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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michelle Higgs is the au­thor of Ser­vants’ Sto­ries:LifeBelowS­tairsinTheirOwn Words1800-1950 (Pen & Sword, 2015). See our re­view on page 90.

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).

Eco­nomic down­turn

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.