X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Lead book review

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge – review

As well as having to perform countless heavy chores till all hours, servants were expected to be invisible. Charlotte Moore is fascinated by the daily’s grind

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain Lucy Lethbridge

Bloomsbury, pp.385, £19.99

The first illustration in this absorbing survey of domestic service in 20th-century Britain is a group photograph of the household servants at Erdigg, the Yorke family home in Wales. Each holds an emblematic item; the housekeeper is defined by her bunch of keys, the butler holds a wine bottle and corkscrew, the footman, in full pantomimic rig down to his buckled shoes, bears a salver for the calling cards that formed an intricate and arcane method of communication amongst the upper orders. The picture was taken in 1912. It is expressive of a system governed by age-old rules and unshakable hierarchies. How unimaginable that only two years later the outbreak of war would initiate the great dismantling of this system.

On the last page of illustrations is a photograph taken in 1959, when the dismantling was almost complete. It shows the Duke of Bedford, master of Woburn Abbey, at the Ideal Home Exhibition. His Grace is jacketless, his sleeves rolled up, ready for domestic action — he is unloading crockery from the first Kenwood Fully Automated Dishwasher. The Duke’s grandfather had kept 60 indoor servants; he had specified that all his parlourmaids must be over five foot ten; he had forbidden the workers to look directly at him while they installed electricity at Woburn.

Though one doesn’t seriously imagine that the 1959 duke would actually spend much time in the scullery, the two pictures nonetheless illustrate the breadth of the chasm between the old order and the new. ‘What the devil does one write about these days if one is a specialist in country houses and butlers, both of which have ceased to exist?’ complained P.G. Wodehouse in 1945.

Lucy Lethbridge finds a great deal to write about, all of it fascinating. The inevitable problem with such a mass of material is that enticing avenues open up, to remain only partially explored. I’d love to know more about Dr Barnardo’s model villages for training girls (‘each girl saved from a criminal course is a present to the next generation of a virtuous woman and a valuable servant’), or the ‘Runaway Mop Fairs’ where girls were hired on the simple basis of ‘Can you wash, can you bake, can you scrub?’ or the ‘scores’ of deferential post second-world-war workers from St Helena, who travelled to Britain to escape destitution after the closure of the island’s flax mill. They gladly took the menial jobs now scorned by most British workers, until, in 1961, the Union-Castle shipping line cut out passenger calls at St Helena, leaving the islanders ‘as captive as Napoleon’.


And then there was the marvellous Gertie Maclean, who founded Universal Aunts (which in turn gave rise to Meals on Wheels) in response to postwar changes in domestic need. Gertie wrote thumbnail sketches of her ‘Aunts’, each of which could be the starting point for a novel. Elizabeth Pratt-Steed was a ‘Disciplinarian. Firm without being brutal. Can converse on physics, spiritualism or foreign missions.’ Hyacinth Plummer was willing to muck in with Snakes and Ladders or Halma, but her necklines were too low — ‘a modesty vest’ would enhance her employability, Gertie felt. Pansy Trubshawe understood cricket and foreign stamps, ‘but not much else’.

The Duke of Bedford’s strictures about the height of his parlourmaids might sound like the last rumblings of patrician eccentricity, but the value of servants was calculated according to their physical characteristics, including height. A six-foot Edwardian footman could earn £10 a year more than a shorter one. According to one employer:

A parlourmaid must have long arms in order to reach things on the table, and a housemaid should also be tall, else how can she put the linen away on the top shelves and wash the looking-glasses in the drawing room?

Lethbridge is very good at showing how this view of servants as human machines affected individuals. She explores every detail of the physical experience of service, from chapped hands, to degrading uniforms, to living off lard and herrings while propping up roasted rabbits for dinner parties ‘to look as if they were standing on their hind legs with their ears up’, to bad odours in poorly ventilated kitchens. Town kitchens were usually in basements, country kitchens faced north. This kept food cooler in the days before refrigeration, but it meant that the servants who spent 15 hours a day in them were deprived of daylight.

Mrs Panton, in Hints for Young Housekeepers, advised that servants’ bedrooms should be ‘merely places where they lie down to sleep as heavily as they can’; prettiness and comfort were wasted on them. No wonder Joyce Storey, a bright working-class girl, whose hopes of a better life were crushed by 1920s unemployment, ‘swore a terrible oath’ as she scrubbed her employer’s coal cellar:

This is the last time in my entire bloody life I will ever be on my knees with my nose to the ground, for I belong up there with my eyes to the light, and walking upright and tall.

In 1911, 800,000 families employed staff. Lethbridge is just as interested in the struggling households with a single skivvy as in establishments like Blenheim, which were beyond parody. Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, brought her knitting to the dining table to alleviate the boredom of tête-a-têtes with her silent husband, who insisted that meals be served by a staff of eight and that each course consist of 17 choices.The butler poured all the leftovers into one huge bowl for ‘the Poor’, pudding, bones, soup, all mixed together. In grand establishments, servants entered without knocking because they were ‘invisible’; there were hidden doorways on landings or behind false bookcases so that maids could literally disappear.

But Lethbridge is even-handed, and cites examples of servants who loved both their work and their employers. She quotes extensively from the diaries of Alice Osbourn, housekeeper to an upper-middle-class family. Alice has great fun with ‘Daph’, the young lady of the house, who writes to her as ‘Dear old Onion’ and treats her as an equal — almost.

The general mucking-in required by second-world-war deprivations brought employers and servants closer; the fictional Mrs Miniver’s belief that ‘the mechanics of life should not be allowed to interfere with living’ proved unsustainable. Post-war, some found the redrawn social boundaries hard to negotiate. Mont Abbott, an Oxfordshire shepherd, tells of an awkward encounter with his elderly aristocratic employer, who invited him in for ‘whisky from a crystal glass’. ‘She set me next to a posh silver ornament with polished rams’ horns “so you’ll feel at home”.’This had the opposite effect: ‘I were wanting to get back to my flock.’

Lethbridge enables us to hear the voices of her subjects; she skilfully interweaves written and oral testimony. Sometimes she leaves assertions unexamined. It isn’t credible, for instance, that Churchill, with his adventurous soldier past, was ‘unable to dress himself’; if he expected his valet to dress him, it would have been for a reason, and one which it would be interesting to know. When she states that there were as many domestics in London in 2011 as there were in the 19th century, does she mean that the total is numerically the same, or is she talking about the proportion in relation to the rest of the population? This recent rise in demand for servants is an interesting and important subject which she isn’t able to explore in any depth. But this book is empathetic, wide-ranging and well-written; it will enthrall many readers.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close