Working as a Domestic in St. John’s

Reprinted from Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many young women came to St. John’s from the outports to work in domestic service in upper class homes. They worked as housekeepers, cooks, maids or general servants, many of them in the homes on Rennie’s Mill Road.

Often the work meant long hours of difficult physical labour for low wages and limited freedoms, as defined by the lady of the house. Domestic workers were in a very vulnerable position in the household, reliant as they were on the goodwill of their employers. Sometimes, young women came to the city for the winter, returning to their home communities in the spring to help their families in fishing.

Naomi (Aunt Emmie) Gregory. (Photo courtesy of Shelley Smith)

Naomi (Aunt Emmie) Gregory worked for a time on Rennie’s Mill Road. She went into service in 1916, and describes her life as that of “a slave to the people you worked for…. I had to clean shoes, polish silverware, and wash the floors in the basement … scrub [the wooden kitchen table] … until it was as clean as a hound’s tooth.” Naomi got one night off a week, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. If she returned late to the house, the door would be locked and “you wouldn’t get in at all.”

Most young women married and turned to the care of their own homes or, like Naomi, sought work as domestics in the Boston States. Naomi worked there from 1920 until 1933, when she returned to St. John’s to work.

(Thanks to Shelly Smith and Marian Frances White of A Women’s Almanac: voices from Newfoundland and Labrador, 1990.)


Note: Naomi (Smith) Gregory (1901-1994) was the daughter of Lorenzo and Emma Ann (Dodge) Smith of Island Cove. Naomi married Edward Gregory (1900-1979) of Queen’s Cove.