After a lengthy break, I’m relaunching my A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England blog on a more responsive platform. Hopefully, it will make the content easier to navigate and search, and be more reader-friendly.
To mark International Women’s Day, this post is about the unsung heroes of Victorian society, without whom the wealthy and middle classes could not manage their daily lives: domestic servants. The rich rarely had issues attracting and retaining staff since working in gentlemen’s service was considered the pinnacle of a servant’s career. However, for smaller households employing just one or two servants, it was a very different matter.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the newspapers were full of complaints about the ‘servant problem’ – the apparent inability of employers to obtain and keep good servants. Countless opinions were offered as to the cause and the remedy, including that given by Mrs Panton in From Kitchen to Garret: Hints to Young Householders (1888). In her manual, she offered what appears to be common sense advice but it was contrary to the way many mistresses viewed their servants: ‘If we treat our maids just as we treat ourselves we shall find our trouble almost disappear. I invariably leave my maids a good deal to themselves about their work; and once they know what has to be done, I find it is done without my constantly being after them…’
Part of the ‘servant problem’ was attributed to the increasingly wide range of employment opportunities for working-class girls who had traditionally gone into domestic service. Jobs in shops and factories were more attractive because of the fixed working hours, whereas servants were at the beck and call of their mistresses at all hours of the day. After 1880, working-class girls were educated for longer and to a higher standard. The most intelligent could now aspire to enter the professions of teaching and nursing, while clerical work offered further opportunities away from domestic service.
This increase in literacy among servants led many to air their grievances by writing to their local newspapers; this was one of the few ways they could express themselves publicly. While researching my book Servants’ Stories, I came across an exchange of letters on the British Newspaper Archive. They were sent to the Western Mail in November and December 1892. The first letter was a request from ‘A Servant’ of Swansea for ‘protection against tyrannous mistresses’:
Will you insert a servant’s complaints of the way in which the majority of that much-abused class are treated? No one seems to heed our long hours or our holidays, which are (like angels’ visits) few and far between. There seems no other class working at a greater disadvantage. For instance, no servant can expect a situation who had not got a good reference and a long one from where she last lived. It often happens she has been living with unprincipled people, who think not half so much of their servants as they do of their dumb animals. What is it to them if the girl does not get a situation? She has offended them in some way or other. Perhaps she had had more than her share of work, bad food, and other things too numerous to mention, and she has spoken too plainly to please them. That, of course, is considered impertinent, for, according to many mistresses’ opinion, a servant is a being made expressly for them, and she has no rights whatever, and she is told she need not expect a character. What are servants to do under these circumstances? They may be out of a situation for months – perhaps something worse. Do the mistresses think we have no spirit, and that we must bear quietly the petty tyranny they have it in their power to use in a hundred ways? My two last situations have happened to be places where it is impossible for servants to live, I being the sixth servant in three months, and yet we have nothing and no one to warn us of places of this sort. I think it is a serious matter that our character (I may say our livelihood) is at the mercy of such people. Why cannot something be done to benefit servants as well as other working classes? Servants ought to know what kind of places they are going into, as well as the character of the people they are to live with.
In the days that followed, other maids wrote to the Western Mail listing their own problems with their employers. ‘A Poor Servant in Pembrokeshire’ added:
I am only grieved to say that we servants are worse treated than pet animals. They are studied with fresh air every day, but we do not need it once a week even. Are we allowed sufficient time to eat the food we get, which would not be often given to their pets? When we enter into an engagement with a lady we are asked if we can obtain a good character. Should there be a little spot, “Oh you won’t suit me.” Should the lady’s character be inquired into as closely as the servant’s, I wonder which would prove the most just. You are asked if you are honest. Is it needed where everything is locked. You are expected to be clean. Can you be clean in some ‘houses’ where you have a piece of soap locked from you?
Lack of trust between mistress and maid was a constant source of frustration and anger. Employers also wrote in to have their say during this discussion. ‘A Mistress’ of Park-place, Cardiff commented:
I do not doubt that among servants, like every other class, there are some who are badly treated, but … what of the gross carelessness and wicked wastefulness of servants, and what of their growing antipathy to doing the ordinary work of a household? Servants, nowadays, are not to be compared to the honest and industrious worker of a few years ago, and their grievances are entirely of their own making.
This letter provoked an impassioned reply from to ‘A Servant’ of Newport:
I have heard many say that modern servants are not like the old-fashioned ones, but mistresses of the present day are very different from what they were then. Mistresses used to respect their servants and were looked up to in return, but such mistresses now are few and far between. There are so many ‘ladies’ who have been domestics themselves that we cannot expect them to make good mistresses. I should think that to have a good place we should have a kind mistress. This is the chief thing; then the girl would find it a pleasure to be industrious.
A butler with 17 years’ experience wrote:
I respectfully contend that servants are far more honest now than they were years ago, when many of them had little or no wages more than their food. No, servants are not what they were years ago. They, like other branches of the community, have improved with the times, and are still improving. But why is it they meet with so little encouragement from their employers? Hundreds of societies are formed, recreation-rooms built, and everything conceivable is done for the improvement of the clerk, artisan, mechanic, &c. Mistresses subscribe liberally to any of these, but no helping hand is held out to the poor being who is unlucky enough to bear the insignificant designation of “servant”… I am happy to say from experience that there are some few mistresses who take an interest in their servants, and do all they possibly can to encourage them to be thrifty &c, and improve themselves, not only by giving them good advice, but with kind, substantial help. But while employers continue to treat servants as machines, expecting all and giving as little as possible in return (for it is not solely a question of wages), there will be a difficulty in obtaining good servants.
Finally, came the hopes of ‘A Cardiff Girl’:
Would you kindly allow me a small space in your valuable paper to refer to the proposed servants’ union. I am sorry to see that such a few girls of this town have taken the matter up. Why do not some of them come forward with pluck and energy and stand out one with the other until they get a union like the shop assistants and have a half-holiday once a week, with some part of the day on Sunday, instead of being penned in like prisoners once a fortnight? I am sure we deserve it, I sincerely hope, now the girls have made a stir that it will not result in a failure like the last.
Unfortunately, the various servants’ trade unions had little effect on improving the working conditions of those in domestic service. It was difficult to recruit members because the contract between servant and employer was a private one, and maids ran the risk of being blacklisted if they were discovered to be members of a union.
This exchange of letters in the Western Mail continued for weeks, indicating the depth of feeling on both sides. The ‘servant problem’ continued well into the twentieth century when a trend developed of maids becoming ‘daily helps’ or char-women, which meant they had fixed hours and were able to return home at the end of the day.