Victorian Life Upstairs and Downstairs, the Servant Problem

by Dr Judy Hill

This article was published in the December 2023 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

This is a precis of the very enjoyable talk that was given by Dr Hill at our Annual Gathering in October.

In Britain throughout the nineteenth century and until the First World War domestic service was the largest single occupation of women. Large domestic staffs had, of course, characterised the great houses of the nobility for centuries. What was new in the nineteenth century was the growth of domestic service which paralleled the growth of middle classes. In addition the view was held that the employment of domestic staff was in itself a sign of respectability and an indicator of social status. A large family, the large over furnished house, lavish dinner parties and the economic ability to keep one’s wife in genteel idleness, were essential attributes of the institution of the Victorian middle class family. As a result there was the need to employ domestic servants on a large scale and there was a very strict hierarchy of servants and their duties.

As the nineteenth century progressed there was the separation of work from home, the withdrawal of women from labour and within the home the drawing of tighter boundaries around who was and who was not to be included in the family. These were fundamental features of the development of a middle-class ideal of respectable domesticity. Ideally servants were invisible to the family whose lives they maintained, keeping to the back rooms and stairs, sleeping in attics after working days as long as 17 hours.

Many advice manuals were published which focussed on the difficulties mistresses faced in enforcing deference, obedience honesty and industry among their servants. These books outlined exhaustive rules of conduct and exhausting schedules of housework designed to keep servants firmly in their place. Servants appeared to be guilty of so many crimes, there were:

Dishonest butlers who received commissions from tradesmen

Dishonest housekeepers falsifying kitchen accounts

Valets selling their masters clothing for a profit

The lady’s maid pilfering trinkets from her mistress

Flirtatious housemaids who often became prostitutes

Treacherous nursemaids who drugged their charges

Maids who read private correspondences, eavesdropped and gossiped

Hence the many manuals advised employers “Hire good servants and fire bad ones.” If servants did break the household rules it meant swift and often severe punishment. This could range from a “tongue lashing”, a fine for breakages and for a serious offence dismissal with no references. This was terrifying as it would mean servants would be incapable of finding work elsewhere.

Despite some misconduct and rule breaking by domestic staff it only involved a small minority of the vast servant army. Life of service was considered a proper and decently paid calling. A footman earned more than an agricultural worker and had his board and keep. Then there were perks. Often cooks got the leftover drippings and there were rabbit skins which she could sell. House guests left tips for the servants. Astute servants need not spend a penny, they could save all their wages. It must be remembered that service was not a last resort but a much sought after employment. Nor was it a marginal occupation, in 1911 a national census counted 1.3 million domestic servants against 1.2 million workers in agriculture and 971,000 in coal mining.