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Emily’s Kitchen 1

Freda Isaksen

I am Emily. I was born in the East End of London early in the twentieth century. My family lived in a two room flat and we shared a communal kitchen with other families, so I was considered to be lucky when I left school at age fourteen and was offered a job as housemaid in a more affluent part of London.

I was scared when the lady of the house led me into her basement kitchen. It was a square room with a large table in the center on which food and pretty dishes were laid out, such as I had never seen before. There were many cupboards, some with glass doors and inside I saw more lovely things, pots and pans and even shiny silver. There was also a pantry with so much food I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Along one wall was a big coal burning stove where food was cooking on top and a delicious smell was coming from something baking in the oven. The lady said that this stove also heated the water for the bathroom. I had never seen a bathroom in my whole life. My family had used the public bath. That stove would retain the heat all night, so every evening oatmeal would be put on to slowly simmer and it was ready to eat in the morning, so the kitchen was always warm in that cold and draughty English house. I soon found out that all the rooms were heated with only coal burning fireplaces.

Then I was shown the scullery just off the main kitchen where there was a gas burning cooking stove, for convenience, my mistress said, and a built in washer that heated its own water. I was told another woman would come in weekly. The soiled clothes were actually boiled clean while the washerwoman stirred them around, then hung them on a line outdoors to dry. There was even a lavatory for use of the help. We only had an outhouse in the East End and cold water was good enough.

Before long I realised that the kitchen would be my domain and the chores of that room would be my responsibilities. The children would come to me there and tell me about their daily experiences. The kitchen was their hub as well as mine and how many tales and secrets could those walls tell. Without a doubt that room was the center of the household even though it was in the basement and we had to walk up five stairs just to reach the dining room on street level.

That kitchen remained my home until I became too old to work, and my aching bones could not help me climb four flights of stairs to my own room in the attic. By then the emancipation of women had begun and I doubt if they could find another girl who would be willing to spend her whole life in a kitchen.


  1. For the context of this story, see Freda’s Autobiography. Emily is a central character in Work and Play.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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