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A charwoman, char or (ironically or in genteel phrasing) charlady is an English house cleaner. The expression was formerly used in the United States prior to 1950. The word has the same roots as "chore woman", one hired to do odd chores around the house.
A char or chare was a turn (of work) in the sixteenth century, which gave rise to the word being used as a prefix to denote people working in domestic service. The usage of "charwoman" was common in the mid-19th century, often appearing as an occupation in the English census of 1841, but it fell out of common use in the later decades of the 20th century, often replaced by the term "daily (woman)". Unlike a maid or housekeeper, typically live-in positions, the charwoman usually worked for hourly wages, usually on a part-time basis, often having several different employers.
The position often features in fiction. One notable character is Ebeneezer Scrooge's charwoman Mrs. Dilber who appears in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Another well-known fictional char is Ada Harris, the central character in Paul Gallico's novel Mrs 'Arris goes to Paris. In the British radio comedy series It's That Man Again, Dorothy Summers played the part of Mrs Mopp, an office char whose catch phrase was "Can I do you now, Sir?" (i.e., "May I clean your office now, Sir?" but with an obvious double entendre). A charwoman also appears in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915).
In the short story "The Diary of Anne Rodway", by Wilkie Collins, Anne investigates the murder of her friend Mary and learns that the suspect's wife is a woman "ready to turn her hand to anything: charing, washing, laying-out, keeping empty houses. . . ."
Motion pictures also had its share of charwoman characters. The best example of this is probably the series of films that featured the funny and feisty Irish charwoman Mrs. Riley, a creation of the music hall comedian Arthur Lucan. The public's enthusiasm for his impromptu stage character prompted him to make her a part of his repertoire and this led to his starring in sixteen Old Mother Riley films, from 1937 to 1952.
In 1963, Peggy Mount starred as charwoman Mrs. Cragg in Ladies Who Do, a film in which a group of charwomen unite and go into high finance under the guidance of the eccentric Robert Morley as Colonel Whitforth, in order to save their old neighbourhood from a team of ruthless developers led by Harry H. Corbett.
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