Skip to content

Servants: The True Story Of Life Below Stairs: 1/3 – Knowing Your Place

02/09/2019

My great aunts were in domestic service from the 1890s thought to the 1940s and 1950s, they were according to my memories well treated by their employers. I cannot recall any of them ever speaking ill of their employers. However, they were employed by the nobility and not the middle class, did that make a difference?

Fascinating series whatever your views

BBC website

Dr Pamela Cox looks at the grand houses of the Victorian ruling elite – large country estates dependent on an army of staff toiling away below stairs.

The Victorians ushered in a new ideal of servitude – where loyal, selfless servants were depersonalised stereotypes with standardised uniforms, hairstyles and even generic names denoting position. In the immaculately preserved rooms of Erddig in North Wales, portraits of servants like loyal housekeeper Mrs Webster hint at an affectionate relationship between family and servants, but the reality for most was quite different.

In other stately homes, hidden passages kept servants separate from the family. Anonymity, invisibility and segregation were a crucial part of their gruelling job – and the strict servant hierarchy even kept them segregated from each other.

Michael Pilgrim had a 2012  review at The Telegraph which started thusly:

The prodigious 19th-century letter writer Jane Carlyle had a frightful time with her servants. She went through 34 in 32 years. Hardly surprising since they were that breed of hired help known as the maid of all work, the sole domestic in a middle-class household.

One such, Mary, had the misfortune to give birth in a back room of Jane’s Chelsea house. Feet away, Jane’s husband Thomas Carlyle was busy taking after-dinner tea, the great essayist seemingly unperturbed.

This was not good. As Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs (BBC Two) explained, Mrs Carlyle was seen to have failed to keep her employee on the path to righteousness. There was no choice. Mary had to go.

Servants was presented by the academic Dr Pamela Cox. Given that Cox’s grandmothers were in service and that she teaches at Essex – a university not renowned for its right-leaning views – one might have expected a rant. Certainly, the picture painted was far from the gentle Farrow & Ball ambience of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, but it was not without affection. MORE AT LINK

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: