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What is a Charwoman?

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  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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A charwoman, in British English, is a cleaning lady. Typically, a charwoman has an established weekly schedule, coming in on a particular day to clean and do light housekeeping and then leaving again. In many cases, she is given a key to make it easy for her to get in and out. A charwoman may also be referred to as a charlady. For anyone who has read British novels from the mid-20th century, this word is undoubtedly familiar, and while it is not as widely used today, charwomen certainly still exist.

The word “char” in “charwoman” comes from Middle English, and it means “chore,” so a charwoman is literally a chore-woman. The tasks performed by a charwoman vary, depending on the agreement which she reaches with her employer. As is the case when hiring any sort of cleaning person, it is a good idea to talk with a charwoman about expectations to ensure that she performs as expected. Some charwomen will specifically refuse to do certain tasks, and knowing about this ahead of time can be very useful.

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Charwomen can clean structures of any size, from apartments to businesses, and they may work for companies which offer maid services, or on their own. The advantage of hiring a charwoman from a company is that cleaning services are usually guaranteed, even if your charwoman is sick, because someone can fill in. Cleaning companies are also bonded and insured, in case anything is damaged or stolen. However, a charwoman who works independently may be able to offer lower rates.

There are a number of ways to find a charwoman. Companies are typically listed in public directories, and you can also find independent charwomen through phone books and online directories. Some people like to take out advertisements to look for cleaning help, while others rely on word of mouth. If you live in apartment building, you may want to ask neighboring tenants if they use a cleaning service, as the service may be able to offer a deal on cleaning, since your apartment will be conveniently located.

In addition to regular weekly wages, many charwomen also receive tips, especially when they perform extra tasks as a favor or courtesy. It is also traditional to tip regular staff on the holidays, as a way of thanking the staff for their services. Instead of a tip at the holidays, it is also appropriate to offer a small gift.

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golf07
Post 9

Whenever I would read an old English book, I always think about how nice it would be to have a charwoman. There is something about having someone come in my house and do my cleaning for me that sounds absolutely wonderful.

How nice it would be to walk in my house after a long day and have it all cleaned up. When I was in college I cleaned house for a couple every Friday afternoon. I always thought how great it would be to come home for the weekend to a clean house and fresh sheets on the bed.

Although I was not called a charwoman, the duties I performed were very similar in nature. I doubt I will ever have one of my own, but I still enjoy reading about having one.

JessiC
Post 8

@Alevine – You better believe if I could afford to have a passel of servants, I certainly would!

Actually, it has always been my dream to buy and refurbish and old Victorian; I just have one reservation.

I know that an old Victorian would be incredibly large and I can barely keep up with my smaller home now. So, I’ve always said that when I could afford the bigger home, I’d also be sure to afford the maid to go with it.

Granted, that’s not a huge curtail of servants, but it absolutely would be a pleasure for any normal person on the planet!

ALevine
Post 7

@manykitties2 - While many maids are just looking for an honest day's wages, you're right - there are always the occasional bad apples who give the rest a bad name.

It seems so quaint to think of the last few centuries when normal families would have a whole host of servants who lived in the house! Then again, over time, those servants also became part of the family to some extent, creating a strong sense of loyalty and pride. Some of them would spend their entire lives working for the family and even for the next generation. If you could afford to employ and support that amount of staff today, would you?

nefret
Post 6

@dfoster85 - Typically a charwoman would do the really rough and heavy work, while the maid did slightly more delicate tasks. In older times, maids lived in the house along with other staff (the cook, butler, footmen etc), whereas a charwoman did not. The charwoman would normally just come by on certain days to help out with the cleaning.

AnnBoleyn
Post 5

They still often use the word "charwoman" in parts of India; a throwback to the days when the British ruled there. In some contexts, it seems to have a slightly derogatory connotation. The phrase "cleaning lady", which essentially is the same thing, just sounds politer in general. Has anyone else noticed this difference too?

Sara007
Post 4

For those that are thinking about hiring a charwoman to clean your home make sure you get a list of quotes of the different services they will provide. Things like oven cleaning and laundry often come at an additional fee, as does doing dishes.

A lot of companies that offer maid services have websites, and on those sites you can find packages of tasks you can buy at a reduced rate. For example if you want a maid to come in once a week to just do some dusting and vacuuming, you can usually buy a certain number of visits for a set fee.

I have found that purchasing maid services from a website is very much like ordering anything online. You just choose the features you want and the company sends the maid.

ElizaBennett
Post 3

@dfoster85 - Obviously, I'm a big Jane Austen fan (living happily ever after with my own Mr. Darcy, even if he rarely wears one of those lovely morning coats).

The understanding I've gotten from reading her novels is that a charwoman is a lower rank of servant than a maid. Being a maid in a middle- to upper-class household was a career. You would work your way up, both in terms of the kind of maid you were and the kind of household you worked in; gradually, your work would get ore specialized and less heavy.

If you were very lucky and in the right place at the right time, you might get to be a lady's maid. Becoming a lady's maid was a way for a woman born into relative poverty to become a "lady" herself.

On the other hand, a charwoman was who you got when you could no longer afford a professional, live-in maid. In the novels I've read, she's generally older, and a married woman or a widow while maids tended to be single. (I guess if they married, they took married-couple jobs like butler and cook.) The charwoman did not live in; she seems to come from "the village" to do the heaviest of the chores and possibly some rather inelegant cooking.

Today, hardly anyone, of course, has a proper maid. But if I had a little extra money, I wouldn't mind having a "charwoman" give my bathtub a good scrubbing now and then.

manykitties2
Post 2

If you are looking for a charwoman to help out with your chores around the house I think that going through an agency is best. Most maids hired through agencies are better trained in my opinion, and I like that there is a sense of accountability with someone who working with a registered company.

Letting someone into my home that has had a criminal background check and that comes with insurance makes me feel a lot better about leaving someone alone with my valuables. Often I see advertisements in the paper of women offering their services as maids and wonder if they are all legitimate. It seems really dangerous to just hire anybody to work in your home.

dfoster85
Post 1

I've read my share of nineteenth-century novels, so I know that they also had maids - all sorts of maids. Lady's maid, parlourmaid, upstairs-maid, chambermaid, etc. (Apparently, highly differentiated lines of work.)

So what was the difference between a maid and a charwoman? Are they synonyms?

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