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

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.