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The True Story of Life Below Stairs

Updated on February 8, 2017

Staff Bells

A series of bells and pulleys were through out the house so the correct servant could be called to the correct room as needed.
A series of bells and pulleys were through out the house so the correct servant could be called to the correct room as needed. | Source

By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the system of servants in grand estates was well established. The fact that more individuals were employed in domestic service than in industry emphasizes the size of the servant population. The grand houses were built with the servant system in mind, separate entrances to the house, separate servant staircases and in some cases separate corridors were all included in the layout of the house. There was a well-known hierarchy within the servant structure which was emphasized in the way these houses were run. Many of the lower paid servants would wait on the servants above them, eating separately and answering to them rather than the mistress of the house. Everyone knew their place. Bells were used to summon servants to whichever part of the house they were needed and the codes of behavior were clear. With often 17 hour days cleaning, carrying water for cooking, cleaning and washing without modern technology made for an exhausting day.

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837- 1901. Her reign saw many advances in industry and technology which impacted the roles of servant in England and Wales.
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837- 1901. Her reign saw many advances in industry and technology which impacted the roles of servant in England and Wales. | Source

With the development of the British Empire and the advent of the industrial revolution, the role of the servant began to change. Many of the middle classes now found themselves in the position of being able to afford a servant and the employment of one became a symbol of wealth and class status. This meant more servants were moving to the big cities, such as London to look for work.

The Mistresses who found themselves in this position had very little knowledge of how to keep a servant, and many found it hard to hold on to their staff. The town homes were very different in their layout to the stately homes servants were used to, but the idea of separation continued. Servants were often expected to sleep in attics or basements with very little light and fresh air. They were often still expected to work long, physical hours and in many homes where only one maid was employed had to carry out the duties of several servants. In 1871 two-thirds of all servants were maids of all work, maids who did everything including, cooking, cleaning and anything else expected of them. The maid of works duties were never done and she lived a solitary, exhausting life. The advantage of this new demand for a servant, however, meant that the maid could leave and find other employment if they were not happy with the way they were treated.

In the 1880’s workers rights and some women’s movements began to develop, and this had an impact on domestic servants, they began to question their rights and treatment. The separate corridors, stairs and sleeping quarters that emphasized the class divide was beginning to be questioned. In the 1891 Census of England and Wales, the number of indoor servants was recorded as 1.38 million. In the 1911 Census, the figure dropped to 1.27 million. In theory, the number should have been growing, the population had expanded, the demand for servants had increased due to the expansion of the Middle Classes, so what had happened? Those seeking employment looked elsewhere. Industry progressed providing jobs for those willing to work and those jobs usually came with much more freedom than jobs in service.

Group of Children at Crumpsall Workhouse cira 1895

Group of pauper children at the workhouse would be trained in domestic service or a trade.
Group of pauper children at the workhouse would be trained in domestic service or a trade. | Source

How did the Middle Classes solve the servant crisis? The answer was the workhouse. The Christian values of the time focused on charity and helping those less fortunate. There were two trains of thought in how to approach this. One thought was that the best solution to the poverty problem was domestic service. Servants would be provided with food, shelter, and skills within the safety of the Middle-Class home.

The Workhouse was to become a ready-made servant factory. Children were trained in trades or domestic skills, including cooking, laundry, dressmaking, and cleaning. The stigma and environment of the workhouse was deemed unsuitable for children so between 1870 and 1890 a series of cottage homes were built so that children could live in a home environment. The demand for these ‘trained’ servants was high and it was not uncommon for employers to visit workhouses to recruit servants. Although the intentions for the training of the workhouse children was well meant, it did very little improve the lot for the servant. These servants were often the lowest paid members of staff. They worked long, exhausting days often from 5 am until 10 pm at night, filled with scrubbing, carrying and fetching.

The Balfour Act of 1902 extended the leaving age of Children to 12. This had an impact on employing child servants

Replica of a classroom at the end of the Victorian era
Replica of a classroom at the end of the Victorian era | Source

As Victoria’s reign came to an end the idea of servants was beginning to be questioned. A good example of this change was a series of events organized by Queen Alexandra in the early 1900s. One of these events was held at London Zoo, 10,000 maids of all work were given the afternoon off and treated to high tea served by high-class ladies and a box of chocolates with the queen’s portrait on the top. By holding this event, the Queen was showing her recognition to the maids and rewarding them for their service.

The Balfour Education Act of 1902 extended the leaving age to 12 and opened up secondary education to working class children. Literacy levels increased and the working classes wanted to better themselves. Girls particularly gravitated towards shop and office work, where the pay may not have been better, but the freedom was. The working classes were changing. The Edwardian culture was based on leisure and pleasure. Seaside resorts became popular leisure destinations, but for servants who had very limited time off this was not achievable.

For those that remained in domestic service, the face of the servant population was changing. By the 1901 census, male servants were outnumbered by female servants by nearly 20 ­– 1. Indoor service became the domain of women. A tax on male servants was introduced in 1777 to help pay for the American War of Independence. The introduction of the motor car removed the need for male staff to manage the horse and carriage form of transportation. In other parts of national life, the labor movement was changing. The Factory Act put in place regulations for workers, but this did not relate to domestic service. Servants began to demand equal rights to workers in other employment areas. More time off, a 12 hour day, access to fresh air, sunlight, specified meal times and the uniform to be provided by the employer are some of these demands. The workers union treated the issue of servant rights with ambiguity. Some men saw domestic service as too difficult to regulate as it was in private homes. It would be too complicated. Many members of the Suffragettes had maid servants of their own and were unsure how to implement their demands into their own lives.

By the end of the First World War the class system would be changed forever. The social world of the gentry – shooting, parties and grand dinners was not sustainable during war years. With many eligible men away at war, duties such as gamekeeper were either taken on by women or abandoned. The government actively encouraged women to ‘do their bit’ for the country. At the height of the war 30,000 women were employed in the munitions industry working up to 12 hours a day. Many servants took these jobs, war work offered regulated hours and conditions.

When war ended and the men returned, women were expected to return to their old jobs. For many that meant back into service and once again the issues of working conditions were raised. Several attempts were made to raise the profile for fair working conditions. One reformer, Julia Varley set up a Servant Union Club for all levels of servants. She developed a Servants Charter which included rights for servants to ensure they were treated with dignity and respect. She called for the right to food, rest, own bed and basic necessities such as bathroom access. Unfortunately Varleys Charter had limited success in part she believed due to the snobbery within the servant hierarchy.

By 1921 unemployment had doubled to 2 million. Unemployment benefits were introduced, but servants were not covered; still many refused to return to domestic service. This marked the beginnings of the ending of the servant class that worked to the demands of the Mistress. Thousands of young women continued to refuse to enter domestic service

Between the first and second world wars, the number of privately owned houses quadrupled. These lower middle-class families moved out to the suburbs in newly built semi-detached homes. These homeowners were looking for a different type of domestic help, often as a status symbol. The women who took positions in these homes were day servants. They would arrive early in the morning and leave in the evening. Homeowners were encouraged to purchase many labor saving devices to ease the burden of domestic workers and draw then to this area of employment. These houses held onto some of the values of Victorian employers, outdoor toilets and side entrances for the workers were often included in the homes and class conscious mistresses would never answer their own door.

The National Health Service Leaflet

The New National Health Service Leaflet
The New National Health Service Leaflet | Source

Eventually, technology began to replace many servants and employers had difficulty finding and keeping help. Servants demanded better conditions and rights and employers were powerless to change this new trend. Factories continued to absorb many of the young women who in the past had turned to service for employment. The introduction of the National Health Service did further damage to the availability of domestic servants. Women nurses were paid as they trained, they were guaranteed one day off a week and four paid weeks off per year. By the end of the second world war only 1% of households had live in servants and saw the end to grand style living.

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  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 7 months ago from Dallas, Texas

    Incredible insight into the past. Thanks for this bit of history. My grandmother worked in a boarding house as a servant when she came to this country.

  • Ruthbro profile image
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    Ruthbro 2 years ago from USA

    Thanks, it's amazing what they used to put up with,

  • Chris Neal profile image

    Chris Neal 2 years ago from Fishers, IN

    Very good overview, I learned several things I didn't know before! Thank you very much!

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