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Good hired help hard to come by

25 July 2020 spencer family home

Nestled in a conservation box in the Hawke’s Bay Museum’s Trust’s archive collection is the well-thumbed diary of Anna Spencer. Covered with spidery handwriting, each page encapsulates Anna’s daily life during 1876.

Anna was the wife of Dr William Spencer, surgeon for the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. The regiment, which had been stationed at the Napier military barracks from 1867, sailed for Auckland in January 1870. Dr Spencer and family were not on board - at the behest of locals he had resigned his commission and taken up practice in Hawke’s Bay.

Anna (nee Heatly) came from a privileged background, where servants were an accepted part of a household. She had enjoyed an education befitting a young upper-class woman of the period. She read and wrote copiously, could discuss academic topics knowledgably, was an accomplished pianist, knew the latest dances, sewed adequately and was trained to run a household and manage servants.

The family lived in a large two-story house on Tennyson Street where the Daily Telegraph building is now situated. Much of Anna’s day was spent teaching the children music, receiving visitors, returning social visits, purchasing items for the house, clothing for the family, sewing and performing light domestic chores with the help of servants.

Anna’s continual complaint throughout her diary was, “bother the servants”, or when angered, “What hateful wretches those servants are!”   She tersely commented on the many hours spent searching for the right kind of person to employ as housemaid, nursemaid, washerwoman or groom.

Servants were found by word-of-mouth, through newspaper advertisements or by visiting the immigration barracks after a ship arrived. When the Waitara anchored, Anna made sure she arrived early to get first choice of the young women available for service.

In the 1870’s there were more men than women in the settler population - single women were encouraged to immigrate to New Zealand in order to address this imbalance. Throughout the nineteenth century domestic service remained the major form of paid employment for women. A servant could command a weekly wage of ten to twelve shillings – much higher than in England. 

In many letters written by middle-class women, complaints about servants formed a common topic, especially their general behaviour and ‘uppishness’. In New Zealand a small number of homes had more than one servant. The Spencer family employed several - a children’s nurse, general-servant, household maid, washerwoman and groom.

There was a rapid turnover of servants in the Spencer household because they proved to be unreliable, too young or petite to carry out the tasks demanded of them. Anna constantly complained of the housemaid Cissy, as being tiresome, slow and a “fearful dawdle”. One momentous day Cissy “stupidly over-filled the dining-room lamps and let the kerosene drip on the table” and on acting as cook the following evening fed the guests raw meat. She proved to be too inexperienced and was fired.

When Sarah Anderson was employed, Anna wrote despairingly “I do hope she will be better than Cissy. She can’t be much worse.” Within two weeks Anna quipped, “Sarah seemed all behind-hand, & in a fearful muddle all day. It does not look promising. I am afraid she’ll not do. I wonder if I shall ever get a good servant again.” Sarah was quickly fired when, through the local gossip network, Anna discovered she was reputed to be a thief and “everything else bad”.

Joanna the children’s nurse was responsible for the children’s daily care. If required she also helped with household chores, especially when Anna was having difficulty finding a reliable housemaid. After two years she resigned. Anna wrote, “Joanna gave me notice to-day - on some frivolous pretext of wanting to go to house-work. I don't think she has behaved well about it.”

During the year Anna employed two washerwomen. Each Monday was wash-day and if it rained, Anna, in a tone of exasperation, commented on the inconvenience it caused especially as the water had been ordered and delivered.

Anna also employed Mrs Johnson, a dressmaker who was known to be extremely fond of a “tipple” no matter what time of day. Anna was often in despair over the quality of her dressmaking skills and damage to the expensive cloth provided.

As mistress-of-the-house, Anna would work alongside her servants especially when there were extra tasks to be done and was quick to chastise them for poor quality of work, sloppiness and general misbehaviour.

Dr Spencer was responsible for the employment of Tom, the groom who was in-charge of the horse and three vehicles the family owned. When William was called away to minister to the injured or ill, Tom would drive him. At dinner parties Tom acted as butler. To display greater status within the community, Anna purchased a livery for Tom to wear when out driving the brougham.

Although Anna tended to complain bitterly about the servants, she genuinely valued those who gave dedicated service. She called each by their Christian name and gave them gifts on special occasions.

However, like all households requiring a servant, Anna was constantly burdened with losing young women to marriage. Anthony Trollope wrote on a visit to New Zealand in 1872, a woman could “if she be well conducted and of decent appearance be sure to get a husband who can keep a house over her head. For such persons New Zealand is a paradise.” 


Image: Home of Dr Spencer and family, Tennyson Street, Napier


  • NZIFF on at Century Theatre until Sunday 2 August. Schedules are available at MTG and go online to NZIFF to see trailers. General Admission $17.50, Friends of MTG and Seniors $13.00, Students, Nurses and Community Services Cards $15.00, Children (15 and under) $12.00

26 July 2020

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