in their care from two to six. Whilst one had been born in Leeds, the others had come from Bradford, Halifax, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. It was obviously seen as worthwhile to travel out of the immediate area to take such a post, indeed for the young woman involved and her family this may have saved some embarrassment.

  The surgeon Thomas Jessop felt unable to fill in the "relationship to the head of the household" column on the census form for his governess although this is filled in as "servant" in the other households. This perhaps indicates the delicate relationship the family felt with its governess. Frances Baker, aged 31 and born in Bradford, had charge of the daughters of the family who ranged in age from six to eighteen years. The eldest, Isabella, was fortunate to still be a scholar at the age of 18, for elsewhere in Roundhay children as young as 13 were working as servants. It was increasingly considered important for daughters as well as sons to experience a liberal education, if they were to make good marriages, as the Jessop's eldest daughter did. Frances Baker does not seem to have overseen the education of the sons of the Jessop family who are not recorded at the family home on census night but were at their sister's wedding. Whether or not Frances Baker was still with the family ten years on I shall soon be able to find out!

Copyright Anne Wilkinson 16 January 2013