More about Nellie Boxall

Nellie Boxall, (1890-1965) was the youngest of ten children and orphaned by the time she was twelve. Life for many of these women meant leaving their large families and taking up work as domestics at an early age, and moving away from their villages into the big cities. They had little to no formal education and relied on their large families for emotional support. Without that support they were nervous and often afraid of the unknown in a new family, and new town. They relied heavily on the friendships of other domestics in the household. When the wealthy could no longer support the large household, it was a blow to the domestic life in more ways than one. There was more work to do and less support and comfort.

From 1912 until 1916, Nellie worked for Roger Fry (a member of Bloomsbury Group) and then in 1916 joined the Virginia Woolf household as cook, with Lottie Hope as maid. Nellie’s relationship with Virginia was fraught with tension from the start.

Virginia wanted to live the life of “ the fully self-directed, autonomous woman,” but because of her mental instability and nervous breakdowns was looked after by her servants, who supervised her eating, her bodily needs, and her resting times, in addition to the cooking and cleaning, as instructed by her husband. Virginia hated their meddling and felt she never had any time for herself. She constantly wrote to Vanessa (Vanessa Bell, her younger sister) with what she called “the servant problem". Virginia absolutely loathed the servants. I am sick of the timid, spiteful servant mind, my brains are becoming soft by the constant contact with the lower classes,” she wrote to Vanessa.

I think Virginia wanted life both ways. She felt she couldn’t live with the servants and couldn’t live without them. Even with Virginia’s work for Women’s rights, Virginia had no desire to improve the economic situation of her servants. When Virginia went on to make 4000 pounds a year for her writings, she paid a meager total of 40 pounds a year for her two servants! A woman is hardly going to become self sufficient on 20 pounds a year! Why did the domestics put up with all the strife? In the Woolfe and Bell household the servants didn’t have to wear uniforms, attend church, wait on tables, or do “fetching and carrying” for their employers. They enjoyed the glamour of working for famous artists and traveling with them on their luxurious vacations. They were allowed to mingle with the guests and no longer lived in the dismal attics or basements. The arrangements with the servants appeared to be “unbelievingly lax.” It was a trade off that they all considered.

Should you find any inaccuracies or have new information you feel pertinent to the family, please email your thoughts and or information to:
email simmonds-family