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

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 na├»ve 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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


Although domestic service was considered the natural occupation for women and girls during the nineteenth century, that did not mean they were all natural servants. Some obviously had a better aptitude for the work than others, especially if they had been accustomed to helping with the housework at home. Even so, for young girls going to their first place, it could be very traumatic. Much was expected of them with little allowance made for their lack of experience.

Mrs Wrigley, a plate layer’s wife, was born in Cefn Mawr, Wales in 1858. In Life As We Have Known It edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, she recalled how she worked in service before her marriage. She was sent to her first proper place at the tender age of nine:

‘The doctor’s wife came to our house and said a lady and gentleman wanted a little nurse for their child to go back with them to Hazel Grove, near Stockport. My little bundle of clothes was packed up and I went in full glee with them.’

Mrs Wrigley’s joy was short-lived. ‘Instead of being a nurse I had to be a servant-of-all-work, having to get up at six in the morning, turn a room out and get it ready for breakfast. My biggest trouble was I could not light the fire, and my master was very cross and would tell me to stand away, and give me a good box on my ears.’

Being away from home made the experience even harder: ‘I fretted very much for my home. Humble as it was, it was home. Not able to read or write, I could not let my parents know, until a kind old lady in the village wrote to my parents to fetch me home from the hardships I endured. I had no wages at this place, only a few clothes.’

'Laying and Lighting a Fire: Housewifery Lessons under the London School Board', The Illustrated London News, 4 March 1893

Lighting fires seems to have been particularly problematic as most employers simply expected their servants to know how to do it without being shown.

In many ways, girls who had been workhouse inmates were better educated in industrial training than those who had lived at home. This aspect of life in the workhouse had always been considered essential to help young inmates break out of the poverty trap and be able to earn themselves a living. The training was not always of a high quality, however.

In the late 1880s in the Bedminster Union, such a large number of girls were returned to the workhouse from domestic service on account of their 'defective industrial training' that drastic changes were made. In 1897, the master wrote:

'I am unable to compare the state of things in our school now with that of twelve years ago, or with that of other institutions. The girls were declared by Mr Longe, at a recent inspection, to 'have lost all pauper traces'. They certainly look bright and cheerful. The schoolmistress takes great interest in them; the industrial trainer teaches them to work, to cut out and make clothes. I do not see how in so large an institution much more could be done to prepare them for domestic service. So far as I know, none return to the workhouse who have been trained in the school.'

Other workhouse unions had addressed the problem much earlier. In 1880, the guardians at Shepton Mallet had provided a separate cooking kitchen to teach the elder girls. It was separate from the adults and the matron took superintendence of it. The master wrote: "We have two girls in each day. They come in early, clean the kitchener, light the fire, and prepare our own breakfast, wash up, prepare vegetables for dinner, and take part in cooking the same. One reason for starting this is that when girls go out to service, they are frequently called stupid because they are unacquainted with the names and uses of kitchen articles, whereas it is simply ignorance from not having used them.'

A report about children under the Poor Law (1897) stated that 'few mistresses are found with the necessary patience to train young girls in practical work, however good the character of the latter may be'. Young servants were always at the mercy of their employer and were often treated unkindly as a result.

'Making a Bed: Housewifery Lessons under the London School Board', The Illustrated London News, 4 March 1893


Hello and welcome to my blog dedicated to Servants' Stories, my new book featuring 21 experiences of domestic service as told by the servants themselves. Spanning the period 1800-1950, the book covers a century and a half of immense change for domestic servants in terms of their status, workload and living conditions.

When I researched my previous book on servants, Tracing Your Servant Ancestors, most of the sources I came across told the story of domestic service from the employers' point of view. Servants' Stories was written in an attempt to redress the balance. I also wanted to give readers more than just scanty extracts which other books tend to do; instead, I wanted to allow the servants to tell their experiences in their own words, making the stories as complete as possible.

Advertisement for Brooke's Soap (1890)
The book is made up of stories from a number of different sources: published memoirs which are long out of print; published diaries; newspaper reports and articles; unpublished reminiscences in archives and family collections; unpublished oral history recordings in archives; and interviews I conducted with three ex-servants.

There's the heartbreaking tale of a 14 year old maid's despair and loneliness when she went into service for the first time during the Second World War; the feisty Edwardian servant who got revenge on her mistress with a box of beetles; the adventure of one girl who moved to London to work as a maid in the 1930s; and one Victorian woman's escape from an unhappy and abusive home life by going into domestic service. In addition to the 21 stories, I've researched and written chapters to give context to readers.

Maids in the 1930s

While researching the  book, I found countless fascinating stories in newspapers, contemporary periodicals and original sources. Due to restrictions on space, many did not make it into the book so I'd like to share them with you on this blog.

I hope the blog will become a useful resource for anyone interested in domestic servants and their lives. If there's anything servant-related you think I should write a post about, please let me know. Also, do get in touch if your ancestor was a servant and you have a story to tell about him or her.