- Wee Slavey – First appearance: Judy: #249 (17 October 1964)
In Victorian times, Nellie Perks works as a maid servant for the Shelby Smythes. The family consists of; William, Amelia, their daughters Alice and Flora, and their young son Algy. A lot of stories set in this time period would be a set up for a hard life and tragedy, and certainly the title suggests a life of drudgery but this is presented in a humorous way. Nellie has to work hard, but she is shown to be smart and loyal and the family appreciate her (even if they don’t like to admit it!). There were some ongoing story arcs but most of the plots were standalone. There were common themes that appeared regularly;
An idea by the family ends up being more hard work for Nellie.
Often this idea would be presented to Nellie as something to make her work easier or seen as a treat! Such as when Flora and Alice decide to go on a picnic and bring Nellie along. They tell her how nice it must be for her to get out of the house and have an easy time in the country. But as Nellie ends up carrying a heavy picnic basket, getting stuck in mud and rained on it’s not such a nice treat for her! She does get breakfast in bed after catching a chill, which she appreciates much more. Another time the girls get a new wardrobe and they give Nellie their old one – on the condition she gets it to her room herself. It turns out the wardrobe is too big for her little room and gets stuck in the door, so she ends up having to chop through it, to escape from her room. When Amelia Shelby Smythe insists on getting a new invention vacuum cleaner to help Nellie with her work, she expects it will speed things up for her, but it’s so heavy it takes twice the time for Nellie to get her work done. Luckily a missing piece of jewellery and Nellie’s quick thinking gets rid of the machine. Even when the family decide to do good and work for charity, it is Nellie and Cook that end up doing all the hard work!
Nellie stops a thief!
Nellie is responsible for catching many crooks. Often she outsmarts the crook although sometimes it is just by luck, such as when Cook reads Nellie’s tea leaves and they say she will be swept off her feet by a tall dark stranger; it turns out Nellie stumbles upon a burglar, which is not what she was expecting the reading meant! A different time two thieves use a fake invitation by Arthur Conan Doyle to sneak into the house, it’s Nellie’s detective skills that notice a gong moved in the hallway and figures out where a thief is hiding waiting for everyone to go to sleep. [Note: the reference to Conan Doyle would place the time period somewhere between 1887 -1901]. Another event has Nellie stopping thieves using bowls and is delighted to be invited to play bowls with an upper class family in thanks. Although that does put the women Shelby Smythes noses out of joint! The biggest crook Nellie helps stop is William Shelby Smythe’s business partner Mortimor who absconded with the business funds. This is a long running plot with the Shelby Smythes losing all their money and Nellie staying on as their only servant, which shows her loyalty. At first the story arc, shows the family having difficulty but when Mortimor is spotted it is Nellie that helps capture him. She goes as far to jump on the back of his carriage and she figures out where he hid the money.
The family tries to move up in society
The family often try to better themselves and get themselves in higher social circles. This does not always work out the way they expect and they are often surprised when it’s Nellie that ends up on top! When the women decide to host a party in aid of charity, it doesn’t turn out as they hope, as the priest misunderstands their intentions and invites poor people to the house, instead of the money raising ball they had in mind. In another story William is pleased when he becomes knighted in part because of Nellie’s loyalty. Although the family are surprised to see Nellie beside Queen Victoria during the knighthood (due to good timing with smelling salts before the ceremony). Another long running story has the family move to the country when the inherit Oakley estate. It doesn’t work out quite as they hope as the estate is in need of a lot of repairs. After their time in the country they return to London for the social season, but they are not happy that everyone seems to have forgotten them, but know Nellie well! Although they are still sure to remind Nellie of her place when they get the chance. They are not happy when Cousin Gerald seems to have written a love letter to Nellie, thinking she’s getting ideas above her station, although it just turns out Gerald is just a song writer. Snobbery gets Nellie into trouble when she saves a girl’s life but a series of misunderstandings lead to the girl’s family being insulted and the Shelby Smythe’s thinking Nellie was trying to pass herself off as one of the family. Luckily a respectable doctor who had seen what had happened gets her out of trouble again!
Nellie is the family confidant
Nellie shows her loyalty to the family time and time again, and often she is the person the family turn to for help or to confide in. Most commonly with the girls or William, Amelia is better at keeping a distance. Several times Alice and Flora’s potential love interest have to be hidden with Nellie’s help, as their parents don’t approve. Another time Nellie helps Flora get back her diary after William accidentally picked up. Being closer to age it makes sense that the young ladies of the house would turn to Nellie for help when they are in need. An even stronger friendship seems to be between William and Nellie. Quite a few times Nellie saves William money from some of the ladies high ideas, like redecorating or she helps by getting rid of someone/something he doesn’t like (in one instance an annoying parrot). He often shows his appreciation by giving her a bit of extra money, or even paying for her photo to be taken. When he has to make a big speech it is Nellie that he confides his fears to. William even crosses some normal social boundaries like when learning to dance he chooses her as a dance partner!
Nellie gets into trouble or solves a problem
Nellie can find herself in difficult situations, sometimes she makes mistakes which get her into trouble, but either by luck or quick thinking it is okay by the end. Such as Nellie having the job to clean the attic, but ends up losing track of time and having fun exploring. This get her into trouble with Amelia, but William, Flora and Alice are delighted in rediscovering their old things and gets Nellie off the hook. At least two different occasions she has trouble with an organ grinder monkey. She solves other animal mischief when cook is told to get rid of her chickens for causing trouble. Nellie buys rotting eggs in order to persuade the family they are better to have fresh eggs than rely on the shop.
Nellie experiences a harder life
Although life isn’t always the easiest working for the Shelby Smythes, Nellie could have it a lot worse. There are times when Nellie gets to see this other side. When on holiday Nellie takes the time to help a girl who works in a corrupt factory. A long running story has Nellie go to work for the Kedges temporarily while the Shelby Smythes are away. Hartley Kedge and his sister Maria, are a tough and sour pair who mistreat their young ward, Arthur. Nellie uncovers the Kedge’s plot to try and get Arthur’s inheritance. Luckily she is able to help Arthur. Another long running plot set in the early days of Nellie, which shows she didn’t have the best time before coming to work for the Shelby Smythes. When Nellie’s gran dies, her Aunt Ada takes over the house and sends Nellie to the workhouse. She has several run ins with the matron, who is quick to hit, keeps the best food for herself and runs cons. Nellie crosses path with the Shelby Smythes when they come to the workhouse as charitable ladies, but an assault and mix up leaves them working in the workhouse while Nellie tracks down William to help them. On route she (again) saves the house from a robber who was working with the maid. After William comes to get his family the matron gets removed and Nellie is hired by the family. Which may be a big reason why she is so loyal to the family.
Clearly this was a popular story first appearing in 1964. In the late 80s the story got a new artist and regularly appeared right up to the last issue of Judy in 1991. The stories were reprinted as a Judy classic in M&J and also regularly appeared in Annuals and Picture Story Library Books. It’s easy to see why – this was a fun, smart character with interesting supporting characters and while there was some common plots that appeared, there was still enough variety to keep the stories engaging. I actually started making notes to write this post ages, but then I got busy and didn’t have enough time to dedicate to what I knew would be a big post. But I definitely enjoyed rereading these stories and noticing things that would have passed over my head when I was younger, such as literature references and the suffragette movement.
Nellie, is a character that you want to succeed, she is smart, resourceful, loyal, hard working and has a sense of fun. All the family are distinct characters; William is an upstanding honest man, who in one long plot runs as a parliamentary candidate. He is more frugal than his family and less prone to the bright ideas that make more work for Nellie. Amelia is the most distant, as we see the family mostly through Nellie’s eyes. Amelia is most often giving instructions to Nellie and is more conscious of class barriers, although she does appreciate Nellie’s hard work and trusts her. The sisters are quite similar and are usually seen together, but there are some differences. Alice the blonde older sister is a bit harsher than Flora, particularly to her sister. Alice points out Flora’s lack of croquet skills and when they overhear some ladies comment on Flora’s plumpness, Alice keeps teasing her about it. Although in that instance Alice gets her comeuppance as it turns out the ladies who commented had got their names mixed up. Flora is also quicker to fall in love and have romantic ideas. Lastly there is young Algy who is usually away at school but when he’s home can cause mischief for Nellie and she ends up running after him a lot. There is no maliciousness in his actions though and he likes Nellie. When Nellie gets the blame for damp sheets, Algy owns up that he had accidentally splashed them.
The other character we see most in the household is Cook. In early stories there were more servants, but Cook is the only person who really develops (Benson the butler appears for a bit). In the first episode none of the family appear, Cook is more stern than later appearances, although not as harsh as the housekeeper! Cook and Nellie often conspire together, but Cook is also well aware of their place and is quick to remind Nellie. She is also very protective of Nellie and they both help each other out.
Like I mentioned previously there are references to famous books and literary figures in the story. Nellie is shown to read The Man in the Iron Mask, she also reads Hamlet after accidentally getting locked in a shop, and shows her good memory by being able to quote it afterward! There is reference to Arthur Conan Doyle and the family go to hear a reading by Charles Dickens. The latter proves very beneficial for Nellie, as the family feel guilty for refusing Nellie some extra money, even though she has no idea why the change of heart she is grateful for it! [Note: Nellie gets £5 a year and home and food, afterwards they add an extra shilling a week]
There are some mixed feminist messages in the text. For the most part, Alice and Flora are somewhat oblivious to women’s movements, when suffragettes are rallying around during William’s election run, the ladies don’t have much time for them, but as they are often seen to be feather-headed, I would say this gives more weight to the cause. But mostly the suffragettes are painted as overly aggressive. This is shown particularly when Cousin Ada comes to stay. Her pushy ways, are seen to be a nuisance and Nellie finds an idea to quieten her when Tom the coachman needs help with his baby and Ada can prove that there are jobs women are better at. Still that may be more fitting reaction in the time it’s set in and having a resourceful young female who is often shown to be cleverer than her upper class counterparts, is still an inspiring character to have.
One of Wee Slavey’s strengths was it’s great humour not just in situations but in the dialogue and expressions. Both artists did a great job at capturing the era and there is some very pretty settings and clothes drawn, but I have to give preference to the original artist who captured some great humorous expressions and moments. Such as Flora taking a “quiet” stroll soon after being called plump, so much is captured in two panels, from Alice’s smug look in the background to Flora’s look of determination and Nellie’s realisation!
With interesting characters, humour, varied plots and great art work it’s no surprise Wee Slavey stuck around so long and became a well loved favourite.