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The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892

In 1892, Eliza Orme undertook a painstaking investigation into the working lives of barmaids, producing a report which takes us back to the pubs of the past with incredible vividness.

Eliza Orme was an interesting woman. She was the first woman in England to get a degree in law, in 1888, as Dr Leslie Howsam, who has studied Orme’s life, explains here:

[She] was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.

An early feminist, Miss Orme was a firm believer in allowing women to work in whichever industries they chose and was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women.

Through this, she ended up as Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Labour, overseeing a small team of Lady Assistant Commissioners.

Portrait photo.
Eliza Orme c.1900.

After the Commission decided at a meeting in March 1892 to undertake research into the working lives of women, Orme dispatched her team around the country, from Bristol to the Western Isles, to investigate various industries such as textile mills, chocolate factories and stocking making.

She took charge of the barmaid question herself, visiting almost a hundred pubs and speaking to nearly 300 people, as set out in the introduction to her report:

I have received information from 287 persons, namely 127 women at present or formerly employed so as to come within the scope of this inquiry; 21 women engaged in superintending public-houses or ether places of refreshment either as proprietors, managers or as the wives of proprietors or managers; 89 men in the position of employers; and 50 persons acquainted with the customs of the trade and the conditions of the employees, as for example officials of homes and clubs for girls, police officers, officials of trade organisations, daughters of publicans and promoters of temperance refreshment companies. These 287 persons have given evidence on the condition of women’s employment as barmaids, waitresses and book-keepers in every part of the United Kingdom.

I have visited 91 public-houses, hotels and restaurants licensed to sell intoxicating liquors to be drunk on the premises, 20 railway, theatre and music hall bars similarly licensed and 43 places of refreshment not so licensed.

Part of the reason for the particular interest in the lives of barmaids was a moral panic then underway about the supposed connection between this job and sexual exploitation.

As well as a series of stories about young British women being lured to the continent with offers of barmaid jobs before being pressed into prostitution, there was the story of Emma Cummins.

In 1881, Cummins, a former barmaid at the Criterion, poisoned herself with Phosphor having been lured into life as a ‘kept woman’ by one Lieutenant Ponsonby and contracted syphilis.

An editorial in The Times for 30 December 1881 expressed the view that this kind of thing was all but inevitable:

An acquaintance across the bar counter may end up where it has begun, or it may be followed up elsewhere. Some young man with a glib, impudent address, and plenty to say for himself, will seek to improve his opportunity. He passes from general conversation to more particular topics. In due time he finds or invents some excuse for making an appointment or seeing the young woman home. This is the sequel of the perpetual half-flirtation to which the modern bar system lends itself, and which it seems positively intended to promote.

As you’ll see from the illustrations throughout this piece, this concern for the well-being of barmaids was also wrapped up in their objectification: worrying about the sexual exploitation of barmaids was tangled up with fantasising about them.

Drawing of a barmaid.
The barmaid, from London Types, William Nicholson, 1898.

Miss Orme refused to pander to the drama and hysteria, however.

On her grand tour, she found little evidence of ‘immoral behaviour’ and observed that many barmaids were teetotal, contrary to the temperance narrative.

She also found that barmaids tended not to be employed in beer-houses (very basic pubs), rough pubs, or the rough bars of multi-room pubs:

In Portsmouth the Licensed Victuallers’ trade association state that barmaids are employed in only 10 per cent of the [public] houses. In Plymouth, the trade association report about 90 barmaids employed in 600 houses. In Glasgow, a careful return was prepared by the secretary of the trade association showing 331 women employed in 27 hotels, restaurants, and public houses in serving intoxicants to customers. This total includes waitresses, and is believed to comprise the whole number of women so employed in licensed houses in Glasgow except those who are related to the proprietors. In Edinburgh, the officials of the trade organisation expressed the opinion that very few Scotch girls are engaged in the occupation. The barmaids are generally English… All the Edinburgh witnesses agreed that very few barmaids are employed in Scotland except in hotels, restaurants, and railway bars. In the north of England it is quite against the practice of the trade to employ barmaids in rough houses. Their presence would not be liked by the customers. I verified this statement, which was made by all the witnesses representing the trade, by visiting several houses situated near docks and in the “Irish quarters” of the towns I was in. In no case did I find even a female relative of the proprietor serving in rough bars.

There’s interesting testimony from a male publican who argues that the main reason for employing women was ‘economy’ (they were cheaper)’ and that ‘any licensed victualler who can afford the expense of a barman would prefer to have one’.

That’s countered by comments from ‘No. 272, a publican with nearly 30 years’ experience of the East End of London’ and ‘No. 254, a publican of large experience in London’. Both argued that barmaids were better at handling rowdy customers than barmen.

A cartoon.
From Phil May’s Illustrated Annual, 1897.

As you might expect, Orme heard various complaints from barmaids or ex-barmaids, some of which she was inclined to doubt:

  • ‘attempted familiarity’ by the publican
  • the presence of ‘low women’
  • bad language from carters and draymen
  • insulting customers
  • being made to continue serving dangerously drunk customers
  • long hours

On that last point, Orme highlights some of the most extreme stories she heard, such as a barmaid at a south coast hotel who worked from 7am to 10pm most days, but sometimes until 2am, or the 15-year veteran from the north of England who reported a standard 104 hour working week.

For context, these days, the Working Time Directive says you can’t work more than 48 hours per week, and the average is about 37 hours per week.

Orme’s commentary is interesting, though: she points out that these extreme hours were often seasonal and that tips were generous, so that a woman could work hard all summer and, if she saved carefully, have plenty to live on through a restful winter. With a sniff, however, she adds that ‘There is no evidence of such thrift being practised as far as I know’.

Another common perk was an allowance of free drink while on shift. One barmaid had a ten-minute meal break during which she reported being able to down three glasses of stout.

Miss Orme seemed less concerned with the availability of drink than by other common health problems, as set out in this extremely relatable paragraph:

Most of the witnesses I have seen who have served as barmaids or waitresses for any length of time have complained more or less of the fatigue of standing. Witnesses 1, 23, 24, 85, and 86, consider that flat soled boots are a great prevention against swelled legs and varicose veins. Witnesses Nos. 2, 215, 216, 222, and 223 are leaving, or have left, their employment from swelled feet or varicose veins.

The Orme report also gives one small detail that rings absolutely true even more than a century later, on the subject of barmaids trying to take their meals on the premises:

Witnesses Nos. 258 and 285, persons of large experience in the management of restaurants and public houses, explained that if a girl were to attempt to eat a meal in the bar, customers would chaff her as to what she had, and the business of the bar would be interrupted.

Having recently been in a pub where an exhausted-looking member of staff attempted to eat a roast dinner while being bothered by annoying customers, we can confirm this as a live issue. Customers – leave ‘em alone when they’re on a break!

A barmaid by Charles Keene, reproduced in Our People, 1881.

This bit of testimony from the data tables at the back of the report struck us as especially vivid, evoking the smells and heat of some of these working environments:

Witness No.87 is a married woman, and acts as head barmaid in a large theatre (No. 22) in the North of England… Her hours are exceptionally long as she serves with the manager and his wife in the pit bar, which is kept open until 2 am for the use of the professionals. All the barmaids begin at 7 pm and the others leave when the performance is over. This pit bar is underground and very hot with gas and tobacco smoke… She has no food or drink from her employers except what she buys at the ordinary customers’ prices.

This section also gives us more swollen feet, varicose veins and the odd dismissal for ‘intemperance’ or ‘immorality’.

In the wake of the Orme report, barmaids became a bit of a political football, and attempts were made to limit or ban the employment of women in pubs and hotels.

A Barmaids’ Political Defence League was eventually formed to look after the interests of the estimated 20,000 women in the profession. It wanted to keep this avenue of employment open but introduce restrictions on working hours and improve conditions.

Eliza Orme was one of its vice presidents.

Main image: a detail from an illustration in Living London, 1901-02.

Further reading

  • ‘The barmaid problem in Britain 1880-1920’, Bronwyn Higgs, 1991 (PDF)
  • Chapter 19 of Toilers in London, 1889 (

3 replies on “The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892”

that is fascinating. The kind of somber research which working women have always deserved. Thank you for sharing. I do wonder how much information like this is adrift and unnoticed. We are conditioned to feel that most working class women (and men) are voiceless in history.

That’s interesting about conveyancing as being seen as women’s work. In my other life I’ve been involved with the centenary commemorations of women in law following the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. One of the first women at the Irish Bar is quoted as saying she was encouraged to pursue conveyancing rather than become a barrister, seemingly because it didn’t require attendance in court.

[…] The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892 – Boak & Bailey. This piece by Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) is splendid. Eliza Orme, born in 1848, was the first woman to receive a law degree in England. Although she came to the degree late in life (at 39), she’d already been unofficially practicing aka, ‘deviling’ in law, which is a kinder way of saying she did all the work while her male colleagues signed-off and took the credit.  […]

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