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

Bloomsbury, pp.385, £19.99, ISBN: 9780747590170

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’.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated