Michelle Higgs is a freelance feature writer, copywriter and author who has written a number of books on social history, particularly around the Victorian era. In late September, Michelle’s latest book Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in Their Own Words will be released. It’s a collection of oral histories, memoirs and biographies from servants covering the period 1800 to 1950, and it includes some great articles found in the British Newspaper Archive. Michelle has kindly contributed this guest blog to showcase some of the fascinating finds she made in the Archive. Find out more about Michelle’s new book here.
Imagine if you were a domestic servant in the nineteenth century and you were unhappy about your working hours, your lack of time off or how you were treated by your employer. You could not complain to your master or mistress for fear of instant dismissal without a ‘character’ (a written reference). Without this, it would be extremely difficult to get another place in domestic service.
One way servants could – and did – vent their frustrations and anger was through the correspondence columns of national and provincial newspapers. Here, they could air their complaints publicly without fear of reprisal, using pseudonyms to protect their identities. These letters are frequently well argued, intelligent and heart-felt, and demonstrate a high level of literacy, indicative of increasing access to education.
In 1892, the Western Mail (29 November) printed a request from ‘A Servant’ of Swansea for ‘protection against tyrannous mistresses’:
The Swansea woman’s letter is typical of those written by servants to protest against ill-treatment. Her appeal struck a chord with other maids and over the following seven days or so, they wrote to the Western Mail listing their own issues with their employers. ‘A Poor Servant in Pembrokeshire’ likened their treatment to being worse than that given to pet animals:
The lack of trust between mistress and maid was a contentious issue and was frequently the cause of stormy relationships in middle-class homes across Britain. Employers also wrote in to the Western Mail to have their say. ‘A Mistress’ of Park-place, Cardiff lamented that servants were not as ‘honest and industrious’ as they used to be:
The letter from ‘A Mistress’ prompted an impassioned reply from ‘A Servant’ of Newport, who pointed out that many mistresses had been domestics themselves:
It was not just maids who voiced their opinions. A butler with 17 years’ experience also wrote in to defend the honesty of female servants:
Unlike some newspapers, the Western Mail appears to have been quite sympathetic to servants as a stream of further letters from maids were published from 14 December:
Many of these letters called for a new servants’ union to be set up. Several of these organisations were, in fact, founded but they could not bring about change regarding working hours as the shop assistants’ union had done. This was because domestic service was based on a contract between two individuals (mistress and maid) and conditions were different in every single household.
Michelle Higgs is the author of Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950 (Pen & Sword, 2015).
Her blog is at http://servantsstories.blogspot.co.uk and you can also follow her on Twitter (@michellehiggs11).