In Love and Dirt: The Unconventional Romance of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby

When Arthur Munby died in 1910 at the age of 82, he made headlines not for his death, but for how he had lived his life. He had been a friend and colleague of John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and other influential artists and writers in the circles surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Munby himself was an accomplished author and photographer fascinated by the lives of working-class women. His favorite subject was one working-class woman in particular: his long-time lover and later secret wife, Hannah Cullwick.

How they managed to keep their relationship secret for fifty-four years was anyone’s guess. Munby was a gentleman, and Cullwick was a maid-of-all-work from Shropshire. Most of what we know about Cullwick comes from her diaries, which she kept throughout her life. Extensive, detailed, and unflinchingly honest, Cullwick’s diaries offer an unparalleled insight into not only her own life, but the lives of working-class women of this period, who were otherwise routinely ignored.

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Hannah Cullwick in men’s wear in 1860, giving precisely zero fucks

Cullwick was not a woman who could easily be ignored. Born in Shifnal to a housemaid and saddler in 1833, she trained in domestic service and worked full-time from the age of eight. Cullwick met Munby in London in 1854, and she took a job there to be closer to him in 1856. She distinguished herself as a particularly tireless worker, and though she had served as a cook, housemaid, and housekeeper, she preferred to work as a lower servant because she saw the position as a way to escape the confines of traditional femininity and service.

What we would now think of as a thoroughly “modern” woman, Cullwick took pride in her position, strength, and ability to take care of herself. No shrinking violet, she was 5’8” and 161 pounds of muscle, with thirteen-and-a-half-inch biceps and large, coarse hands. She usually worked sixteen-hour days doing exhausting manual labor, but she wasn’t the only one; while about half of all working-class women were in service, Cullwick’s generation was the last where large numbers of women were employed to do heavy manual labor. Until the mid-nineteenth century, women frequently did what was later regarded as “men’s work”: working fields, pulling trucks, digging roads, fishing, and working in coal mines. Outside of her job, she came and went as she pleased, visiting friends and roaming London alone without incident like many other women in her position did. She was self-assured, knew her own mind, and was more than capable of handling herself.

While Munby appreciated working-class women, his view of them was as condescending as one might expect for a man of his class in this period. Cullwick stood out to him for her intelligence and love of poetry, and Munby attempted to instruct her in the redemptive power of hard work.

Although Cullwick took his “instruction” to heart, she didn’t need it. She had taken pride in her work long before she’d met Munby, and his attraction to women in service complimented her unwavering dedication to her work, as difficult and ugly as it could get. Cullwick was assertive and even prideful in public, but in private, she became Munby’s willing submissive in what we would now recognize as a consensual Dom/sub relationship.

Munby was not Cullwick’s employer, and though she worked for a friend of his during their courtship, Munby was never in a position to threaten her job. She knew her worth and could have found other employment easily if it came down to it, and their relationship had started before she took the job to be closer to him. Though their relationship involved more than a little power play, they entered into it on as equal footing as anyone from such different classes could.

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Cullwick with boots, 1864

Cullwick loved to meet Munby “in her dirt,” as she described her physical state after spending a long day cleaning filth without washing afterward. She submitted to his requests, served him, and even referred to him as “Massa,” their idea of how a black servant might say it. Though slavery had ended in Britain in 1833, they played with the concept in private, Cullwick darkening her skin with lead or soot. Less about race for her and more about subverting the Victorian ideal of femininity, Cullwick found submitting in this way liberating; outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, Cullwick was free to be herself, even if what she wanted was unconventional.

Her relationship with Munby certainly defied convention. For years, Cullwick wore a short chain around her neck joined with a padlock only Munby had the key to. She took particular pleasure in cleaning boots, and she would sometimes clean Munby’s boots with her tongue. In her diary, she claimed she could tell where he had been by how his boots tasted.

Though their differences made them an odd couple, it’s hard to imaging Munby and Cullwick finding the same happiness with anyone else. From Cullwick’s breathless diary entries about sneaking time with Munby or the delicious secret knowledge that he had passed the house and watched her scrubbing the steps, her feelings about him are more than clear. Though they lived apart during their first two decades together, she found ways to express her feelings. She wrote to him, sent him valentines, and even went to the excruciating lengths of polishing brass with her bare hands because she knew he liked them hard, rough, and red.

Given Munby’s position and love of working women, it has been suggested that his instruction of Cullwick in the virtues of service was enough to convince her to devote herself to it, but Cullwick knew her own mind and never needed convincing. In spite of the submissive role she played with Munby in private, she was not afraid to assert herself or make her wishes clear. Her diary hints that her love of being dirty outweighed his interest in seeing her that way; on more than one occasion, she would arrive intentionally filthy and he would ask her to bathe.

Even when she was on her own, Cullwick reveled in dirt, describing it with a sensuality bordering on the erotic. In this diary entry from October of 1863, she details the pleasure she took in cleaning a chimney:

“I work’d till eight o’clock & then had supper. Clean’d away & then to bed at ten o’clock. I’d a capital chance to go up the chimney, so I lock’d up & waited until ½ past ten till the grate was cool enough & then I took the carpets up & got the tub o’ water ready to wash me in. Moved the fender & swept ashes up. Stripp’d myself quite naked & put a pair of old boots on & tied an old duster over my hair & then I got up into the chimney with a brush. There was a lot o’ soot & it was soft & warm. Before I swept I pull’d the duster over my eyes & mouth, & I sat on the beam that goes across the middle & cross’d my legs along it & I was quite safe & comfortable & out o’ sight. I swept lots o’ soot down & it come all over me & I sat there for ten minutes or more, & when I’d swept all round & as far as I could reach I come down, & I lay on the hearth in the soot a minute or two thinking, & I wish’d rather that Massa could see me. I black’d my face over & then got the looking glass & look’d at myself & I was certainly a fright & hideous all over, at least I should o’ seem’d so to anybody but Massa. I set on & wash’d myself after, & I’d hard work to get the black off & was obliged to leave my shoulders for Massa to finish. I got the tub emptied & to bed before twelve.”

After twenty years as lovers, Munby and Cullwick married in secret in 1873. Cullwick was forty, and Munby was forty-five. Having spent thirty-two years as a full-time servant, Cullwick finally had the opportunity to move up in the world, but she didn’t want it. While Munby encouraged Cullwick to explore her new role as his wife, she refused and insisted on remaining his servant. This was not because she felt unworthy of it, but because she had no patience for the societal restrictions that came with the change in status and preferred to keep the freedom she’d had in service. Keeping her own last name, she lived with him as his servant until 1877, when she left to return to service in Shropshire. Their relationship wasn’t over, though—Munby visited her regularly until her death in 1909.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant. Liz Stanley, Ed.

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