Not in Front of the Servants: Domestic service in England 1850-1939 – Frank Dawes (1973)

A fairly short read but packed with information from people who actually were in service during this time period. Dawes is a London journalist and he has pulled together a brief
collection of interviews and letters about life in domestic service, whether as an employer of those who were servants or as a servant in one of its many hierarchies.

Dawes covers everything from how scratchy and expensive it was to wear and keep a uniform in tip-top shape, to how long the day was for many servants and how young and miserable some of the youngest ones were. It’s a far call from life today, but really it’s not that long ago if you think about. Servants were still around (although in diminshed numbers) right up to the beginning of WWII, but once that had come and gone, women young and old realized that there were other better (and easier) choices to earn a living.

However, that is not to say that it was all doom and gloom and red raw hands from scrubbing the floors (although it was a lot of that). Dawes reports that servants still could have fun on occasion (when they were not too tired from carrying great big coal scuttles up five sets of stairs). An interesting look at times past, but not too sanitized with the flurry of nostalgia. Life as a servant could be very hard, very tiring and with little reward. But when a young girl (or her parents) were faced with the alternatives (workhouse or perhaps being on the streets), being a scullery maid meant a roof over your head and three meals a day which was sometimes more than they had at home.

This book reminded me of the BBC production of the Edwardian house when a group of twenty-first century people signed up to live for several months in a set up identical to that of how a wealthy Edwardian family would live. There was the Upstairs family (i.e. the home owners) who, of course, loved their roles and had no trouble staying or
keeping their roles going. Then at the bottom of the hierarchy was the scullery maid, again a 21st century young woman who *hated* every minute of it as she spent hours with her hands in greasy cool water washing pots and pans. However, in this scenariio, everyone was just roleplaying and was free at any time to resign and return to their comfortable modern lives. This was not a choice available to most servants, so it makes it even more interesting to me. How bad did it have to get before you resign as a scullery or parlour maid?

Another point that was interesting was the house owners (the rich Upstairs family) rationalized their judgemental manner by believing that this was the way it was supposed to be, and by using particular quotations from the Bible (very religious were the Victorians) to justify it.  Servants *wanted* to be servants – they wouldn’t know how to be any other way (which, of course, is a load of clap trap)…

A thoughtful book about life above and below the stairs during the Victorian and Edwardian times. It’s also adding to my experience of watching the LWT’s 1970’s series of “Upstairs, Downstairs” right now. It seems that they were pretty accurate in their details.

Oh, and all this talk of cleaning made me get around to shining the silver candlesticks.

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