A century ago, 1.5 million of us worked as servants. Astonishingly, that’s more than worked in industries or on the land. My great-grandmothers were servants and, coming from this background, I want to find out about the reality of their lives. Country houses like these simply wouldn’t have been able to function without a whole army of staff working away above and below stairs. When I come to places like this, my first instinct isn’t to go through the grand formal entrance, but to find the servants’ door and go in that way. In this series, I want to dispel the nostalgia and fantasies that we have around domestic service, and reveal a much more complex world. I’m going to tell a very different sort of history, one of suppressed passions, strict hierarchies and an obsession with status and class. Digging through the archives, I’ll track down the lost lives of real servants whose voices have largely been forgotten. Who’s this? Me. I weren’t bad looking, were I? No, no, you were very good looking. We were the underdogs. We weren’t on the same level as them. And we had to know our place. I’ll visit the homes of the super-rich and the anxious middle classes in order to understand how servants actually lived and worked. But, above all, I want to ask some difficult questions that have been left unanswered for decades. Amazing, isn’t it? Our country was based on an ideal around service for so long, why was that? Why did that world disappear? And what uncomfortable truths can we uncover by looking at the reality of servants’ lives? Between the mid-18th and mid-19th century, grand country houses sprung up all over Britain. New wealth from the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution transformed feudal homes into the grand estates of a new ruling class. One of these was Erddig Hall, in North Wales. Erddig was home to local landowners, the Yorks, and their staff – 30 outdoor estate workers, plus 15 indoor servants. In the servants’ quarters, the first thing you see ‘is a poem blessing them all. “May Heav’n protect Our home from flame “Or hurt or harm of various name! “And may no evil luck betide To any who therein abide! “Or who from homes beyond its gate “Bestow their toil on this estate!” And toil’s the word. The Hall was built on a generous scale, 200,000 square feet of house with six formal reception rooms, a chapel, a grand dining room and nine family bedrooms. In order to service these rooms, there were twice as many rooms downstairs and in the outhouses, each with their own specific function, from the kitchen and the scullery, to the laundry and the bake house. The family upstairs could summon the servants to any part of the house at any time. BELL RINGING Erddig might seem quiet now, but, in its prime, the economic scale of the work that kept it going was staggering. Every week, three tons of coal were carried around to fuel 51 fireplaces, five ovens and three coppers. 200 to 300 gallons of water were carted around different parts of the house for cooking, cleaning and washing. And, for washing, we’re talking up to 600 items per week. Then, there’s the food. Four meals a day for up to 30 people, that would be the family and their staff, guests and their staff. And all this was done by hand by a small army of servants working 17-hour days, all year round, with no modern technology. This scale of service was repeated in country houses across the British Isles. But what’s so unusual about Erddig is that the family had a long-standing tradition of having portraits made of their servants. This is the family of servants at Erddig in 1852, the family of servants at the front, the real family at the back in that window there. Each servant is depicted carrying an implement or a tool relating to their role in the house. And historians call these “loyalty portraits,” you find them up and down the country in servant-keeping houses. You’ve got the butler with his bottle, the housekeeper with a brace of fowl, the lady’s maid with her sewing kit. What’s particularly nice about this one is that the employers wrote poems to go with the portrait. Here’s what they say about the butler. “Our butler in the foreground shown “As Thomas Murray well was known: “He who does nigh the centre stand, “With bottle clasp’t within his hand. “Clever was he at drawing Cork, “And a good hand at Knife and Fork.” And I really like this one about the lady’s maid. They don’t seem to like her so much. “Near by our Butler, Mrs Hale, “Of whom our memories much do fail. “As lady’s maid she sojourned here, “Black was her dress, her face austere. “And when she did for Brighton leave, “No-one here a sigh did heave.” – (SHE CHUCKLES)
– Oh, dear. The photograph and the poem give us a revealing glimpse into life below stairs. They hint at the tension between the staff themselves, whose lives were governed by a strict hierarchy. In houses like Erddig, the butler was at the top of the pile, overseeing the coachman and footman. He was in overall charge of the house, alongside the housekeeper, who hired the housemaids. The cook dominated a separate world, controlling kitchen maids to prepare food, dairy maids to make butter and cheese, and scullery maids for the washing up. The governess and head nurse took care of the children’s universe, while the lady’s maid and valet, close to their mistresses and masters, stood separate from the other servants. And, at the very bottom of the pile, were the laundry maids and hallboys. The hallboy usually slept in the servants’ dining hall on a fold out bed. Sadly, we don’t know much about the hallboy in Erddig in the 1850s, a lad called Edward Davis. But hallboys in other houses did record their 16-hour days in gruelling detail. The hallboy at Longleat was a lad called Gordon Grimmett, and he wrote in his memoirs that every day he had to trim, clean and fill all the lamps and candles in the house, and that could be up to 300. And every morning, before the other servants even woke up, he had to polish 60 pairs of staff boots. Every servant acquired a very specific set of skills, learning from senior servants or from household manuals. “How to clean ladies’ boots? “The following is an excellent polish “for applying to ladies’ boots. “Mix equal portions of sweet oil, “vinegar and treacle “with one ounce of lamp black. “When all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated, “rub the mixture onto the boots with the palm of the hand “and put them in a cool place to dry.” The pecking order was even played out when the servants ate their meals together in the servants’ hall. Mealtimes were a time when the status, the hierarchies between servants were enforced. There would be a strict order of coming in to eat and strict rules about where different ranks of servants might sit. And you might also have rules, such as no speaking unless you were addressed by one of the senior servants. And the senior servants had a great deal of power, so the butler, for example, in some households, would put down his knife and fork and everyone else had to finish eating, whether you’d finished or not. So servants had to learn to be fast eaters. Some houses had a strict set of rules governing behaviour in the hall. You even had to pay a forfeit if you broke them. For instance, rule four, “That if any person be heard to swear or use any indecent language “at any time when the cloth is on the table, “he is to forfeit thruppence.” Rule seven, “Whoever leaves any pieces of bread at breakfast, “dinner or supper, forfeits one penny.” But there was also divisions between the different branches of domestic service. So, famously, cooks were often very protective of their space. And the kitchen staff sometimes wouldn’t eat here in the servants’ hall, but had the privilege of being able to eat in the kitchen, and the other servants always suspected that they had better food. And, of course, I imagine some servants had to serve the other servants. That’s right. You would have had the very junior servants learning their trade, if you like, by serving in the servants’ hall. Way above the hallboy, the most powerful female servant at Erddig was the housekeeper and her room is still immaculately preserved.>From here, she did the accounts and tradesmen’s orders, marshalled the female staff and looked after the most precious items, such as the china and the linen. In 1852, the housekeeper here was Mrs Webster. One of the most iconic objects associated with the housekeeper were her keys, and here’s Mrs Webster, the housekeeper at Erddig with her keys in her lap. In fact, it was said that it was a mark of a good housekeeper that she could strike fear into the hearts of the lower servants with a mere jangle of the keys. Mrs Webster didn’t just look the part, her employers’ poem paints her as the prefect frugal employee who rose through the ranks. “Upon the portly form we look “Of one who was our former Cook, “No better keeper of our Store Did ever enter at our door. “She knew, and pandered To our taste, “Allowed no want and yet no waste. “And for some 30 years or more The cares of office here she bore.” Although Erddig’s loyalty portraits and poems suggest a cosiness between masters and servants, the reality is starkly different. Most big houses were specifically designed to keep the masters and their servants apart. One of the best examples of this idea of separation is Petworth. Its Sussex estate was 15 times larger than Erddig, and, at its height, it employed 300 indoor and outdoor staff. Most of the indoor staff lived and worked in a separate servants’ wing at the back of the main house, but that wasn’t enough. In order to keep the servants actually hidden from their employers and guests, the architect designed a tunnel which connects the servants’ wing to the main house. Low-ceilinged and damp, you can just imagine what it was like with dozens of servants brushing past each other carrying trays of food and dirty dishes. You can think of the country house rather like a giant swan, gliding gracefully on the surface, but, underneath, there’s an army of servants paddling furiously to keep the whole thing moving. It tells us a lot about the reality of servants’ lives. Most big employers didn’t know their servants by name, some didn’t know how many they had. In one house in Suffolk, if a junior member of staff came into contact with a member of the family, they actually had to flatten themselves against the wall. Anonymity and invisibility were a very big part of the job. As if a tunnel wasn’t enough, the main house itself was designed for invisibility, with its hidden passages, secret doors and backstairs, allowing the servants to shadow their employers’ every move.>From here, a hidden army could service their master’s needs with invisible hands, turning up beds, lighting fires, filling their baths and jugs with water brought up from the range. Scuff marks of the slop buckets. The contrast between the sumptuous, richly decorated family areas and the dull-coloured servants quarters is stark. The very top floor of the house wasn’t only designed to keep servants away from their employers, it was also built to keep servants separate from each other. Up here in the attic is where the senior servants slept, the butler, the housekeeper, the valet, the lady’s maids. The lower servants slept in dormitories above the servants’ wing, men up one end, women down the other, separated by a locked door. In fact, I think you’ve got to think of this house as a physical embodiment of 19th-century values with separation and segregation at its heart. So it’s segregation by sex, by skill, by age and, of course, in a house like this, by class. Here, in Petworth’s vast private archive, with records dating back 700 years, we see what this segregation actually meant for the servants – a huge difference in pay between the highest and the lowest. Here, we’ve got payments for servants and servants’ wages. – And these are the servants in 1860.
– Yeah. They more or less go in hierarchical order. We’re starting with Henry Upton, who was the surveyor. £50 a quarter is roughly £14,500 a year today. He is, by far, the highest earner. And so, we go on down through the housemaids, the kitchen maids and probably somewhere at the bottom, though they don’t tell us, are the laundry maids, people like Christine Anderson, who only gets three guineas a year. Just £700 a year in today’s money. Though you have to remember that the staff here were fed, provided with uniforms and lived rent-free. Surprisingly, in spite of the master/servant segregation, the archives have a very rare book, an informal photo album compiled by the master’s daughter-in-law. All The Dear Servants At Petworth In 1860. Yes, this was collected by Mrs Percy Windham. She’d had photographs taken of all her favourite servants here. Regardless of the house design, Mrs Windham clearly got to know the servants and wrote affectionate notes giving us tiny hints of their lives. And this is Thomas, who was maid to Mrs Percy Windham, who married Owen, the valet. Thomas is presumably her surname. – Yes.
– Oh, OK. THEY CHUCKLE “This is dear old Bowler, the nursemaid. “A butler, or under-butler, name forgot.” – “Name forgot.”
– (SHE CHUCKLES) “Who was at Petworth, but not for very long.” – Still got a photograph though.
– Yes. There’s Mr Upton, the clerk of works, who we know got £50 a year from the wage book. A dairy maid, Mrs Greenfield. A laundry maid, Reynolds. Here’s John Dine, who was butler for a long time. They didn’t really want him to be butler, – they didn’t think he was quite up to it because he was so nervous.
– Oh, dear. And if he brought them a cup of coffee in the morning, his hand would shake so much that he wouldn’t have much coffee left in the cup. – But he stayed with them for years.
– So they kept him on anyway?
– Yes, yes. And it’s quite tantalising cos you get a sense of, you know, who they are from here, where they worked, what they looked like, but there’s still so much more, I think. – Yes. You’d like to ask them what they thought of it.
– Yes. The formal servant portraits in this album, most standing proud in their uniform, are very familiar to us. And yet, these uniforms were actually a Victorian invention. A hundred years earlier, in the 18th century, servants had dressed much more individually. And this is a wonderful collection of portraits. They look like lords and ladies in the latest fashions. In fact, they’re all servants. And, up here, is Mary Hayes, down here, is Mary Wells. They’re both housemaids. Look at them, beautifully dressed. Look at their bonnets and their beautiful lace collars. This is another lovely one. This is the housekeeper, Mrs Edwards, who looks more like Marie-Antoinette in that powdered wig. The men servants are also really well turned out. This is a lower groom, Francis Yates, but look at his orange silk waistcoat there. Up here, we’ve got the gardener and his wife, beautiful bonnet and roses. Beautiful silver buttons down his jacket. This is Stevens, who is a general man servant, but if we take him off the wall… Have a look at the back, you get some lovely detail on him. “Stevens, alias Lumpy, the famous player at cricket.” I think he was the Duke’s cricket coach, so no doubt about why he was hired. When you think about them as a group, what really comes across is their personality, individuality with their own looks and style. The most fashionable couple of all, placed in the very centre, look like THEY are the master and mistress, but they, too, are servants. If you compare these 18th-century portraits with 19th-century photographs, the one very clear difference – uniforms. This is a mid-19th-century photograph of the servant staff at a country house, and they’re all in uniforms, different uniforms for different ranks, for different purposes, very clear division of labour, very clear what people do, because you can read it from their dress. It’s even more pronounced in this one. This group of maid servants from the early 20th century, they’ve not only got the same clothes, they’ve even got the same hair. This lovely roll at the front, some can clearly carry it off better than others, I think. What’s happening here, clothing is serving a purpose, clothing is denoting class, it’s putting servants back in their place. It’s almost like individual identities are being flattened to a type. And this even happened with names. Fancy or higher-ranking names could be changed by employers to more suitable lower-ranking names, so Florence could become Flo, Elizabeth could become Betty. In some houses, footmen were given the names Henry or William, regardless of what their actual names were. As the 19th century progressed, service became more sharply defined as a profession, with specific uniforms and dress codes, as well as particular rules and customs. Tracts and manuals spelt out these rules clearly – how to be a Victorian servant. This is a 19th-century pamphlet, very snappy title for servants – Hints To Domestic Servants, Addressed More Particularly To Male And Female Servants Connected With The Nobility, Gentry And Clergy. And it’s written by a butler in a gentleman’s family, 1854. So note, he’s not a master, he’s a butler, and this is his view of how servants should behave. Page 74, “Cleanliness. “The first thing I would recommend is cleanliness. “No person will make a good servant who is not habitually clean, “clean in person and in work. “Nothing is more offensive to a lady or gentleman “than to have a dirty, slovenly servant about them, male or female.” Page 78. “Be uniformly obedient to your masters.” Page 81, “A slothful servant is a wicked servant. “Keep your master’s secrets, never reveal what he intends should be private. “Defend your master’s honour and the honour of his house. “Seize on every opportunity to promote their happiness. “And especially by praying for the renewing Grace of God.” Service, with its particular codes of behaviour and dress, became ever more sharply defined, as the riches extracted from the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution flooded into cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London. This wealth fuelled a massive building boom, giving rise to the terraced houses with attics and basements of the newly emerging Victorian middle classes. And one way these new middle classes felt they could cement their status was by keeping servants. One such servant, William Taylor, gives us a rare personal view inside these middle class households. William was manservant to a wealthy widow on Great Cumberland Street, in London. Back in the 1830s, this was a very smart row of houses. The fact that it’s a hotel now with its own doorman is really quite apt in a way. William Taylor had grown up on a small farm and came to London to look for work. He wrote a diary, which is incredibly revealing of servant life in the bustling social city. And remarkably, it survived. “May 14th – Mechanics and tradespeople “speak disrepectably of servants. “If they meet a servant in company they will say, one to the other, “‘It’s only a servant.’ “But everyone must know “that servants form one of the most respectable classes of person “that is in existence. “They must be healthy, clean, honest, a sober set of people. “May 18th – We’re going to have a party this evening, “something larger that usual. “It is quite disgusting to modest eyes “to see how the young ladies dress, “nearly naked to the waist to attract the gentlemen, “naked on the breast, except to cover the nipples. “If anyone wants to see all the ways of the world, “they must be a gentleman servant.” Amazingly, William Taylor’s diary and his scrapbook have been handed down through four generations of his family, and are now treasured by his great-great-great-niece. And here is the diary. Do we know why he wrote the diary? Yes. He says so. He says he wanted to practice his writing. “As I am a wretched bad writer, “many of my friends have advised me to practice.” So he writes this diary, and it’s a year in his life, 1837. – Yes.
– What are his duties? Cleaning the lamps and the shoes. And the knives, because you had – didn’t have stainless steel knives in those days. And then, he would be taking the meals up and clearing them away. And he appears to have done the washing-up from upstairs, which you might think the maid servants would do, but… Because he was married, wasn’t he? William? Yes, he was. It was unusual for servants to be married at that time. And where were the wife and child then? Living in respectable lodgings round the corner. But they also kept a scrapbook, and I think he was something of an artist, is that right? Yes, yes. He made a scrapbook to send home to his family for their entertainment. Oh, is this it here? This is it, yes. It’s a bit fragile. – It’s obviously been much looked at.
– Yes. “A book of entertainment “composed of drawings, scraps, memorandums by William…W Taylor. “All the drawings in this book that are marked WT “are drawn by William Taylor, self-taught artist.” – That’s his frontispiece, he’s got here.
– Yes. He’s got a lovely picture here of a lion and a tiger. But he also gives us an insight into his life in service, I think, with some of these pictures. Yes. Yes. There’s – if we look carefully. – I like the way the carpet is so carefully done.
– Mm. There’s servants helping themselves behind the screen in the dining room. And the master and mistress having dinner. I like the one having the swig from the bottle. One’s having a swig from the bottle and eating one of the sweet meats. Yes. Yes. – Just before they bring them in, you imagine.
– Yes. You’ve got the master and the mistress. That’s fantastic. SHE CHUCKLES I do wonder what his family made of him when he went home on visits. But there is one picture of him going home. “William Taylor going home and alarming his friends.” Him arriving dressed quite smartly. This is Mr T. – Buttoned trousers there and his top hat.
– And gaiters.
– Gaiters, yes. Hands in his pockets. – Smart coat.
– Yes. Here’s Uncle James, very much alarmed. Notice he’s still wearing a smock. Yes, and he is very much alarmed in the eyes. That’s great. There are two passages here that I think really sum up William Taylor’s life in service. The first one is from one of his days off in March and he says, “I made to town on the omnibus. “Got there by five o’clock. Went to see a friend. “Came to Cumberland Street at seven. “Went to the Opera House at eight to see and hear a lecture on astronomy. “The man showed us how the world turned around and how fast it goes. “We turn around at the rate of 17 miles a minute. “We saw how the eclipse took place. “He showed us everything belonging to the sun, moon and stars.” So he’s really seeing life, the world, the universe as a result of his life in service. But, at the end of the diary, it strikes a much more melancholic note. “30th December – Have been very busy and at home all day. “The life of a gentleman servant “is something like that of a bird shut up in a cage. “The bird is well-housed and well-fed, “but is deprived of liberty, “and liberty is the dearest and sweetest object of all Englishmen.” And it’s really interesting that he talks about liberty, because a lot of other kinds of workers, working men, were beginning to talk about liberty at that time after the French Revolution. And you kind of don’t expect to hear a servant talking about it. “In London, men servants have to sleep downstairs underground, “which is generally very damp.” So he’s been to a lecture about the stars, but he has to sleep back down on the ground, underground even. “Many men lose their lives by it, by this damp, “or, otherwise, get eaten up with rheumatics. “One might see fine blooming young men come from the country,” like himself, “to take service, “but after they have been in London one year, “all the bloom is lost and a pale, “yellow, sickly complexion in its stead.” And the very end of the dairy, 31st December, he says, “Now, all the readers of this book “might gain an idea of what service is.” So here’s a diary that started off as an exercise to improve William’s handwriting, but it ended up being much, much more than that. And, in fact, it ended up being one of the most rare and most moving records of service that we’ve got. As the middle class expanded, so did their voracious demand for staff. By 1851, an astonishing 1.3 million people were servants. Keeping a servant was a badge of respectability. It marked your status as a member of the middle class. In 1859, a woman wrote a letter to Charles Dickens’ journal, All The Year Round. In it, she says, “I am the wife of an assistant surgeon. “My husband has the entire charge of a branch practice “with a salary of £80 a year. “We are expected to keep up a genteel appearance. “The clergyman and his wife, our rich neighbour and his wife “and a few of the gentry call on us occasionally. “I must not do our household work or carry my baby out, “or I should lose caste. “We must keep a servant.” But the new mistresses had no experience of how to keep a servant, so they looked to the aristocracy, with their centuries’ experience of servant keeping. 18 Stafford Terrace, in Kensington, was the home of Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne and his wife Marion, and is a perfect example of how aristocratic ideals of the big house played out amongst the new middle classes. The house is a remarkable time capsule, stuffed full of things and people. Linley and Marion Sambourne, their two children, Linley’s mother, but also five servants – a cook, a parlourmaid, a housemaid, a nurse and even a groom, the only one reporting directly to the master. What’s striking about these houses is that they are very narrow. There’s only one staircase here, no back staircase. So the geography of the house is very different to that of the big house, but styles of service are really similar. And I think what’s happening here is that the middle classes are using their new money to buy into old values. What’s really central to those old values is the idea of separation. So here we have the servants pushed into the attic or down in the basement, illusions of space created by doors, by curtains, by speaking tubes and, of course, those bells. But the irony is that everyone in this house is within calling distance of each other. Marion Sambourne kept meticulous diaries and accounts, as well as advice manuals. The fattest and most famous of all is Mrs Beeton’s Book Of Household Management. It’s not just recipes, it’s full of information about how to run the household and, of course, she’s well-known for this quote at the beginning. “As with the commander of an army or the leader of an enterprise, “so it is with the mistress of a house. “Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment, “and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, “so will her domestics follow in her path.” And, for me, what’s lovely about these diaries, although they’re Marion’s diaries, the mistress’ diaries, we do get a sense of the servants’ lives, we get a little window on their world, would you say? Yes, yes, definitely. It does seem from the diaries that Marion was quite a good mistress. Well, in this diary, for instance, she’s obviously having a lot of trouble with cook. She had a cook who has left and she has been trying out various other cooks and they’re all very unsatisfactory, particularly this one, Mrs T, who obviously over-spends because not only are the books very heavy, but Mrs T drinks an awful lot of beer. And, generally, that was one of cook’s perks, you provided free beer, and you’d have a little barrel in the kitchen for cook to help herself. It was quite thirsty work. Well, it was. I mean, you were literally slaving over a hot stove. “Saw Mrs T about beer. “29 gallons went in a fortnight. “She either sold it on or she entertained her friends.” So, after that, new arrangements were made. And, on the 10th, “Mrs T gave notice.” Underlined. As Punch cartoonist, the master of the house needed photo models as the basis of his sketches, using not just himself, but the family servants and, above all, his groom, Otley. Here we have some of the photographs which show what fun Linley and Otley had together. We’ve got thousands of pictures of Otley, literally thousands, and this is one of my favourites, because he’s dressed up as the Emperor Nero, and he’s fiddling while Rome burns, you see. He’s twanging a harp, which is actually a fire screen. Otley reported directly to his master, who wasn’t nearly as strict as Marion. Otley clearly never worked as hard as the maids. Marion’s home, like many mistresses of her status, was full of new furnishings, rugs, wallpaper, ceramics, glassware, mahogany, from the new industries and across the Empire. Marion put her housemaids to work, keeping all these objects in pristine condition. This is Marion Sambourne’s household rota. It’s a to-do list, really, for her servants. This is what she wants the housemaid to do, “Seven o’clock, bring in my hot drinking water. “Sweep down, thoroughly clean the stairs, “get the bathroom ready and lavatory.” And then, the servant has her breakfast. “Eight o’clock, bring my hot water. “Draw up blinds, empty and take away bath. “Always use basin cloth and wipe tumblers. “8:30, clean grate in drawing room, thoroughly sweep and dust room. “Wipe round parquet, clean all brass.” A lot of brass in here as well. “Open windows front and back. “Water and wipe with a wet cloth all plants.” A lot of plants in here. “How to clean a looking glass. “Blow the dust off the gilt frame, “as the least grit would scratch the surface of the glass. “First, sponge it with a little spirit of wine or gin and water, “so as to remove all spots. “Then, dust the glass over with a powder blue tied in muslin “rubbing it lightly and quickly off “and polishing with a silk handkerchief.” And then, what you’ll see here is that every minute is accounted for, taking us through to the evening. Seven o’clock, we find her tidying the drawing room, where we’re sitting now. “Put the cushions tidy and tidy the papers. “Dust tables and the piano. “See to the lights and sweep the fires. “Eight o’clock, assist and wait at table and after see to bedrooms. “Turn down beds, washstands wiped, hot water, chambers and so on.” Nine o’clock, she has her own supper in the kitchen. Ten o’clock, she can fall into bed, and that’s the end of her day, until, of course, she gets up and does it all again the next day. Now, that sounds like a day from hell for me, but I guess this is the housemaid’s lot. Just reading that out gives me a real sense of the control that’s going on here, that the servants’ every minute is accounted for, nothing’s left to chance, every detail is covered. It also gives you a sense of the sheer scale of the work. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, it’s demanding and, ultimately, I think it’s pretty lonely as well. You’d think the housemaid would get some privacy up here, finally asleep in her own bed. But Linley Sambourne clearly thought it was fine for him to take one of his photos of her looking utterly exhausted. The servants certainly had a tough life, but the mistresses weren’t happy either. It was challenging for both sides living so closely alongside each other. This closeness bred anxiety with mistresses worrying about what the servants were really up to. So much so, that their paranoia was even sent up in a book. This is called The Greatest Plague Of Life Or The Adventures Of A Lady In Search Of A Good Servant. And it’s full of wonderful illustrations, graphic illustrations of servants behaving badly. So here, the nurse taking the baby out for a walk in the park, but the baby’s fallen out of the pram, she’s not noticed because she’s chatting to a gentleman follower. One here with the servant sitting down in the kitchen having a chat, the bells ringing up above them. They just say, “Oh, just let them ring again,” so they’re not going to get up for anybody. I think one of the most telling is this one. The mistress has gone out, she’s come back in, she’s found the servants not downstairs working, upstairs partying in her drawing room. This is an important one, because it shows this is the world turned upside down. And what happens when the order is overturned? Chaos ensues. This one I love. Here’s the mistress in the centre of a totally chaotic scene, baby on the floor, mirror being cracked, somebody swigging the wine. Now, OK, these are cartoons, they’re satire, they’re meant for a joke, but they do tell us an awful lot about the neuroses, fears and anxieties of this new servant-keeping class. The Greatest Plague Of Life was such a bestseller that it was turned into a magic lantern slide show for the entertainment of both the servants and their anxious employers. And how did they prevent such bad behaviour? By attempting to control not just the outward manners, but also the inner morals of their servants. Where better than every Sunday at church? Religion reminded everyone of their place. The Christians were all servants of God. Real servants had time off to come to church. It was quite a strict seating hierarchy. The masters and mistresses would be at the front in their finest clothes. Servants would be behind them much more modestly dressed – mustn’t outdo the mistress. THEY SING The message conveyed through seating arrangements, but even more directly from the pulpit, was about accepting one’s station in life. Can you tell me about the importance of Christianity – to Victorian society of the 19th century?
– Yes. I mean, the thing I think that’s hard for us to remember is that, in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s, Britain is a Christian nation and is becoming a very convinced Christian society. The home and the family becomes much more important and the role of the mistress and master in relation to their servants is a huge part of that, and part of that moral transformation of the nation. What you do in your home, how you educate your children, and your servants, this is where, as it were, the moral regeneration of the nation can begin. So what this seems to be telling us is that there’s a much bigger picture here about service. Service isn’t just about the domestic work, the cooking and the cleaning and the washing, important as those things are, – there’s a moral side to it too, would you say?
– Absolutely. So would it be a mistake to think that servants are somehow passive in all of this, and this is all coming from the top down? Well, I think it’s a complete mistake to think that, because, for one thing, it means that people are just dupes and rather foolish, sort of absorbing the views of their betters. Many servants were rural migrants, and many of them would have grown up in villages where they went to church on a Sunday and they heard the rector or the vicar telling them about their station in life and telling them that the best thing they can do to serve God is to do good and honourable work, and that’s the station to which they are called. What’s the darker side to all this? For me, service is almost entirely a darker side, and I’m trying to give you a sense of its idealism. But, in reality, it’s not a mechanism for social mobility. You know, your average kitchen maid or groom, you know, they don’t move up the scale, they don’t get richer, they remain in their place. As the wealth of the country continued to grow, a new category of people wanted to join the ranks of servant keepers – the lower middle class. Most of them could afford just one servant, the kind who is largely ignored by history, but who came to dominate domestic service – the maid-of-all-work. Looking at the 1871 census, we see that two-thirds of all servants fell into this category, and, if you want an idea of what their lives were like, you can turn to Mrs Beeton. She said, “The general servant or maid-of-all-work “is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration. “Her life is a solitary one “and, in some places, her work is never done.” In the maid-of-all-work, all the difference branches of domestic service were combined into one, leaving her with an endless list of daily duties, as outlined in instruction manuals and how-to books. “Brush up the range. Light the fire. Scrub the kitchen floor. “Sweep the hall. Dust the furniture. Shake the mats. Polish the brass. “Scrub the doorstep. Clean the boots. Strip the bed. “Empty the slops. Air the bedrooms. Dust the parlour. “Scrape and peel potatoes. Cook the dinner. Change uniform. “Serve at dinner. Lock and bolt the doors.” 24 Cheyne Road, London, was home to perhaps the best documented maids-of-all-work. Amazingly, a photographer has captured a glimpse of one of them peeking out of the ground floor window. Today, this is a really well-to-do area, but it wasn’t always like that. You think back over a hundred years ago, this was not a high-end address. It’s too close to the river. You’ve got sewage, you’ve got stench, you’ve got fog rolling up here. But what this is is a typical example of a house lower down the social scale that would have employed just one servant. And she would have lived and worked down there. Two of my great-grandmothers were maids-of-all-work, employed in houses just like this. I find it quite daunting coming down here. So this is the world of the maid-of-all-work. It’s very dark down here, and it’s such a sunny day up there, but it still feels dark down here, and I think, in the winter, it would be even darker, wouldn’t it? And she’s got what she needs down here. Those are the tools of her trade, aren’t they – the sink, range, table, even her bed’s over there. She’d be working all day, she’d fall into bed at night and she’d start all over again. It feels very closed in. The maid who slept here in this bed would have been employed by traders or professionals – doctors, dentists, coal merchants, beer merchants, those kinds of people. In fact, my great-grandmother worked for a doctor’s family just up the river, in Chiswick. It’s always made me feel a bit sad that we never knew what she did or how she worked, but there are other ways of getting a glimpse inside the world of the maid-of-all-work. Here’s one. This is Mrs H, who remembers that she left school at 14. Her mother had found her a job at a local builders and she had to look after three children, she’s only 14 herself. She says, “Terribly homesick, cried to sleep.” “Lived in kitchen separate from household,” so very like where we’re sitting now. Here’s another one. This is from the Morning Chronicle in the 1850s. “When I was ten, I was sent to service as a maid-of-all-work “in a small tradesman’s family. “It was a hard place, “my mistress used me very cruelly, beating me often. “When I’d been in the place three weeks, my mother died. “I stood my mistress’ ill-treatment for about six months. “She beat me with sticks as well as with her hands. “I was black and blue and at last I ran away.” Now, we don’t know if all maids-of-all-work were treated this badly, probably they weren’t all, but, as these voices tell us, some of them definitely were. I hope my great-grandmothers had a better time than that. The mistress of this household certainly didn’t treat her maid servants as badly, but she did have a very complicated relationship with them. This was the home of eminent historian Thomas Carlisle and his wife Jane, also a woman of letters. She evocatively documents her daily trials and tribulations, and leaves us with an eloquent record of the bond which dominated her life – the extraordinarily fractious, challenging relationship between her and her maids-of-all-work. There are reams and reams of this stuff. Jane wrote letters nearly every day, and a lot of it is about the relationship with her servants. And, although it’s from the mistress’ point of view yet again, we do still get more than a glimpse of the servants’ lives and characters coming through. There’s Isabella, who’s described as a fiery Scottish maid, who basically tells Jane where to go. She says, “No one woman living could do my work,” and when Jane says, “Well, actually someone’s been doing this for years,” she says, “Well, there’s some women that like to make slaves of themselves, “but I will never slave myself for anybody’s pleasure.” And she packs her bags and off she goes. And I guess what this means for me, really, is that…it shows us where power lies in this story. The power’s not just with the mistress, with her power to hire and fire, the power’s also with the maids, who had the power to leave, and leave they did. Jane went through 34 maids in 32 years. We simply don’t know how many were sacked and how many walked. Jane was not unusual in her troubles around servant keeping. Like many Victorian middle-class mistresses, she struggled with this idea of being a manager and moral guardian, knowing that her personal reputation was based on the way her servants behaved. And something happened in this tiny backroom with her maid servant Mary that put Jane’s personal reputation on the line. Well, the story that Jane tells in a letter is that a neighbour came and said, “We need to tell you this – “because everyone in the neighbourhood knows.”
– OK. And the story she told was the maid had given birth in this room. Jane wasn’t at home, but Thomas was not only at home, Thomas was there, Thomas was a couple of feet away for at least a period while the woman was in this closet giving birth, he was having, says Jane, his after-dinner tea and sitting there. While this story reflects on the servant, the interesting thing to me is the way Jane tells the story… Yes, yes. – ..Is how it reflects on Jane.
– Yes. Jane had failed in this duty, and I certainly read the letter to a degree that she is setting out precisely why she didn’t fail, precisely to indicate to her friends and her family that she wasn’t the unvigilant mistress, which would have indicated a moral failing in her. It wasn’t simply that the woman giving birth had failed, but that Jane had failed to teach her the ways of middle-class righteousness. – So she’s repairing herself as moral mistress?
– Absolutely. – So what happened in the end to this servant?
– Jane sacks her. Most employers tried to prevent getting into such a tricky situation by encouraging their charges to read the wealth of moral literature aimed specifically at servants. In the basement of the British Library, we’ve unearthed some rare copies. So these are just a small selection of a vast, vast literature aimed at servants produced in the 19th century, and there’s all kinds of things here. There are magazines, there are prayer books, there are fables, there are personal stories, so it’s a really vast amount of stuff. How would they get this material? Well, some would be given to them by their masters or mistresses. We’ve got one here – A present For Servants From Their Masters. Others would be given to them by perhaps their parents or relatives before they left for service. Others still, they might just buy themselves, there’s one here, the Servants’ Magazine, which I think is a commercial publication. And it’s fascinating because it shows us the journey that a servant is expected to make, from disordered country cottage to ordered family home where she’s stoking the fire. A crucial part of that journey for her is a moral and religious teaching that helps her to make this journey. So here we’ve got the servant kneeling by her bed, saying her prayers – The Servant Maid. “Though servitude’s my destined lot, “And I am doomed to roam Far from my native peaceful cot, “Far from my friends and home. “If God saw fit to make me great, “He would not this deny; “And while I’m in a meaner state, “He will my wants supply.” The message there is that servants should be happy with their position in life, God’s looking after them, they’re doing the right thing. There’s another one here, which is a daily prayer book for servants from the 1850s. We’ve got prayers for a housekeeper or butler or any place in authority, and then, prayers for a lady’s maid, a nurse, an under-maid’s servant and a man servant. There are also specific prayers on specific themes, and just listen to these themes – humility, meekness, contentment, honesty, truthfulness. And it’s the one about contentment that really gets me. “For contentment – Almighty Father, who alone art wise, “yea, Wisdom itself, “make me to feel that in Thy providence “Thou orderest all things for the best, “and grant that I may be able to be satisfied “with the station in which Thou hast placed me, “not envying those who are richer and higher than I, “but content to be poor and lonely in this world.” And I think that says it all. To see one of the most telling examples of the ideal, loyal and moral Victorian servant, I’m going back to Erddig. Miss Harriet Rogers worked her way up from housemaid to housekeeper over an impressive 40 years, and her portrait has earned its place in the servant wing corridor. What’s really striking about Harriet is that she devoted her whole life to service. She climbed to the top of the career ladder, and this is how her poem ends. “Then, with her life’s long Task complete, “Did Harriet Rogers seek retreat, “And found it In our neighbouring town “Amid the kindred of her own. “May all such years as yet remain “Be peaceful, and unspoilt by pain! “And at the last, may Heaven accord “Her faithful work Its blest reward!” If anyone deserves her loyalty portrait, it’s Harriet. Harriet’s letters and personal possessions still survive. In a house near Stockport, a number of objects associated with Harriet, a picture of her father, Erddig carpenter Thomas Rogers, a painting of Erddig and a room full of memorabilia are treasured by her great-great-niece. The first letter’s in 1846. This looks like almost a shrine to a life in service. We’ve got her diary, we’ve got her cookbooks, the instruction manual, her prayer books, the work book, the lamp, it’s got her initials here. – Yes.
– “HR,” stamped there. And she would have used this in the halls of Erddig. Yes. Yes, it has a spare candle holder. A spare candle in here. – And wax matches.
– Oh, just here. I haven’t tried them. – (SHE CHUCKLES)
– Wonderful. One of Harriet’s letters is profoundly revealing of how she sacrificed her personal friendships for loyalty to the York family. This is 1871. “Dear Miss Rogers, if I say I was pleased to receive your letter, “I should say what I did not feel. “So often we’ve looked forward to the pleasure of your visit, “but, as often as we have looked, we have been disappointed. “And for what reason? “Because Miss Rogers had not the courage “to ask Mrs York for a week’s leave. “We’ve made up our minds that if you do not come and see us, we will never call again.” – I know, it’s pretty strong.
– Yes. Servants didn’t get much time off, even senior servants, so perhaps there was an issue there with just the sheer amount of time she had. But.. Oh, yes, they didn’t have much time off, and if she had to do Mrs York’s hair every time she dined out or had people to dine. He’s berating her for not having the courage to ask Mrs York, but, presumably, that’s quite difficult at the time. Well, I think it would be, yes. “Yours very sincerely, JC Maddox.” Did she get lots of valentines? Quite a number, yes. It is amazing though – that she kept all these valentines, don’t you think?
– It is. – They’re just exquisite, aren’t they, the way they’re just… The work on these is just wonderful.
– Yes. And this is quite a delicate one. And it’s got little messages written in the folds. Yes. And the name of the chappie at the very end. – I think it was a Herbert somebody.
– Herbert! I don’t think I’d have wanted a Herbert. SHE LAUGHS Let’s look what this says, “Pray let us join both hearts in one.” Sounds like it’s quite serious. – Well, do you think it’s a proposal?
– Yes. She was engaged three times, you know. She never married in the end? No. I think she liked working for Mrs York. She was very loyal. Just the fact that she kept all these objects, formal photos of herself in uniform, a prayer book inscribed from Mrs York, are a testimony to Harriet’s loyalty. This is a really extraordinary collection, paints such a vivid portrait of Harriet and her personality. And it seems to me that Harriet really preferred her life as the housekeeper in the big house. In many ways, Harriet stands as the ideal of the Victorian servant – selfless, quite religious, very proper, indispensable to her mistress, clearly really enjoying her work. But this came at quite some personal cost, puts a strain on her friendships. She puts her valentines cards away, she turns down a few proposals of marriage, she stays single. And what this says to me is that servants like Harriet could and did make choices, but if they chose to remain in service, they really had to accept the limits of that life. Over the course of the 19th century, the starchily uniformed servants we are so familiar with today had become clearly defined and standardised, through hierarchy, segregation, uniforms and a strong sense of “knowing your place.” Highly individual talented people, like William Taylor, housekeeper Mrs Webster and the maids-of-all work became just cogs in the machine of Victorian society. Being an ideal servant was ultimately about accepting your station in life, and this wasn’t just an elite view, this was a view shared by many, many servants, especially the successful ones. And, for me, it’s that word, station, that’s so revealing here. It implies that people have to somehow stand still, even though the world around them is changing very fast. And it’s this ideal that was going to be seriously challenged and questioned by the next generation of servants. In the next episode – servants in the run-up to the First World War start to challenge their station in life, in private and public. And it doesn’t go down well with the masters and mistresses. Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd Subtitles by the Amara.org community