Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Thursday, 28 July 2016


With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, an estimated 400,000 male and female servants left domestic service for the armed forces and various areas of wartime production, as well as clerical and support services. Maids suddenly had new opportunities to undertake war work offering higher pay and greater freedom – and they were eager to take advantage of these roles. The average wages of working women were often more than double what they could have expected before the war.

Women frequently worked in jobs previously been carried out by skilled or semi-skilled men. They found employment as land girls, nurses and bus conductresses; in shops, canteens and offices. From spring 1915, women also had the option of working in munitions factories, where they could earn over £2 (40 shillings) a week. These high wages were unheard of for women but the 'munitionettes' were still paid on average less than half what their male counterparts received.

By British official photographer : Nicholls, Horace (Photograph Q 30040 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17641099

The high rate of pay was because the work was extremely dangerous. Every day, munitionettes worked with hazardous chemicals such as  trinitrotoluene (TNT) without protection; it was the nitric acid in TNT which caused some women's skin to turn yellow. They were nicknamed 'canary girls'. Another daily hazard was the very real risk of explosion. During the war, there were several incidents at factories which killed or maimed large numbers of munitions workers. The deadliest occurred in July 1918 at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire; 134 men and women were killed and 250 more were injured. Munitionettes risked their lives to contribute to the war effort and by June 1917, they produced around 80% of all munitions for the British army.

One servant who worked in a munitions factory was Victoria May Wood. Born in December 1897 in Gillingham, Kent, she was the seventh child of a Cornish couple. She enjoyed school and although she had a keen brain, she was never given the chance to sit for a scholarship. Like her sisters, Victoria left school at 14 and was sent to work as a daily maid in the homes of the local gentry.  She never spoke with any affection about her employers although their husbands were apparently a bit kinder. 

During the First World War, Victoria was required to do war work and she was sent to Woolwich to work on munitions in the Arsenal.  At first, she was housed in huts in Abbey Wood where she was frozen with the cold. Later, she lived in private digs in New Cross. The other girls were Cockneys and because of Victoria's more refined accent, she was dubbed 'The Duchess'.

Victoria met her future husband as a result of working in the munitions factory. One of the girls, Sally Jones, was looking for a girl to write to her brother who was serving at the front line in Belgium and Victoria volunteered. Despite the fact that munitions work could be detrimental to one's health, Victoria lived to the ripe old age of 87. (With thanks to Colin Jones for this information about his mother)

Victoria May Wood (holding the triangle) with other munitionettes at Woolwich Arsenal (with thanks to Colin Jones)

In her memoir Canary Girls and Stockpots, Edith Hall recalled the Canary Girls who lodged in her mother's house near Hayes in Middlesex. They worked at the munitions factory nearby and they came mostly from the East End of London. Edith remembered how the Canaries 'did long hours at work, six days a week' and they 'could not get home very often due to their long hours but they sent money home out of their very high wages'.

After the war, many women who had occupied men’s pre-war roles were expected to vacate their posts for returning servicemen, but having had a taste of independence, they were loath to return to the shackles of domestic service again. It became increasingly difficult for employers, except the very rich, to find and retain good servants.

Postcard inscribed ‘Maggie, our maid 1916’. Maggie is dressed for war work. (Author’s collection)

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Today, I'm delighted to be hosting a guest post by the wonderful Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. While domestic servants frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law, they were often victims too. Angela tells us the story of Manchester servant Sarah Jane Roberts and her unsolved murder. 

The Mystery of the Murdered Maid

At about 9 pm on 7 January 1880, Sergeant Lever rushed into Old Trafford police station to report a ‘dreadful murder’. He informed Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, that the event had taken place at the home of Richard Greenwood in Harpurhey, an industrial suburb in the northeast of Manchester. The superior officer travelled immediately to the house, where he discovered 19-year-old maid, Sarah Jane Roberts, lying in a pool of blood, with several ‘fearful’ wounds to the head. There were no signs of a struggle but her right forearm bore a mark, presumably from being raised in self-defence.

The householder, Mr Greenwood, had been absent from the house, when the crime was committed, and his wife had been in bed. Superintendent Bent made his way up to Mrs Greenwood’s bedroom where he found the elderly woman sitting by the fire wrapped in a blanket. She explained to the officer that she had been ‘dangerously ill’ and bed-ridden for some time, but that she had managed to get up that day.

After tea, at about 5.40 pm, Mr Greenwood, aged 70, had left the house after receiving a letter enquiring about the possibility of renting a piece of his land. He had arranged to meet the sender of the message in the Three Tuns public house nearby. Mrs Greenwood was left alone in the house with her maid, Sarah Jane. Both the women had been sitting by the fire when Sarah Jane rose from her seat to go downstairs to wash the tea things.

Market Street, Manchester
Whilst she was gone, Mrs Greenwood heard a knock at the door. She then heard the sound of two people’s footsteps passing through the hallway and into the kitchen. As she listened, the kitchen door slammed shut. Mrs Greenwood assumed that the visitor was a friend of the young woman’s. A few minutes later she heard a terrible scream. Thinking that the maid may have stepped too close to the fire and her clothes had caught light, the invalid ran downstairs, past the closed kitchen door and into the street, where she called for help.

Originally from Oswestry, Sarah Jane Roberts had been working for the Greenwoods for about a year. Mrs Greenwood could not speak more highly of her, praising the maid for her ‘steadiness, truthfulness, and attentiveness’. There was no obvious motive for her brutal murder, no clues at the scene and no weapon. Superintendent Bent launched an investigation ‘to unravel the mystery’.

'Laying and Lighting a Fire', Illustrated London News (1893)
The letter received by Richard Greenwood turned out to be a ruse and when he arrived at the public house, no one was there. By the time he had returned home, Sarah Jane Roberts had died. She hadn’t been killed instantly and when help had arrived, she had still been breathing faintly but she did not survive long.

The police issued handbills to other forces around the country, offering the substantial reward of £100, to anyone with information leading to an arrest. One line of inquiry pursued the possibility of a burglary, although nothing was stolen from the house. Another suggestion was that Sarah Jane might have been killed because she refused to submit to ‘undue familiarities’. There was no evidence of any romantic entanglement.

As Superintendent Bent and his colleagues continued their work, they were inundated with ideas from the general public, including ‘a great many ladies’ who offered to ‘throw light on the matter’ through dream analysis, spirit-rapping and séances. Mediums came forward saying that they had seen Sarah Jane and her attacker. When a copy of the mysterious letter was reproduced in the local newspapers, so-called handwriting specialists were keen to give their ‘expert’ opinions as to the perpetrator’s character. Superintendent Bent later commented: ‘I sometimes wished myself entirely outside of the country.’
'Maid of All Work' from Living London, 1900
Pressure mounted on the police and, in desperation, Superintendent Bent even agreed to have the victim’s eyes photographed in an attempt to catch her killer. The day before her funeral, the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880).

Throughout the course of the investigation, several individuals confessed to the crime, including a licensed pedlar from London, a labourer from Stockport and even a soldier stationed in Bombay, whose confession was made ‘in a drunken frolic’. Ten years later, 31-year-old John Williams was arrested in Chicago. He had been living with his parents in Harpurhey at the time of the murder and his confession turned out to be merely a ploy to gain free passage home.

Superintendent Bent remained convinced that he knew the identity of the killer, but he did not have sufficient evidence to gain a conviction. The murder of Sarah Jane Roberts remains a mystery to this day.

A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating post! Please get in touch if you know any more details about the Sarah Jane Roberts case or if you have any theories about the murderer...

Angela writes about Victorian crime and is the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword). You can find out more about her work at www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth

Tuesday, 15 December 2015


At this time of year when there's so much to do, getting ready for Christmas can seem like very hard work. But spare a thought for those poor domestic servants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had no break at all from their endless chores. The festive season was a favourite time for entertaining so most servants had far more work to do than at other times of the year. As they were tied to domestic service, there was little hope of being able to go home at Christmas to see their families.

'Between the Dances' from 'Dancing London' (Living London, 1901)
In the large country houses and wealthy town houses, the effect of the extra work was mitigated by the excitement of the annual servants' ball, the lavish servants' Christmas dinner and the presents handed out by the employers.

A male servant, identified only with the initials E G, worked at Westbrook in Horsham, Sussex before moving on Bromley Palace in Kent. In January 1909, he sent a postcard of the house to his ‘old chum’ at Westbrook, C Taylor. In the message, he boasted that they ‘all got a nice present’ for Christmas; his was a solid silver match box. He also commented that Bromley Palace was much bigger than Westbrook as it had fifteen servants, and that a motor car was kept there, not horses.

In about 1909, Louise Jermy worked as a cook for a while for an MP and his wife (Mrs Harvey) in London:

"I was there during the Xmas [and] although I had been there such a short time, she and Mrs Clark, the sister, gave me a beautiful handkerchief sachet with half-a-dozen lace-trimmed handkerchiefs in it… Mrs Harvey made arrangements for us to go to the Duke of York theatre to see “Miss Hook of Holland” a few days after Xmas. We were to go in the car, the ladies’ maid, the other maid and myself … It was a nice evening and I enjoyed it as much as I ever did anything..."

Present buying and treats like this were extremely rare, except from the most considerate employers. In most large households, Christmas presents for the servants were usually graded according to their status, but were not personalised; they were work-related gifts such as a new uniform.

Being given a dress length was a standard Christmas present for female servants, but it was usually for work, not out of hours and therefore not necessarily a pattern they would have chosen for themselves. In any case, unless they were skilled in dressmaking, they still had to find the money to have the dress made up for them. Even if they could make their own clothes, there was very little free time in which to do it.

Servants in an unidentified kitchen, circa 1900. (Copyright Michelle Higgs)

At the other end of the scale, servants working in small middle-class households were lucky to get a Christmas present at all. Edith Hall was in domestic service in the 1920s:

"When I was sixteen I took a daily part-time post as I was needed at home in the afternoons. It seemed to mother that I was being starved as part-timers weren’t fed, except this one occasion. It was Christmas time and the lady for whom I worked had persuaded me to stay for midday dinner, although I had persisted in telling her my own family would not start Christmas dinner without me. I must have been naïve if I thought that she meant me to sit at the table with the family, there was no room on the kitchen table where all the food was laid out so I had mine on the draining board (again) by the sink. I was full of self-pity thinking, ‘Here I am, sitting by the sink, having my Christmas dinner, while they’re all waiting for me at home’. She had kept me there, the cunning thing, knowing that no servant would have a meal and then walk out leaving the washing-up and kitchen untidy. When I reached home in mid-afternoon the family had had their dinner, except mother who would not have hers until I was home. I didn’t get a penny extra for that afternoon’s work; but, after all, I had been given my meal."

To find out more about Louise Jermy's and Edith Hall's domestic service and the experiences of 19 other servants, read Servants' Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950. You can buy signed copies direct from me - the perfect Christmas present!


Monday, 16 November 2015


Even if you’ve yet to see the final series of Downton Abbey, it’s no secret that the Crawley family is facing the prospect of having to cut staff to balance the books. But could Downton really reduce the number of servants and still function as a country house?

Yes, if the Crawleys took on board some of the advice offered to the middle classes. In the 1920s, the gentry were by no means the only ones struggling to afford servants. There were fewer school-leavers willing to enter domestic service and the cost of employing older, more experienced servants was much higher. Middle-class households, which had kept a maid or two as a sign of respectability since the mid-nineteenth century, found themselves priced out of the market. This was a significant development in domestic service and it is borne out in the some of the tales told by ex-servants in my latest book, Servants' Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950.

The cast of Downton Abbey (courtesy of ITV)

New publications like The Ideal Servant-Saving House by an Engineer and his Wife (1918) and The Servant-less House by R. Randal Phillips (1920) explained how householders could use new technology and other methods to run their homes efficiently without servants. The Crawleys could easily reduce their staff numbers with some of the following suggestions:

1. Employ fewer male servants

With Downton’s wages bill being three times what it was before the First World War, the Crawleys could easily save money by employing fewer male servants. Footmen, under-butlers and butlers were always more expensive to employ than women since their salaries were higher. Employers also had to pay a tax on male servants until 1937. In upper-class households in London and other cities, parlourmaids were increasingly employed instead of footmen.

2. Invest in labour-saving devices

Technology really came to the fore by the 1920s for those who could afford it. The Crawleys were happy to try new things in previous series such as putting in a telephone and buying a radio. If they installed electric lighting, a gas cooker and refrigerator in the kitchen, and provided vacuum cleaners for the maids, this would significantly reduce the staff’s workload.

Large numbers of domestic staff like this were less common by the 1920s (from 'Servant London' in Living London, 1901)
3. Use fewer rooms

This suggestion might be more difficult for the Crawleys who love to entertain so much. If they were able to use fewer rooms at Downton, it would mean fewer fires needing to be tended and less cleaning and dusting required. Instead of employing live-in housemaids, the Crawleys could employ ‘dailies’: maids who lived at home and came to work for a fixed number of hours. This would also reduce the cost of wages.

4. Downsize

As a last resort, the Crawleys could always do what many real-life country houses did in the 1920s: sell up and downsize to a smaller property. Large buildings like Downton frequently became home to institutions such as boarding schools and asylums. However, selling their London house and modernising the estate might be a viable alternative for the Crawleys, allowing them to keep Downton Abbey in the family.

Monday, 14 September 2015


As we count down to the final season of Downton Abbey, starting this Sunday 20 September, today's post is all about how Downton's servants might have found their jobs. Yes, I know it's fictional! But bear with me because it's interesting to imagine how long-serving members of staff like Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore originally obtained their places with the Crawley family. There was, of course, word of mouth and the 'Situations Vacant' columns in newspapers, but there were also servants' registries or registry offices: the equivalent of today's employment agency.

Servants' registries were usually run by ex-servants who had set up a business with their life savings, often in conjunction with another enterprise such as a newsagent or grocer. There was a huge expansion of these offices during the Victorian period to cater for the rise in demand for servants by the middle classes, and most provincial towns had at least one while in large cities there were numerous offices. The servants' registries specialised in matching up domestic servants with mistresses who had vacancies.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)
Ladies wanting servants would contact a servant’s registry with their requirements, such as the type of servant and salary provided. The office would match up servants with employers, and the larger ones had private booths in which prospective maids could be interviewed. In most cases, both mistress and servant would pay a fee for the service. Charities such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (M.A.B.Y.S.) and the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) also ran registries.

While these offices catered for the lower end of the servant market, there were also registries which tended to the needs and wants of upper-class customers like Lord and Lady Crawley. One example was Mrs Hunt's Servants' Registry Office and there is an excellent post about it on Emmy Eustace's blog. Mrs Hunt's was a famous registry office with an impeccable reputation. Only the very best servants with first-class 'characters' were considered for positions advertised in her agency and she offered a 'no engagement, no fee' policy. This registry office supplied both male and female servants; Emmy Eustace's blog post is about a footman who applied for work through the agency.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)
I can easily imagine Lady Crawley writing to Mrs Hunt's requesting details of possible butlers, housekeepers and cooks, and Mrs Hunt herself visiting the Crawleys at their London residence when they were in town for the season. Dependable and highly skilled upper servants like Mrs Hughes, Mr Carson and Mrs Patmore would have found it relatively easy to find work through a servants' registry and they would have been used to moving around the country for the best jobs; it was part and parcel of climbing the career ladder in domestic service.

Mrs Hunt's "suited" over 50,000 customers a year, according to a journalist for the magazine Living London. When he visited the office in Duke Street in 1900, he discovered that there was "a black list which is carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants’ characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient."

The problem with 'characters' was that masters and mistresses were not legally obliged to provide them, hence the trade in fraudulent written references. If a ‘character’ was not forthcoming to show to a future employer, it would automatically be assumed that the servant was an unsatisfactory employee. By the same token, a mistress might write an untruthfully positive reference just to be rid of a troublesome maid, passing the problem on to the next employer.

'Afternoon wear', Cassell's Household Guide, 1911
While Mrs Hunt's catered for high-class clientele like Lord and Lady Crawley, at the other end of the scale were the fraudulent registry offices which placed tempting advertisements in the provincial newspapers. The Pall Mall Gazette (15 January 1894) reported:

"When servants answer them they are summoned to London by the registry-keeper who has advertised. On arrival in London, the deluded servants are unable to get any information about the situation advertised. The situations, in fact, do not exist, the servants having been deluded into coming up in order that they should lodge at the registry office, at a charge leaving a fine margin of profit to the keeper. Nor do they get a room to themselves at these so-called servants’ homes. Seven, eight and nine are packed into one room, and the poor victims can do nothing but remonstrate, fearing that if they leave their chances of obtaining the desired situation will be made so much the more remote…Servants lodging at these wretched homes are sent to employers where they cannot stop. For instance, a good servant is sent to a bad place, where he or she will not remain, and a bad servant is sent to a good place, where the master or mistress will not put up with incompetency. Thus the poor servants are constantly kept returning to the registry lodgings, impoverishing themselves while enabling these land-sharks to live in luxury."

The journalist from Living London alluded to the risk to servants of answering "specious advertisements.  There are “situations” with “good wages for suitable young women” which are not “places” within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed."

From 1907, registry offices within the London County Council area were licensed and these annual licenses were withdrawn if there were complaints. However, local authorities elsewhere in Britain did not take advantage of powers to do the same so a registry office in London with a revoked license could legally set up again outside the capital. It seems that the best way for servants to avoid fraudulent registry offices and misleading advertisements was to find situations via personal recommendation only.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)

For employers like the Crawleys, word of mouth would always have been the most favoured method of recruitment, closely followed by high-class servants' registries like Mrs Hunt's. If, as is rumoured, many of the staff at Downton are made redundant in the final series, they will all have impeccable characters to offer a new master or mistress.

* A version of this post originally appeared last year on my A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England blog

Monday, 7 September 2015


Last night's episode of Channel 4's Time Crashers saw the ten celebrities working as servants at an Edwardian stately home. The roles they were given included valet and lady's maid, footmen and housemaids, and hallboy and scullery maid. The scenario for the programme was that the master and mistress were hosting a shooting party, and the male servants were involved with setting up a luncheon tent and serving food outside while the women stayed indoors to serve the visiting ladies with afternoon tea.

I've been impressed with the historical accuracy of the programmes in this series so far and this episode certainly gave the viewer a good idea of what domestic service was really like in a country house in 1913. It highlighted the hierarchy between the servants and the division of the roles, for example, first housemaid, second housemaid, and so on. The benefits of working in a large staff and the camaraderie that went with it were shown, as well as the isolation of domestic service in a rural country house.

An unidentified footman, circa 1905. (Author's collection)
The possibility of a career in domestic service was also mentioned with Greg Rutherford as the hallboy being told he could aspire to be a footman and even a butler if he continued to work with the same excellent attitude. The same could not be said for Zoe Smith who, as a scullerymaid, was given the task of plucking pheasants. When she refused, she was promptly dismissed without a character (a reference) and had to leave straight away. Again, this was completely accurate and if she had been a real servant, her prospects for finding another place in service would have been very bleak.

I was surprised, however, to see the housemaids cleaning and lighting fires while wearing black dresses and white aprons - they wouldn't have stayed clean for long! In a country house like this, it was far more likely for them to have a morning outfit and an afternoon one, or to wear an overall to protect their aprons. This was the case even in smaller middle-class homes as seen in these images from Cassell's Household Guide (1911) showing morning and afternoon wear for a parlourmaid:

The celebrities experienced the realities of domestic service such as not being addressed by their real names, their irrelevance as people and the long hours of back-breaking work. In reality, despite the drawbacks of serving in a country house, every ambitious servant wanted to work in gentlemen's service. However, anyone watching this programme and series like ITV's Downton Abbey could be forgiven for thinking that domestic servants only worked in country houses. In fact, the vast majority of those in domestic service worked in much smaller middle-class homes in one- or two-servant households. The lowly 'general' or maid of all work had a far worse job than those depicted in Time Crashers. You can read about some of their experiences in Servants' Stories.

Friday, 4 September 2015


The 'servant problem' was an ever present preoccupation with the middle-classes throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. From about the 1850s to the 1880s, the problem was the quality of servants, or the perceived lack of it. The subject was covered in minute detail in the correspondence columns of national and local newspapers with mistresses criticising their maids for all manner of ills.

Few things incensed employers more than their servants appearing to have ideas above their station. Bear in mind that many lower middle-class mistresses were not too far removed in social class from their servants; they had often been in domestic service themselves and were starting to work their way up the ladder of society. Their objections were consequently a bit rich to say the least. Nevertheless, servants were criticised for attempting to dress or act like their masters in their off-duty hours. This might include buying fine quality dresses or crinolines, wearing their hair in the latest fashion or spending their money on 'fripperies' such as decorations for their hats.

From Punch, 1850s
Female servants were expected to dress modestly, even when off duty. A guide for servants published in 1873 was very clear about this. If their savings were spent on 'fine dress', this would 'provoke a feeling of ill-will or contempt towards the wearers, for a foolish desire to appear fine beyond their proper position in society'.

From Punch, 1850s

In the 1850s, the wonderful Punch magazine coined a phrase for servants trying to act or dress like their masters. They called it 'Servantgalism' and they published a series of satirical sketches to illustrate the phenomenon. Many of these sketches were drawn by John Leech and you can see a whole series of them on the excellent John Leech Archive website. Here's just one for starters:

From John Leech Archive (www.john-leech-archive.org.uk)
In this sketch, the prospective servant asks, "Where do you go to the sea-side in the summer? Because I couldn't stop at a dull place and where the hair wasn't very bracing!"

The Punch sketches of 'Servantgalism' offer an exaggerated view of servants trying to act and dress above their station. However, employers continued to insist on regulating their maids' clothing, even off duty; this was just one of the negative aspects of domestic service felt by servants which would eventually lead to their scarcity by the 1890s.