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Rob Hardy: A history of service


Rob Hardy



From Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” the English country house plays a role in the imagination as it has in English society and history. It is a role that has changed greatly over the centuries, as has the role of the servants who ran the places.  


As Jeremy Musson describes in “Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant” (John Murray), we seldom hear the word “servant” anymore, but “service” was what everyone used to do through the 16th century.  


Lords served the king, children served parents or went to the households of their parents’ contemporaries to serve. A carryover from the time is the closing of a letter, “Your obedient servant.” In medieval English, “servant” was used to mean someone who labored for a family and was lodged within its home. But “family” meant something else at the time, too, and covered everyone who lived in a household, taking on the meaning of mere kin during the 18th century.  


Such service signifies a particularly intimate relationship, often as fraught with difficulties as any family tie but often giving sustenance in both directions. The Earl of Northumberland wrote 400 years ago, “And in this I must truly testify for servants out of experience, that in all my fortunes good and bade, I have found them more reasonable than wyfe, brothers or friends.” Musson gives plenty of instances where the relationship did not go so well as that, but still the contributions of servants to the country houses through the centuries were an essential part of British history, and this is a lively and important volume to understand them and their places. 


One of the important changes over the centuries was the increasing participation of women as servants. Medieval and Tudor kitchens were staffed by men; this might be because the large-scale cooking required workers who could carry heavy utensils and food supplies. Household manuals of the time (Musson has consulted cookbooks and servants’ books through the centuries, and often provides quotations from them) warned that women would be a distraction to the men and for moral reasons should not be employed. By the 17th century a female housekeeper was essential, standing in for the lady of the household. Even so, the kitchen was still run by the clerk of the kitchen, who was always a man and was in charge for the purchase and receipt of supplies. A cookbook of 1684 mentions alarm at the fashion for French male cooks, who, as Musson says, “remain much in evidence for the next three centuries.” 


It was true in some cases, of course, that women were a distraction and a temptation. The great landowners wanted their servants to be unmarried. It would have been too much of an interruption from the long hours of work within the house to have a second household to run, or to have dependent children. A servant might get permission to marry and also dismissal at the same time. One landowner wrote when a servant resigned to marry, “You must be aware that you marrying is inconvenient to me besides being a bad precedent to the rest.” There were often sexual impositions by masters upon female staff (Musson reminds us to read Pepys), but sometimes there were fairy-tale ends to affairs.  


Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh had been a famous rake, but in 1825 he was 71 years old. That didn’t keep him from being transported when he heard a new dairymaid singing, and he proposed marriage on the spot. The girl was shocked, and Sir Harry calmed her by saying, “Don’t answer me now, but if you will have me, cut a slice out of the leg of mutton that is coming up for my dinner today.” It turns out that the cook was irritated at the adjustment of the mutton, but the dairymaid had him, and they were happy for the rest of his life.  


Darker was the story of Hannah Cullwick who had a curious relationship with Arthur Munby, a very proper Victorian barrister. They married in secret, but the marriage did not prosper. Despite that he had a kink for seeing Hannah in work clothes and her arms dirty or raw, he presumed to make a lady of her. She resented the attempt at change, and begged him to “please let me live as your servant and don’t bother me to be any thing else.” She was set in her own ways, writing, “For freedom and true lowliness, there’s nothing like being a maid of all work.”  


Far darker still was the tale of Lord Castlehaven. Some of the stories about him might have been spurred by financial vengeance, but it seems that he enjoyed sleeping with his footmen, and encouraged his wife to bed some of them as well. He might have arranged the rape of his wife by one of his manservants, and when there was a trial, it was found that servants had been sleeping with Castlehaven’s daughter and daughter-in-law, one of them marrying the daughter. The shenanigans ended with the hanging of Castlehaven and two footmen in 1631. 


Any household needs to get its cooking and cleaning work done, but upper English families had a particular need for footmen. In medieval and Tudor times, a footman was the insignificant servant who would run (hence the term for him) ahead of traveling nobles to announce their arrival or to run messages. By the 18th century, footmen were a sign of status, well dressed with powdered wigs, traveling at the back of the coach rather than running ahead. They were so important for show, and so derided by the public for the ostentatiousness of their post, that they were a target for a tax on male servants in 1777, a luxury tax to help pay for the war against the colonies. Footmen were visible, and were chosen for their looks, and continued to be so for a hundred or so years. Mrs. Beeton herself warned in 1861 that the lady of fashion who “chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape and tournure of his calf,” would get a servant who took wages (and anything else he could lay his hands on) without any attachment to the family.  


The wages for service are frequently addressed here. Musson has reviewed wage lists (as well as memoirs, letters and diaries) to make a picture of house service. Wages for especially the upper servants were supposed to be supplemented by tips (called “vails”) from guests who came to stay or dine. In fact, the expectations were often explicit, with a coachman’s place advertised in 1760 at “?10 per annum with ?6 in vails.” Not everyone thought this a good system, especially those who had to pay the vails. George III himself banished the acceptance of vails within his royal household, but this enraged the servants; the next time the king went to the theater, they hissed at him from the gallery where they could not be identified. H. G. Wells, whose mother was in service, remembered that a prince had visited Uppark, the house in which she worked, and gave a modest tip to the butler. “My mother was speechless with horror. That was a sovereign, a mere sovereign, such as you might get from any commoner!” 


A system of country house service which had changed through the centuries essentially vanished forever in the 20th. Workers had wider horizons by then, and girls could work in the shops, factories or offices. World War I sent 400,000 servants to the trenches or to the factories that supported the war, where they found that the work was often comparable and the bosses less intrusive. Increased taxes on the great estates, and a modern desire for privacy, reduced the number of servants. Sir Earnest Gowers, writing about the threats to national heritage in 1950, said, “There is not now the labour available for domestic service; there is not the desire to do it; and there is not the money to pay for it.” There is still a need for cooking and cleaning, but it is far less seldom done by live-in servants (and they are called “staff” now) than by firms that specialize in such services for hire. Some people still need a butler, but a director of a butler placement firm says, “Today, a butler is not so much about formal entertai


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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