Love & Dirt:
The Marriage of Arthur Munby & Hannah Cullwick
The gentleman was Arthur Munby, roughly the same height as Hannah, with brown hair and a moustache, and out and about enjoying his hobby - collecting information about working women. The streets of London bustled with all sorts of women: servants on errands, milliners and dressmakers delivering finished garments, fruit and flower-sellers, prostitutes, shop-girls, milkwomen, charwomen and laundresses, rag-pickers. Munby collected them, or rather the stories of their lives, and their likenesses too. He started his collection of photographs of working women in the mid-I850s. Disillusioned with his barrister's pupillage and struggling to qualify for the Bar, he would walk for miles to study his subject, and then approach the woman and question her about the detail of her working life. This was the spirit in which he approached Hannah in Oxford Street. He spotted her from a distance and moved to catch up with her. Years later he would recall in detail how she looked and behaved on that day: 'her clothing, her large bare round ruddy arms and her laborious hands were those of the humblest servant, but her lovely young face was queenlike in feature and expression' and
she carried a red bundle, hardly redder than the arm that held it. A robust hardworking peasant lass, with the marks of labour everywhere: yet endowed with a grace and beauty, and obvious intelligence that would have become a lady of the highest. Such a combination I had dreamt of and sought for; but I have never seen it save in her.
Munby spent the next fifty years of his life collecting informatlon about thousands of women. Sometimes he had their pictures taken, or bought pictures of women to fill a gap in his knowledge or collection, as if they were a rare or endangered species.
Hannah was as impressed with Munby as he was with her. They arranged to meet again. He bought her a blue shawl which she would treasure for the rest of her life as a 'sacred relic'. This odd couple were smitten with each other. The physical attraction between them was overpowering, but Hannah's modesty was such that she found it hard to understand why Arthur was attracted to her and was taken aback by his words. After they met, and while she was still at Grosvenor Street, she would:
run upstairs from my scullery up to our attic (and it was a long way too) when I'd a chance and look at myself in the glass theer, an' wonder however you could come to love me, the simpleton.’
Their first kiss confirmed her feelings for him. She loved his mouth and sweet breath: 'Aye that's why I kissed you first when yo' axed me. It was to see what your mouth was like . . . I knowed you was good by the feel of your mouth. An' I couldna love no man if I didna like his mouth.' Arthur was fascinated by regional accents and would have been attracted to hers which was West Staffordshire, not so nasal as that of Wolverhampton and the Black Country. Suddenly the summer of 1854 was giddy for both of them. They met as often as she could escape from her duties but the time came for the Cotes to return to Shropshire.
Although they wrote to each other while Hannah was still in London, and after she returned to Shropshire, no letters survive from the first stage of their love affair. We have to rely on their reminiscences years later of those early heady days, and on the poems Arthur wrote about Hannah. His unhappiness in his profession was balanced by his interest in working women, and then, from the summer of 1854, transformed by his. secret love for Hannah. He had hoped his poetry could earn him a living if he dared go against his father and abandon the law, but the reception of the poems in Benoni had not encouraged him. He also took an active interest in the Working Men's College newly founded in 1854 in Red Lion Square.
Hannah and Arthur's romance had to remain a secret, otherwise they would have been undone. It was unthinkable for a man of Arthur's class to be able to have a respectable relationship with someone so far down the social ladder as a servant. Sexual favours, yes; marital bliss, no. Hannah's status as the lowest type of servant made matters worse. His parents, family and friends would have been shocked by his choice. Her people would also have looked askance at the situation and worried about Hannah's long-term future. If the Coteses had found out they would have dismissed her on the spot, it was such a social solecism. There were 'misalliances' which were often written about in the press in great detail, but they were scandalous, and it would have taken a braver man than Arthur Munby to tell the world of his love for a woman as 'low-born as Hannah'. The Cullwicks were not quite the peasant stock that her ruddy and rustic appearance might have suggested. But Hannah did not wear her family tree on her sleeve, and the years of humility taught at her mother's knee, and as a Bluecoat girl, made her at ease with her low station. She had no ambition to move up the social ladder, even if it would end her life of hard work and provide her with the status of being a 'lady'.
Hannah was overjoyed at having found romance, and perhaps a master to whom she could be a slave, but she had to keep these feelings to herself. It was dangerous to confide in one’s fellow servants. Politics and gossip below stairs could be fevered. When Arthur's letters arrived at Woodcote or Pitchford they would have been noticed: when she collected letters at the nearest post office, the clerk would wonder who could be writing to Hannah in an educated hand. There was little privacy in a long, busy day to write love letters. But she managed.
In the autumn, while she was at Pitchford Hall, Hannah managed to get an afternoon off to meet Munby in Shrewsbury, the nearest town, and relatively easy for him to reach by train. She paid precious pennies for a ride on a cart on the six-mile journey to an appointment on the banks of the River Severn. They discussed the immediate future, arranging that she would leave the Coteses, visit her relatives in Shifnal for two weeks in January, and then travel to London and look for a place so that they could see more of each other.
She spent m.ost of her stay at her Aunt Elizabeth's cottage in Haughton with her sister Polly who was now ten years old. While in Shifnal she wrote to Munby, and at his suggestion started a diary of her days, paying particular attention to her various tasks. Her days here were spent sewing, baking bread, feeding her uncle's cattle, child-minding, preparing meals, going to church, reading, getting to know Polly, and catching up on news of the Owens and the Cullwicks.
On Monday, 22 January 1855 Hannah waved goodbye to her aunt and Polly, carried her box to Shifnal and caught the train to London and an uncertain future. Furtive and nervous, Munby met her at Isambard Kingdom BruneI's new Paddington station. He could not openly greet a social inferior such as Hannah. They had to make signals and eye movements to acknowledge each other until they found themselves behind closed doors. She had to walk behind him and speak to him without attracting attention. If she had walked with him, passers-by might have made insulting remarks to her, not him. Working-class as well as middle-class folk were capable of expressing hostility to a relationship such as theirs which threatened all social mores.
For the next three weeks Hannah stayed at the Servants' Home in Clare Market, just off New Inn Square, in a tiny, cold room, sleeping on a straw bed, for which she paid five shillings and sixpence a week while she looked for a new situation. Munby probably secured her place there with his personal recommendation. Armed with a good character from Lady Louisa Cotes, Hannah looked for work near to where Munby was lodging, but could find nothing to suit and was worried about spending her tiny savings.
At this time she adopted her lifelong name for her sweetheart, 'Massa', a phonetic transcription of the Shropshire pronunciation of master, which was used for the head of a family or business. Recalling this time, Hannah gives a hint of the fetishistic behaviour that would come to dominate their lives and give them both pleasure and pain: 'There Massa came to see me again, and there was where I first black'd my face with oil and lead.' Munby loved Hannah 'blacking up' as a chimney sweep, smearing her face and body with black lead (used to clean ranges and stoves). He was not just fascinated by the work that women did, he loved to see them dirty from their labours. This suggests the unfolding of a bizarre scene: the preparation of the materials, Hannah smuggling him into her room, and then her 'blacking up' to please themselves. …