To understand the role played in British life by servants, consider a statistic. On the eve of the First World War, in that golden Edwardian era of legend (Edward VII had died in 1910, but the epoch outlived him), over one-and-a-half million Britons were engaged in domestic service. That is, three-and-a-half per cent of the population – more than were engaged in any single other type of work, and twice as many as belonged to the army.
For these servants, that golden era was anything but. The nostalgically celebrated joys of that time were largely confined to those they served. If you were employed in one of the great houses of Sussex, then it is improbable your existence reflected anything seen on our screens in the television age, which has coincided with the passing of domestic service as a feature of national life. The relatively light and dainty duties depicted in Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs would have seemed paradisiacal to workers rising in the small hours and retiring close to midnight; and in between, engaged in the drudgery of labouring, by hand, to launder linen, shovel coal, fetch water and peel potatoes by – literally – the ton. Of the many luxuries denied to a servant, time was perhaps the most desirable.
Why did anybody do it at all? Because the alternatives were less appealing still. Agriculture or industry made for even harder lives. In service, one was sheltered and fed. Of all the great changes wrought by The Great War, few would be more momentous than its inadvertent opening up of opportunities for the working-class women from whose ranks the bulk of domestic servants were drawn.
Not that service was entirely without its opportunities for advancement. The writer, HG Wells, for instance, lived in grand surroundings not by dint of noble birth, but because his mother, Sarah, had been successively a housemaid at a great house, then its housekeeper. There, she had met his father, Joseph, then a gardener, and by marrying him had taken one of the very routes out of service available to a woman in her job. To leave, one must wed; yet to wed, one must have suitors, and often these were forbidden. We are well familiar, from film and television, with the quaint picture of stolen kisses and furtive romance “below stairs.” (The idea of separate servants’ quarters emerged only in the Victorian era, when privacy became the privilege of the grand.) But this furtiveness was forced upon the servants by circumstance, and to them, there was nothing quaint about it. It represented not only the hope of love, but of escape.
More than just undertaking (laborious) duties, many servants were obliged to perform a ceremonial role – to be objects of ostentatious display, signifiers of wealth; human status symbols, in short. Or not so short, if you were among the parlour maids whom one member of the nobility insisted must stand no shorter than five feet and ten inches. Similarly, footmen were hired – it is not too great a stretch to say acquired – in matching pairs. A first and second footman who might pass for twins commanded higher salaries than those whose appearance was displeasingly varied. To be a servant, then, was not merely to be an employee, but to be a kind of possession – part of an ornamental collection combining form and function.
Between the dissolution of the monasteries and the arrival in the 1920s of the school which now occupies the former Abbot’s House, Battle Abbey near Hastings served as private residence. The pinnacle of its status as a great house came under the tenures of the Duchess of Cleveland, and subsequently, Sir Augustus Webster, 8th Baronet in a line that had previously owned the property, and bought it back after the Duchess died. He and his carpet heiress wife Mabel were the last private owners to reside there.
In this period, the domestic staff would have been extensive, and ordered in a strict hierarchy. At the top came the Land Steward and the House Steward, both professional men, and not considered to be of the servant class. The former was effectively a chief operating officer, the latter a human resources executive. Then came the upper staff: the Butler, of course, at the top, grandest of all the servants (in lesser estates, he might perform the house steward’s role); the Housekeeper, his nearest female equivalent, in charge of female staff and – plus ça change – paid somewhat less; the Cook, the quality of whose work was vital to the status of the house (think Anatole at PG Wodehouse’s fictional Brinkley Court), and who might consequently be paid more than the butler who outranked him; finally, the Lady’s Maid and the Valet. The upper staff could expect an annual salary range equivalent in today’s money to £2600-£4000 at the top, falling to half of that at the lower end. Even considering that food and housing were provided, this was hardly munificent.
The lower staff began with the First Footman and his junior, the Second Footman, whose principal job was, “To be tall, handsome and represent the estate’s grandeur.” These footmen did not undertake heavy duties, which typically fell to female staff. Plain old Footmen served beneath them. Then came a descending roster of those who did much of that heavy work: Chamber Maids and Parlour Maids (typically two of each), a House Maid, the Under Cook, Kitchen Maid, Scullery Maid, Laundry Maid, Groom and Stable Boy – the last of whom might be as young as ten, and paid as little as two hundred pounds a year in today’s money.
Outside the house worked those whose duties excluded them from the accepted hierarchy within it. The Head Gardener was considered upper staff, yet his rank was not among the upper servants. Still, he might be the best paid of all of them, because his skills were so vital to impressing the guests of the house, earning twice as much as even the butler – and anything up to fifteen times as much as the Grounds Keepers who worked beneath him. The Game Keeper’s job was maintaining the bird population of the estate – and, if DH Lawrence was to be believed, sexually servicing the lady of the house, although it is reasonable to think this was not ordinarily part of his duties. The Gate Keeper scarcely ranked as a servant at all, viewed as he was as more of an unskilled labourer. He often lived in a small house attached to the gate he guarded, and might be paid the equivalent of seven hundred pounds a year.
This was the world that would be diminished by the First World War, and swept away by the second. In its place came the agencies and visiting “lady-helps” which were the precursor to the professionalised domestic service industry we know today. It was a fabulous and glamorous world – if you were on the right side of it. If not, then our rosy view has disregarded just how tough and constrained a life you would have led.
Thanks to TV costume dramas, we all think we know what it was like to work in a grand house. But was this the reality? David Bennun explores the history of servants in Sussex