'I kissed you when you asked me. I wanted to see what your mouth was like. It was hot and warm. I knowed you was good and soft by the feel of your mouth.'
Hannah Cullwick as Mary Magdalen by James Stodart in 1864
directed by Kim Wood 2003
Hannah Cullwick is a fascinating figure, a working class woman who kept a diary and pursued a class-defying relationship which encompassed S/M role-playing, cross-dressing and muscle fetishism.
Refusing to be constrained by notions of gender, class or race,she revelled in her physical toil and embraced her identity as a maid of all work, building up musculature and strength which delighted the victorian barrister Arthur Munby.
Victorian English gentlemen were notorious collectors. In the interests of scientific investigation and sociological progress, they amassed butterflies, antiquities and colonial territories on a breathtaking scale. Arthur Munby – minor poet, man of letters, Church Commissioner and barrister – collected working women. For over 50 years he sought out shop-girls, milliners, fruit and flower sellers, prostituterag-pickers, flither-lasses, pitbrow and gypsy girls, a cquiring their photographs and making detailed notes about their physical appearance and working lives.
Munby first spoke to Hannah on her 21st birthday. She was enjoying her second visit to London, having been brought from her native Shropshire by her employers for the season. On her first visit, the year before, Hannah had seen Charles Kean in Sardanapalus, Byron's tragedy about the King of Assyria who falls madly in love with one of his many slaves, Myrrah.
The play so fired her romantic imagination that when Munby approached her, she immediately identified him as a Master to whom she could become lovingly enslaved. His interest in female drudgery perfectly matched her desire to abase herself.
She practised her letter-writing in order to send her lover the kind of detailed descriptions he revelled in, telling him that "the blacker I get with work, the more ardent I feel towards you", and incidentally ensuring that her side of the unusual relationship is amply recorded.
Both documented their relationship, though it remained secret from their peers and Cullwick even took the bold step of changing jobs when staff became suspicious of the chain she wore round her neck as a symbol of her "belonging" to Munby. In her diaries she records submissive acts such as washing his feet and licking his boots.
However,Cullwick was probably in the driving seat in the relationship and refused his attempts to turn her into a lady. While Munby's diaries are full of his admiration for her physicality and muscularity, it is less clear what drew her to him,and indeed kept them locked together for decades in a relationship she described as "the same to us as marriage is to other folks",much of it spent living apart.
“For freedom & true lowliness, there's nothing like being a maid of all work...” Hannah Cullwick, 1872