SURVIVING IN SERVICE
It’s 1925 in the final series of ITV’s DowntonAbbey, but what was domestic service really like in Britain at that time? Michelle Higgs takes a closer look
Michelle Higgs looks at what life was like as a domestic servant
For the past five years, we’ve followed the stories of servants working for the Crawley family at the fictional Downton
Abbey: Daisy and Mrs Patmore in the kitchen; Carson and Mrs Hughes as butler and housekeeper; Bates and Anna, the valet and lady’s maid; and footman Thomas Barrow.
In the new series, the Crawleys will have to cut back on staff to balance the books. This was a common issue for previously wealthy landed estates after the First World War and throughout the 1920s. They had to cope with higher taxation, death duties and falling income from land. Downsizing their domestic staff was one way in which to significantly reduce their outgoings.
The impact on male servants
Male servants were hit particularly hard. Just after the war, the family Eric Horne was working for as a butler cut its indoor staff from 25 to just three. Afterwards, Eric worked as a single-handed butler for two years before looking for another place. When he wrote his memoir, What The Butler Winked At, in 1923, Eric recalled: “I soon found there was a glut of unemployed butlers, and no places to be had... and I found I had better have staid [sic] where I was. I advertised every week in the Morning Post, searched all the clubs in the West End of London and all places where butler’s places are likely to be heard of, but to no effect. Excepting for a month’s temporary work, I have had no
employment for months. Everywhere it is parlourmaids, and married couples that are wanted. The married couples having to do the work of perhaps four servants that were kept previously.”
Despite these financial issues, country houses never experienced the problems faced by ordinary middle-class families employing servants – that of finding staff and keeping them for any length of time. To work in gentlemen’s service was still the goal of every ambitious servant. Yet only a tiny minority achieved this; the vast majority of domestic staff toiled in much smaller middle-class households where just one or two servants were employed.
The ‘servant problem’ had rumbled on throughout the 19th century. At first, employers criticised their servants’ capabilities to do the job. By the lateVictorian and early-Edwardian periods, the complaint was about the scarcity of domestic staff altogether.
The shortfall was blamed on various factors including educating girls for longer and to a higher standard, and greater work opportunities outside domestic service. The school leaving age was raised to 12 in 1899 and to 14 under further legislation in 1918 (although it was not implemented until 1921). Working in shops, factories and offices with fixed hours was more attractive to many young girls than being at an employer’s beck and call at all hours with little free time. The more intelligent could also now aspire to careers in teaching and nursing.
Great War takes its toll
The ‘servant problem’ was exacerbated during the First World War when an estimated 400,000 male and female servants left domestic service for the armed forces and various areas of wartime production, as well as clerical and support services. Maids found employment as land girls, nurses and bus conductresses. They also worked in shops, canteens, offices and in the munitions factories.
This work offered higher pay and greater freedom. Unsurprisingly, female servants were reluctant to return to the shackles of domestic service after the war. Writing in the Sunday Post (11 May 1919), labour activist Jessie Stephen (see Personal File) elaborated on the reasons: “The average girl widened her outlook, enjoyed a new sense of liberty, and, moreover, received a scale of remuneration hitherto unknown to her. In the past, the domestic servant worked long hours, received comparatively small wages, and experienced no sense of liberty comparable with other women workers. Even in some of the best ‘places’ capable servants were compelled to occupy living rooms that were a disgrace to modern civilisation.
“Take my own case. My bedroom was in the basement of a West End flat. There was a tarmacadam floor, covered here and there by a few fragments of carpet that betrayed manifest signs of senile decay. The place was as cheerless as the grave. In another, where the family was of good social standing, my room was also in the basement, but the bed was in a cupboard. I couldn’t get a chair into the apartment, and the door provided the only means of ventilation.”
The government had regulated many other workplaces such as shops and factories, but domestic service remained a private contract between employer and servant. As such, trade unions could not make much headway in improving conditions.
In 1911, a third of domestic servants were school-leavers employed in small middle-class households. Twenty years later, there were fewer of these young girls willing to go into service and more than a third of maids in England and Wales were aged over 35. They were more expensive to employ, so smaller households started to use charwomen as ‘ dailies’ instead, and bought new labour-saving devices, such as vacuum cleaners, gas cookers and fires.
Female servants were reluctant to return to the shackles of service after the war
Two government reports were issued after the First World War to address the reluctance of women to return to domestic service. The first was the Report of the Women’s Advisory Committee on the
Domestic Service Problem (1919), carried out for the Ministry of Reconstruction.
It recommended training schemes to raise domestic service to a skilled occupation and compulsory written references from employers, which “should be restricted to definite statements, and should deal as little as possible with matters of opinion”.
The reasons for not taking up “what should be recognised as an honourable profession” were identified as loss of social status by entering the occupation, long hours of duty and lack of companionship. The report also stressed: “Domestic workers will not take pleasure in their work as long as much of it consists of constantly carrying by hand for unnecessary distances, often up and down stairs, considerable weights of water, food and fuel, of tending heating and cooking apparatus undesirably wasteful of labour, and of the larger cleaning processes which could be better effected by outside workers furnished with mechanical appliances. These recommendations echoed those of the trade unions in the Edwardian period, which again never came to anything. In 1923, a second government report appeared, this time for the Minister of Labour, entitled the Report of the Committee Appointed to Inquire into the Present Conditions as to the Supply of Female Domestic Servants.
A number of wide-ranging recommendations were made, including the instruction of elementary schoolgirls in domestic science between the ages of 12 and 14 and advanced scholarships for girls desirous of completing specialised training. Both reports highlighted the importance of social clubs for maids, particularly for single-handed young servants who experienced severe loneliness and could find companionship in the growing network of girls’ clubs. The most popular were run by the Young Women’s Christian Association ( YWCA) and the Girls’ Friendly Society (GFS). By 1924, there were more than 350 registered GFS clubs across Britain.
Dolly Davey moved to London in 1930 to go into service. In her memoir, A Sense of
Adventure, she recalled joining the local YWCA: “I used to go there on my days off... They were nearly all domestic servants who used to go there. You’d talk about the people you worked for. You could tell the truth about them, which really relieved your feelings.”
The 1919 and 1923 reports had similar findings but were shelved by the government and their recommendations were never acted upon. The problem remained that employers were not legally required to provide written references known as ‘characters’ for their ex-servants. Without them, servants found it impossible to secure another place in service. Domestic servants who left their situations and could not find another place were particularly vulnerable. Indoor domestic servants of both sexes (plus agricultural workers) were excluded from the 1920 Unemployment Insurance Act, which provided the dole for manual workers, because they were not deemed to experience long periods of unemployment.
In her memoir, Every Other Sunday, Jean Rennie comments that after being dismissed from her first job in 1924, she was, “home, and unemployed... I went on answering advertisements – for anything. I wrote countless letters; went to see managers of shops, works, offices. So many times I’ve done all that in the years. I did not, of course, get any unemployment benefit. Having been a domestic servant, you were not supposed to be out of a job.”
Indoor domestic servants remained outside the unemployment insurance legislation until 1948. They were, however, covered by the Old-Age Pensions Act (1908) and received sickness benefit and free medical treatment under the National Insurance Bill (1911).
The worldwide economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s had far-reaching consequences for young working-class girls. The brightest ones, who had often won grammar school scholarships, had to leave school because their fathers were frequently out of work. It was an extremely difficult period in which to enter the workplace for the first time, given the high levels of unemployment. These girls had no choice but to enter domestic service to help contribute towards their family incomes. This generation was cheated out of the opportunities education could offer them simply because of economic hard times.
One way out was to take advantage of evening classes provided by the Workers’ Educational Association ( WEA). Originally formed in 1903 for men, it started running classes for working women from 1905.
Edith Hall left school in 1922 at the age of 14 and alternated between a string of factory jobs and domestic service. In her memoir, Canary Girls and Stockpots, she wrote: “I soon realised that I was a little more intelligent than were some of my mistresses.” Edith attended WEA classes and gained qualifications, which eventually enabled her to apply to train as a nurse.
Domestic service training schools were set up for girls wishing to become maids but by 1914, there were just 10 nationwide with provision for about 350 pupils. This hardly touched the surface and the domestic training most young girls received was
through the elementary school curriculum from about the age of 12. A schoolgirl in the 1920s recalled her domestic science classes in
Samuel Mullins and Gareth Griffiths’ Cap and Apron: An Oral History of Domestic
Service in the Shires, 1880-1950: “We did cookery for about six months; after that we went for six months to a laundry centre where we were taught laundry work. We had to take a garment from home each week; a woollen garment one week, cotton another, linen another, something embroidered another week. As we got to about 13 years old we went to a ‘ home-making’ centre and the teacher there lived in the house and we went every day for a month and we did everything in the house – cookery, laundry, shopping and housework, so that we got an overall picture of looking after a house.”
The ultimate status symbol
Although the writer JB Priestley famously declared in 1927 that servants were “as obsolete as the horse” in an era of motor cars, they were still much in demand. Domestic service continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, largely because employing servants was still the ultimate status symbol. In 1931, nearly one in five households had at least one live-in domestic servant and around 1.3 million women were employed in indoor domestic service.
By 1951, there were just 724,000 female indoor domestic servants recorded on the census. For the first time, clerks and typists constituted the largest occupation for women with 1,271,000 employed. Domestic service would never again be seen as the natural occupation for girls and women.
Who Do You Think You Are? Servants washing dishes in the early 1900s
A humorous photograph showing the recruitment process of a young female domestic servant
During the 1930s, households saved money on servants by using labour-saving devices
Who Do You Think You Are?
Students at the Domestic Training School in Sloane Street, London, practice preparing and serving food in 1937