Domestic Service & The Girls’ Friendly Society by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

Between 1919 and 1930, more than 120,000 female domestic servants arrived at Canadian ocean ports, and of those, nearly 75,000 were from the British Isles. My aunt, Florence Clarke, was one of them. She was a young woman of twenty-five when she disembarked, alone, at the port of Quebec on 30 July 1926. Like many women of her age, Flo had grown up in rural England and had made her way to the city, in her case, Liverpool, to seek work as a domestic servant. By the time she left England in 1926, Flo had been in domestic service for 12 years, having obtained a labour certificate to leave school at the age of 13.

There was a great demand for domestics in Canada, and as her parents and siblings had settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1925, Flo made the move the join them. I was intrigued that when Florence arrived in Canada, she came with a commendation from the Girls’ Friendly Society (GFS), an organisation of which I had no previous knowledge.

Founded by Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Townsend in 1875, the Society was an Anglican organisation intended to provide friendship and Christian fellowship for young women from rural areas who had sought work in the cities. Recognising that these girls were without the support of their families and friends, the GFS made it their goal to help them ward off the temptations of the big cities by providing a venue for ‘respectable’ young women to meet and support each other. The organisation promoted prayer, and provided both religious instruction and training in domestic duties.

The Society was not without controversy, however. One of its membership rules was that its members be virgins, and it was expected that membership would be surrendered on marriage or on the loss of virtuous character. There was much debate within the Anglican Church on this requirement, as some argued that it breached the Christian principle of forgiveness.

In spite of the storm surrounding the virginity regulation, the GFS proved to be popular. Organised at the parish level, the Society grew to include a network of over 800 branches across England and Wales in just ten years, and by 1913 membership had peaked to nearly 240,000. The mandate of the GFS grew as well, and it developed departments for different occupations (industrial, domestic service, office work, etc). It also took on the task of assisting young women in emigrating, many to Canada, and often as domestic servants.

The Anglican Church was the centre of life for my Aunt Flo, as it was for all of her family, so it was not surprising to me to learn that she was a member of an affiliated society. I do not know much about her membership in the group, other than that the Girls’ Friendly Society helped bring her to Canada. She married soon after arriving in Canada, and remained in domestic service until she was in her sixties.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds a Girls’ Friendly Society Fonds, which includes commendation registers containing details about the young women whose immigration was assisted by the GFS. These have been indexed and are included in LAC’s recently added, searchable online database Immigrants to Canada, Porters and Domestics, 1899-1949.

Sources

  1. Barber, Marilyn. (1991) Immigrant Domestic Servants in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Society.
  2. Library and Archives Canada. Passenger list for SS Regina arriving at the port of Quebec 30 July 1926. Vol. 11. p. 237. Sheet 29. Microfilm T-14725.
  3. Suffolk Record Office. School Admission Register 1901-1923, National School, Palgrave, Suffolk. Admission number: 191. 10 September 1906. A4028/8.
  4. Library and Archives Canada. Immigrants to Canada, Porters and Domestics, 1899-1949. Item: Florence CLARKE (9914). http://goo.gl/ioA2GC : accessed 8 March 2016.
  5. Harrison, Brian. (1973) For Church, Queen and Family: The Girls’ Friendly Society 1874-1920. Past and Present Society. Vol. 61. pp. 107-138.
  6. Harrison, Brian. (1973) For Church, Queen and Family: The Girls’ Friendly Society 1874-1920. Past and Present Society. Vol. 61. pp. 107-138.

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2 Comments


  1. My grandmother came to Massachusetts from Leeds, Yorkshire in 1915 at age 18. She had been in service since age 12 as an “under nurse”. My grandmother also was a member of the Girls Friendly Society, and told me all about it. She had very fond memories of life in the Anglican church in England, although her family joined the Baptist church when they arrived in the United States. I’m going to search out the books you mentioned here.

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  2. Really interesting Ellen. I had never heard of this society.

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