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

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

CHRISTMAS IN DOMESTIC SERVICE

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!

http://www.michellehiggs.co.uk/ourshop/prod_4146516-Servants-Stories-Life-Below-Stairs-in-their-Own-Words-18001950.html