The life of a servant: less Downton, more downtrodden

Butler with tray28 September 2012

Far from the rosy version of life downstairs seen in TV dramas, servant lives a century ago consisted of backbreaking work, long hours, low pay and often complete segregation from their superiors.

"Cultural representations of classic forms of service from the 1960s on have tended to present a romantic or rosy view," says Dr Pamela Cox, Director of the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. She is presenting the BBC series Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, starting this evening.

"Domestic service in its classic form, with its distinctive uniforms, strict hierarchies and highly detailed codes of practice, was a Victorian invention," she explains.

"Domestic work had been organised differently before this, and was organised differently after the slow collapse of this model after the Second World War."

In her book Bad Girls in Britain, originally based on an ESRC-funded PhD thesis, Dr Cox has detailed how thousands of 'wayward' girls were sent to reform homes and trained as domestic servants between the 1840s and 1940s.

The TV series uses the Erddig estate, near Wrexham in north Wales, as one of many examples of how it actually was to live the life of a servant. Despite being a modest estate, on a weekly basis it consumed three tons of coals (in 50 fireplaces), 300 gallons of water (which all had to be transported), and two tons of laundry. Laundry maids had to go through up to 600 items a week – and not 'merely' scrubbing and rinsing, but mangling, drying, starching and ironing.

The kitchen staff also had their work cut out. Every day they had to provide four meals for 30 people, while they often had to contend with the leftovers.

A typical working day ran to 17 hours, with little time off.

But even though servants were an indispensable part of elite and middle class life, many were strictly segregated and were not expected to be seen. Some stately homes even included hidden passages to spare the people upstairs the embarrassment of encountering servant staff.

Despite the hardship, there was fierce competition for servant positions in the late 19th century.

"'Respectable' employment opportunities for working class women and girls were becoming more limited at that time. Service was seen as respectable – for many it was more respectable than new-style factory work or old-style farm labouring - and was also reasonably secure. Agricultural depressions also forced many to seek work in towns as servants," Dr Cox explains.

"What's interesting, though, is that in the early 20th century service loses whatever shine it had had. It becomes associated with 'skivvying', and working class girls try to avoid it if they possibly can."

Attitudes were also changing regarding privacy and personal space. The requirement of servants to be on duty all hours were increasingly seen as unreasonable.

As better job opportunities in shops and offices appeared and domestic work itself was transformed by technological innovations, the era of upstairs and downstairs drew to a close.

Dr Cox says, "Obviously, that raises the further question of how the work was done after that. Broadly speaking, more of it was taken on by unpaid housewives and daughters, and some of it was still done by low-paid staff casually employed as 'dailies' rather than live-in servants."

But without servants, the stately homes and high society of Britain a hundred years ago would simply not have been possible.

"Service was vital to the social reproduction of labour and class power," Dr Cox points out.

"Middle class enterprise was one of the main engines of economic growth. Middle class household structure and reputation was inseparable from that enterprise - and servants were, in turn, vital to the maintenance of those household structures and reputations."