Exploring Our History of Staffing at The Highbury Centre

When the Foreign Missions Club opened in 1893, there was no such thing as an HR Department, health and safety or employee rights. Nowadays, all employers have a strict code of conduct to follow and at the Highbury Centre, we pride ourselves on our excellent staff relationships. Over a hundred years ago things were very different.

With no labour-saving devices such as washing machines, electric irons and vacuum cleaners, keeping on top of the housework at the Foreign Missions Club was a herculean task requiring an army of maids. A book labelled “Register of Servants” runs from 1916-1946, painting a remarkable picture of staffing in the first half of the last century, with the housekeeper meticulously recording her dealings with the staff.

The first entry is dated 14th March with Mary Cox, a housemaid being paid the princely sum of £16 per year. Mary, it seems, is not very clean (we’re not told if this is a personal issue, or a reference to her work methods), but she is very good-tempered and willing. Troubles begin with Mrs Mills, the Cook. She is paid £28 per year, but is not a good employee. “Did not get on well with the other servants, rather sulky,” notes the housekeeper. Worse still: “Not a good cook – resented my help.” She only lasted for five months.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any better with the next Cook, a Mrs Merrick. The housekeeper wastes few words on her. “Not good, dirty, left in a hurry.”

We must presume that a good Cook was found to keep the guests well fed between late 1916 and 1920. The next Cook, Mrs Early, is employed in 1920. Her culinary skills are adequate, but other, less desirable characteristics are mentioned. “A very good cook, but a bad manager. No method, place in a perfect hubbub in spite of extra help in the kitchen. We were very full all the months she was here.” It’s hard not to feel sorry for the poor housekeeper, struggling to keep order as the kitchen descends into chaos. These days, we have no such issues as the kitchen is well-run by our excellent staff.

In 1931, Rosie Price, the housemaid is praised as a good quick worker, but sadly, “has no control of her tongue.” Gossip and troubles below stairs must have been a sore trial for the housekeeper. Three years later, she records the departure of E. Byers. “Good worker and pleasant girl. Leaving to get married, very sorry to lose her.”

Nowadays, the Highbury Centre has far fewer staff and is infinitely more likely to echo to the sound of laughter, chat and the distant hum of the washing machine than the swish of mops, beating of carpets and angry whispering behind the green baize door. Our historical documents give us a fascinating insight of how things used to be and how far we’ve come. We’re constantly evolving, with a new full time room attendant being the next member of staff we’re looking to employ.

We look forward to welcoming you to our well-run and efficient premises.



25th June 2019

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