Thirteen years ago when I began writing Harrow Road, the novelized version of my great-grandmother’s life, I realized this was one book I wasn’t going to be able to pull out of my head. I needed help. My g-grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Morgan, was born in a poor neighbourhood of London, England, in 1851. She married a compositor (printer), had four children, lost one to scarlet fever, and found herself abandoned and penniless in 1879 when my g-grandfather absconded to South Africa. (Where he promptly remarried and had eight more children, but that’s another story.) With few resources and no social safety net, Annie and her children were forced to enter the Paddington Workhouse on Harrow Road.

But before all this she had a life. She attended school, probably till she was 12 or 13, went to work as a domestic servant, and took part in as many of the activities as were available to a young woman of limited means. In order to write about her, I needed to educate myself about life in the Victorian era. What did people read? Where did they buy their food? What did things cost? How did they entertain themselves? In other words, how did they live? Most of all, what were their houses like?

This, I knew, was important – in many ways, more important than it is today. The Victorians invented the concept of home, the idea that one’s house is a private sphere, separate from the hurly burly of work and public life. The phrase “An Englishman’s home is his castle” was coined sometime in the 1600s but until the late 1700s their social life revolved outside the home. If they had money, they went to clubs and coffee-houses; if they were poor, they gathered in the streets or drank their troubles away in one of the many gin shops that proliferated in the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

But by the time Annie was born, as the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution made the outside world seem more and more precarious, even dangerous, the concept of home had been elevated – sanctified, even. One’s home represented who you were, what you believed in, and where you stood in the greater scheme of things. In Martin Chuzzlewit Charles Dickens could write, without fear of argument, “Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” Every room in one’s home had a particular function, and every person within the home had a particular role to play. How do I know these things? I began reading Judith Flanders.

Flanders is an English historian who spent 17 years as a publishing house editor until she decided that what she really wanted to do was write. Her first book, a novel, was well-reviewed, but it was when she got into the history of the Victorians that she really came into her own. The Victorian House, published in 2004 and shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year, is a fascinating social history based on meticulous research gleaned from the letters, diaries, journals and novels of 19th century men and women. In it, we discover irresistable insights into the daily lives of our not-so-long-ago ancestors. We learn, for instance, that fast food is not a modern invention; Victorian street vendors sold baked potatoes, oysters, sheep’s trotters, and stewed eels: “Throughout the towns roamed pie-men, sherbet-sellers, muffin men, cockles-and-mussels men, watercress girls, cherry girls and strawberry girls”.

Although there were many who lived in poverty, or close to it, The Victorian House is really about the homes of the middle-class, those who had houses that could be segregated into reception rooms, drawing rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and nurseries. She takes us through these homes, room by room, starting with the scullery at the bottom of the house and working her way up to the servants’ rooms at the top. As she does so, we are told what went on in each room, and, most important for my research, who did the work.

My great-grandmother worked as a domestic servant. Flanders tells us that by 1851, one in three women between the ages of 15 and 24 in London was a servant, and more than one in 6 of any age was in service. By 1871 there were 1.19 million servants, of whom 93,000 were cooks and 73,000 nursemaids. And you didn’t have to be rich to afford one. Those with very little income could hire a workhouse child for a few pounds a year, or, at the very least, a charwoman to come in once a week to help with theavy work. And there was a lot of heavy work: gallons of water had to be carried up from the scullery several times a day, baths had to be filled and emptied, coals had to be carried upstairs and down: “a full coal scuttle weighed between twenty-eight and thirty pounds, a bath jug of water thirty pounds”. Servants had less fresh air than factory workers and rarely had Sundays off. If they were given a half-day off, they were expected to get through their regular 12 hours of work in order to be able to head out the door at 5:00.

Many didn’t last, and left to work in factories or became prostitutes. If a young woman did make it through her first job, she was given a “character” – basically, a letter of reference which was absolutely essential to her chances of finding another place. Without a good letter of character, no employer, respectable or otherwise, would hire her. Because of this, many domestic servants preferred to put up with low wages, long hours, and even physical abuse rather than risk the disgrace of leaving without that letter.

In the case of my great-grandmother, she left to get married. She was four months pregnant and likely just starting to show. This would not have gone over well with her employer and she would have been shown the door. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she didn’t have to go into the workhouse to have her child. She likely made an excuse for leaving and was given a letter of character. Which, as a married woman, she’d never be able to use.

Anyone interested in the Victorians and their domestic quirks will gain a great deal from The Victorian House. And if you’re interested in more, stay tuned: next week I’ll talk about Flanders’ 2011 best-seller, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004) Published by Harper Collins