For the past three months, I’ve been working solidly on my new book Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in Their Own Words 1800-1950. As a result, my ‘Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England’ blog has been shockingly neglected so it’s time to make amends!
While writing and researching the book, I’ve been truly immersed in the world of domestic servants. One of the areas I looked at was how maids found their jobs. There was, of course, word of mouth and the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns in newspapers, but there were also servants’ registries or registry offices: the equivalent of today’s employment agency.
Servants’ registries were usually run by ex-servants who had set up a business with their life savings, often in conjunction with another enterprise such as a newsagent or grocer. There was a huge expansion of these offices during the Victorian period to cater for the rise in demand for servants by the middle classes, and most provincial towns had at least one while in large cities there were numerous offices. The servants’ registries specialised in matching up domestic servants with mistresses who had vacancies.
Ladies wanting servants would contact a servant’s registry with their requirements, such as the type of servant and salary provided. The office would match up servants with employers, and the larger ones had private booths in which prospective maids could be interviewed. In most cases, both mistress and servant would pay a fee for the service. Charities such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (M.A.B.Y.S.) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) also ran registries.
Recently, I came across an excellent post on Emmy Eustace’s blog about Mrs Hunt’s Servants’ Registry Office. Mrs Hunts’ was a famous registry office with an impeccable reputation. Only the very best servants with first-class ‘characters’ were considered for positions advertised in her agency and she offered a ‘no engagement, no fee’ policy. The ‘character’ was the written reference provided by the servant’s previous employer and he or she could not hope to find a better place with higher wages or improved living conditions without one.
|From ‘Servant London’ in Living London (1900)|
Mrs Hunt’s “suited” over 50,000 customers a year, according to a journalist for Living London. When he visited the office in Duke Street in 1900, he discovered that there was “a black list which is carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants’ characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient.”
The problem with ‘characters’ was that masters and mistresses were not legally obliged to provide them, hence the trade in fraudulent written references. If a ‘character’ was not forthcoming to show to a future employer, it would automatically be assumed that the servant was an unsatisfactory employee. By the same token, a mistress might write an untruthfully positive reference just to be rid of a troublesome maid, passing the problem on to the next employer.
|From ‘Servant London’ in Living London (1900)|
While Mrs Hunt’s catered for high-class clientele, at the other end of the scale were the fraudulent registry offices which placed tempting advertisements in the provincial newspapers. The Pall Mall Gazette (15 January 1894) reported:
“When servants answer them they are summoned to London by the registry-keeper who has advertised. On arrival in London, the deluded servants are unable to get any information about the situation advertised. The situations, in fact, do not exist, the servants having been deluded into coming up in order that they should lodge at the registry office, at a charge leaving a fine margin of profit to the keeper. Nor do they get a room to themselves at these so-called servants’ homes. Seven, eight and nine are packed into one room, and the poor victims can do nothing but remonstrate, fearing that if they leave their chances of obtaining the desired situation will be made so much the more remote…Servants lodging at these wretched homes are sent to employers where they cannot stop. For instance, a good servant is sent to a bad place, where he or she will not remain, and a bad servant is sent to a good place, where the master or mistress will not put up with incompetency. Thus the poor servants are constantly kept returning to the registry lodgings, impoverishing themselves while enabling these land-sharks to live in luxury.”
|‘Morning Wear’ from Cassell’s Household Guide, 1911|
The journalist from Living London alluded to the risk to servants of answering “specious advertisements. There are “situations” with “good wages for suitable young women” which are not “places” within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed.”
From 1907, registry offices within the London County Council area were licensed and these annual licenses were withdrawn if there were complaints. However, local authorities elsewhere in Britain did not take advantage of powers to do the same so a registry office in London with a revoked license could legally set up again outside the capital. It seems that the best way for servants to avoid fraudulent registry offices and misleading advertisements was to find situations via personal recommendation only.
|‘Maid of All Work’ from Living London, 1900|