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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Kirby

Massa and Maid

One night in 1851, as Hannah Cullwick looked into an open fire, she saw in the flames ‘a nice manly face with a moustache’ and knew that this was her true love. A full three years later when, in a London back street, she finally saw this man, their mutual attraction was instant and overwhelming. But Hannah was a scullery maid, and the man, Arthur Munby, a trainee barrister from a proud upper-middle class family. Marriage was therefore out of the question, as was (due to Munby’s sensibilities) any conventional extra-marital affair across the social divide. And so began one of Victorian Britain’s most peculiar love stories, one which has been minutely preserved for posterity in the form of diaries, letters and a unique photographic archive.

Like his close contemporary Francis Galton, Arthur Munby was driven by his ‘scientific’ obsessions and he also accumulated a considerable archive of materials that detail his studies. But whilst Galton’s mind ranged over a vast and diverse range of subjects, Munby focused exclusively on one; young working-class women. His intense interest in the female workers of rapidly industrialising Britain was dressed up the structures of pseudo-science. Munby roamed coal-fields, fishing ports and mill towns with his notebook to interview ‘rough female labour.’ Wherever he went, he sought out ‘unbecoming women’ to record all that he could about their lives. He invited many young women to be photographed and compiled a wonderful portrait collection of Victorian working women; pit-brow lasses, housemaids, fisher-women and acrobats. Many of them, unsurprisingly, are wearing amused or suspicious expressions! But it is in his relationship with Hannah Cullwick that the rather less than scientific motivations of Munby’s sociological survey becomes clear.

For Munby had a fetish for dirt, and in particular for women made filthy by their work. After getting to know Hannah, who was smitten by the attentions of gentleman with the ‘manly face’ that she recognised from the fire, Munby persuaded her to keep a daily diary and describe in detail each domestic task that she carried out and her appearance as she did it. The daily round of boot cleaning, floor scrubbing and coal-box filling is described in meticulous detail; “I took the fender full o’soot out into the back yard & shovel’d the soot up & rak’d the fire all out…I was red &hot &black too but somehow I didn’t mind…” Munby loves to see Hannah blackened by household dirt and Hannah, a big strong woman with fourteen inch biceps, wears her dirt proudly as proof of her hard- working character. The diaries record their bizarre and sometimes hilarious rituals; Munby sitting on Hannah’s lap, Hannah carrying him like a child and washing his feet. Most disturbingly, Hannah seemed to enjoy licking his street-soiled boots clean with her tongue.

Hannah’s feelings about her peculiar relationship with Munby vacillate through the decades. She is initially infatuated, doting on her ‘Massa’ as she calls him, willingly wearing a around her neck a chain and padlock for which only he holds the key. In one of the most shocking of Munby’s many posed photographs of Hannah, she is almost naked, her skin blackened by soot, with the locked padlock clearly visible around her neck. Hannah’s diaries reveal that she was usually eager to take part in these unusual photographers’ sittings. Surviving photographs show her dressed up as, amongst other things, a prosperous gentlewoman, a boot-blacker, a religious penitent and as a well-dressed young man. These photographs obviously influenced my imaginings of Thomas Jerwood’s relationship with his kitchen maid.

The power balance in Munby and Hannah’s relationship vacillated too. Hannah was no push-over in any sense. After a clandestine eighteen-year courtship, Munby became desperate to marry. But it took only a few weekend trips living as a middle-class wife for Hannah to realise that she could not stand the boredom and passivity of such a life. As a maid, hard work and an independent income provided their own rewards. As Hannah said in a letter to Munby; “I like the life I lead…a married life, it’s too much like being a woman.” Hannah’s diaries reveal her to be very far from the stereotype of a Victorian female. She was a large and self-reliant woman, fearless when walking London’s streets at night and happy to drink alone in pubs where she beat off unwelcome men like gnats. In 1873, however, Hannah succumbed to a secret marriage with Munby. But for the rest of their long lives they rarely lived together and their rather pathetic later letters reveal an uncomfortable, fractious relationship.

In the end, Munby’s vast collection of ‘research’ into women’s working lives seems to have given him both pride and embarrassment. He bequeathed the locked boxes of diaries, letters and photographs to his old Cambridge college, Trinity, but he stipulated that the bequest should not be opened until the year 1950. I imagine that there were a few wry smiles amongst the academics and librarians who, forty years after Munby’s death, opened his boxes to see Hannah Cullwick in all of her hefty, grimy glory.

Nevertheless, the historical worth of the Arthur Munby Collection has become more fully appreciated in recent decades. Historians and novelists remain profoundly grateful to Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick for providing the best insight we have into the daily grind of the lowliest Victorian working women.

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