On The Shelf

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the
Nineteenth Century to Modern Times
by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton 2013)

Even if you’ve been researching daily life in England for years and believe that you know all there is to know about servants by this time, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. And you certainly have never had the subject presented in such an entertaining manner. Lethbridge’s book is not so much an overview of bygone grandeur and servitude as it is an in-depth and personal look at the people who lived below stairs. Where did they come from? Why did they go into service? What did they think about their `betters’ and the other servants in the house? Along with solid facts and figures, Servants sparkles with wit, wisdom and the words of the servants themselves.

As Lethbridge writes – “In 1900 domestic service was still the single largest occupation in Edwardian Britain: of the four million women in the British workforce, a million and a half worked as servants, a majority of them as single-handed maids in small households.” The author goes on to introduce the reader to various servants and to provide insight on their backgrounds: “The extent to which Britain’s poor were stunted by disease and malnourishment was made fully apparent after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, when recruiting offices reported that a majority of the working-class recruits were unfit for active service, their diet consisting for the most part of little more than the `staples’ of bread, dripping and tea . . . . Lillian Westall found work as a maid-of-all-work almost impossible: just carting buckets of hot water up and down stairs needed almost the strength of a grown man – and a single maid in a small household would need to carry an estimated three tons of water a week. “This sort of work needed the stamina of an ox and years of semi-starvation meant I hadn’t this sort of strength.”

 Lethbridge allows the reader to hear the voices of the aristocrats, as well: “The `odd man,’ a vital fixture on an estate, was a manservant who never quite made the grade required to be a front-of-the-house type and was therefore used for pretty well everything, from carrying heavy luggage to helping with the cleaning. Huge houses could sustain great numbers of the very old and the very young and with their work went the rituals of their particularity, the vital necessity of which no-one thought of questioning. Lady Diana Cooper, who grew up at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, remembered the `gong man’ whose only job was to summon the household to meals by walking the corridors three times a day banging a gong: `He would walk down the interminable passages, his livery hanging a little loosely on his bent old bones, clutching his gong with one hand and with the other feebly brandishing the padded-knobbed stick with which he struck it.'”

Servants provides a peek behind the green baize door with examples of just how extensive, and invisible, the below stairs machinery was – at Belvoir Castle there were at least three lamp and candle men who labored continuously at snuffing wicks, filling lamps and cleaning and de-waxing glass – a full time job. That the great families of England took these labours for granted is made clear, as are the instances in which the same families often declared their loyalties to those who served: at Badminton House, seat of the Duke of Beaufort, the lamp man was totally blind and felt his way expertly about the corridors – and was still doing so in the 1920s. Servants is peppered with further anecdotes that illustrate the peccadilloes and peculiarities of the upper classes, all of which make for an engrossing read.

 Halfway through the book, Lethbridge brings us to the early 20th century and to the events – Great Wars, the Industrial Revolution – that would sound the death knells for England’s Stately Homes. Slowly, the great estates were losing ground and the previously, seemingly unending line of servants waiting to staff them grew thin. The grandest of these estates were the last to feel the effects.

“At Chatsworth, where thirty indoor staff were employed throughout the 1930’s, the only real change in the running of the house after the war was the jettisoning of the ancient role of Groom of Chambers, whose job of looking after the drawing rooms and writing tables was taken over by footmen. Lady Hambleden, born into the Herbert family and brought up at Wilton House before her marriage in 1928, remained almost untouched by the shift, so noticeable in most large houses, from male to female front-of-house staff, from butler to parlourmaid: `We did have quite a lot of staff: there was a butler – I think most people had butlers. I can only think of one person who had parlourmaids and everybody rather noticed it.’
“On the Rothschilds’ estate, at Waddeston in Buckinghamshire, the gardeners still sent the vegetables to the kitchen door every day in a specially constructed pony cart painted in the Rothschild racing colours of yellow and blue, the coachman who drove it dressed in a matching livery and cockade. At Woburn Abbey, the eleventh Duke of Bedford maintained until his death in 1940 not only a household of at least sixty indoor servants to attend solely to his wife and himself, but two separate, fully staffed residences in Belgrave Square, including four cars and eight chauffeurs; the Woburn parlourmaids were all Amazonian at over five foot ten, as had always been the Bedfords’ stipulation.”

Whilst it may seem odd to us in the 21st century that so va
st an army of servants was necessary to see to the needs of two people, Lethbridge provides many examples that show that, amongst the aristocracy, this was the norm, rather than the exception to the rule.
“In the house where Doris Winchester worked, the servants were so numerous that they ate more than twice the daily quantity of their two elderly employers: `If they had roast pheasant in the dining room and there was just the two of them they had one pheasant and I had to do five pheasants for the servants’ hall.'”
“Holland House was so vast that when George (Washington, a footman) first arrived he was instructed to go to the front door as people had been known to spend `days’ searching for the servants’ entrance in the maze of courtyards and passages behind. Waiting on Lady Ilchester (we lived there alone) was a butler, a footman, and odd man and second footman, housekeeper and four maids, a stillroom maid, a cook, two kitchen maids and tow scullery maids, a chauffeur, nine gardeners, a lady’s maid, a night nurse and a day nurse. The odd man was so old that he was unable to do any heavy work. `When I look back over my three years and a half years at Holland House,’ wrote Washington, ‘I can see now there was something particularly sad, almost unreal, about them. We were propping up something that belonged to another age, trying to pretend that what had passed still existed or even if it didn’t that if we tried hard enough to keep the old order of things going, it might come back.'”
The old way of life did not come back, but new ways of life intruded further upon the old order, a case in point being income tax and death duties – “In 1930 a correspondent wrote to The Times: `The result of any increased taxation in my individual case is that I shall have to reduce my servants by half. I now have eight dependent upon me and in order to require good and faithful servants I have made large inroads on capital.”

Modernization also intruded upon the aristocracy, who were more often than not slow to embrace it, as in the case of electricity, which many either chose to ignore or else disguised beneath echoes of the past –
“This taste for concealing new technology trickled down into the new houses of the middle classes, where the wireless, for example, was often hidden inside an especially constructed cabinet . . . . Sometimes the staff themselves were part of the pretence, maintaining an illusion of elaborate labour where technology had in reality made it redundant. At Flete House, in Devon, the footmen had to remove all the electric table lamps every morning and bring them back in as soon as it grew dark . . . . When electricity was finally installed at Woburn in the late 1920’s, the Duke of Bedford believed his guests would be so unaccustomed to this new form of illumination that he had black and white plaques made especially to go above all the switches, inscribed with the explanatory words `Electric Light.'”
Both World Wars also served to upset the old order of things by forcing women into traditionally male work, thus opening doors that led to new employment opportunities for those women who would otherwise have settled for a life in service. Lethbridge uses one of these modern women as an example
” . . . In 1939, Celia Fremlin, employed by the new social research group Mass Observation, embarked on a job (for investigative purposes) as scullery-maid for an elderly woman living, bed-bound, in a huge London house. Fremlin’s first experience was a surreal experience: That night her aged ladyship had decided to sup on a cup of Benger’s food (a malted milk drink, rather like Ovaltine) and a digestive biscuit. So like a vast machine set in motion, the eight members of the staff were mobilized as if for a full-time dinner party. First the housekeeper (1) had to come down to the kitchen to tell the cook that this was to be the menu tonight. Then I, the scullery maid (2) was dispatched to fetch the new tin of Benger’s from the store-room, and the special enamel saucepan. I handed them to the kitchen maid (3) who took the lid off and handed the tin to the cook, together with the other necessary apparatus. The cook (4) then set to work making the Benerg’s. Now the footman (5) came into action. He went to the butler (6) for the key to the cupboard which contained her ladyship’s silver tray. The butler gave him the key and waited while he took out the tray. Then the footman put the tray on his trolley and wheeled it to the kitchen, where the Benger’s and digestive biscuit were now standing in state awaiting him. He put them on the tray and wheeled it off to the hall. Here the tray was taken by the head housemaid (7). She took it up to her ladyship’s landing and knocked on her ladyship’s door. It was opened by the lady’s maid (8) who took the tray and disappeared.” Fremlin summarized the experience for her employers by writing, “It was like watching a hundred-ton crane picking up a safety-pin; like watching a huge sweet factory producing one peppermint bulls-eye; a vast machine that has forgotten how to stop working.”
One can’t help but wonder of the bed-bound peeress was Lady Ilchester herself.
Gradually, the scarcity of good servants began to trickle down to houses of all classes. So prevalent and recognizable did the servant problem become that Elizabeth Dashwood, writing as E.M. Delafield, made a living out of writing a weekly column about them for Time and Tide under the heading Diary of a Provincial Lady. These articles would later be collected and published as a book under that title. As Lethbridge points out, so universal had this problem become that it supplied content for several novelists of the day including Lettice Cooper (The New House) and Mary Wilde (A Housewife in Kensington).
From the 1930’s onward, refugees began to fill the ranks of the servant classes in England – Austrians, Germans Czechs, both male and female. Many of them, like parlormaid Rachel Perlmutter , a character portrayed in the latest incarnation of Upstairs, Downstairs, were over qualified for their positions, having themselves come from the professional classes in their native countries and often having had servants of their own before entering England. During the Second World War, many of the great houses were requisitioned by the government and the number of servants in homes of any size, large or small, were restricted by the government. With male and female servants having been restricted or having left to fight or take up war work on the home front, evacuees often found themselves expected to sing for their suppers, so to speak, taking up the work that still needed to be done in the houses, the kitchens, the gardens and the farms. The old order would never be the same again.
Afterwards, those who took up service, whether as cooks, lady’s maids or butlers gradually came to be seen as professionals who were hired through word of mouth, through classified ads or through the many domestic service registry offices that were cropping up around the country. Lethbridge follows the evolution of the those who serve right up to the present day where, quite naturally, the book ends. More’s the pity, as Servants was as engaging as any work of fiction whilst proving itself a ‘keeper’ for my research shelves.  

Lucy Lethbridge has written for a number of publications, including as writing articles for the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday and the Times Literary Supplement and is also the author of several children’s books, one of which, Who Was Ada Lovelace?, won the 2002 Blue Peter Award for non-fiction. She lives in London.

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