Life of a Servant | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Exploring The Daily Lives of Servants Using Our Newspapers

Just after the turn of the nineteenth century in 1901 1.5 million people across the United Kingdom worked as domestic servants. That’s 4% of the population engaged in domestic service, as butlers, footmen, valets, housemaids, cooks, scullery maids and the like.

From left to right: a hall porter, a kitchen maid and a footman | The Tatler | 11 January 1911

And so, as part of our investigation of the history of employment this month, in this special blog we are going to take a look at what it was like for those who worked in domestic service in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Using advertisements, first hand accounts, and newspaper correspondence from the titles in our Archive, we will find out more about the day to day lives of servants, their responsibilities, their hardships and their relationships with those who employed them.

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The Housemaid

Without further ado, we start with the role of the housemaid. The first thing you might notice when searching for different servants’ roles in The Archive are the raft of adverts with which you are confronted. A full page might be given over to households searching for a new maid, or maids searching for a new position.

Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser, Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette | 10 September 1892

Take, for example, these advertisements from the Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser from September 1892:

GENERAL SERVANT (about 18); comfortable home; no children; good character – Mrs. Robson, 16 Jenner-road, Stoke Newington.

HOUSE-PARLOURMAID – Wanted, a respectable young woman, as above; not under 22 years of age; three in family; wages to commence at £14 or £15 – Apply by letter to Mrs. R., 26, Heathfield-park, Willesden Green, London, N.W.

What might strike us today is the specificity of these adverts: applicants must be a certain age, either 18 in the general servant’s case, or above 22 in the house parlourmaid’s case, something we would rarely see in the job adverts of today.

A maid at work | Penny Illustrated Paper | 5 October 1901

But what about the women who were answering such advertisements? We found an interesting first hand account from a domestic servant writing in 1906 about ‘The Irish Servant’ and the ‘Hardships of Their Lot,’ which was published in the Irish Independent. The writer, from a middle class family, had fallen on hard times when her sea captain father had died, and her mother had passed away soon after. She was forced into domestic service, starting as a nursery maid in a doctor’s family, for which she was paid £5 a year.

Despite the kindness of her employers, she was tempted by a newspaper advertisement for a parlourmaid, ‘one who can sew preferred.’ This position paid £9 a year, and she was duly accepted for the role. But things did not work out for her, as she writes how:

With the master and mistress I got on fairly well, but two of the sons were out and out cads, and the daughters were overdressed dolls. They always were making me feel my position. I stood this for three months, until one day one of the sons, in my presence and hearing, made a coarse, disgusting jest to his brother, and I knew it was meant to be personal to myself. Straight away I gave notice, and left within the fortnight.

Degraded, and thus abused, the writer went on to try other positions, as a waitress for example, but she never forgot her three month spell as a house parlourmaid.

Marie Lohr as a housemaid named Smith in the Somerset Maugham play ‘Smith’ | The Tatler | 3 November 1909

But what sort of duties did a house parlourmaid, or housemaid, have to perform? We found an extensive account of the type of duties housemaids were expected to perform in the Dundee Evening Telegraph. This formed part of the paper’s  ‘Ladies’ Letter’ in June 1904, which was edited by Marguerite. First, Marguerite begins by outlining the responsibilities of the head housemaid:

In establishments where there are two or more housemaids, the head maid is responsible for her subordinates. She arranges their work and sees that they do it. She has charge of the bed linen, and sees that the bedroom quilts, curtains, chair covers, &c, are kept in proper condition; that the writing-tables are attended to, and that the flowers are fresh.

If there was a housekeeper also employed, she would then give the head housemaid her ‘orders,’ whilst supervising ‘the keeping of the linen.’ The head housemaid would also be expected ‘to wait on visitors and do the lighter housework,’ with her ‘underlings,’ as the Dundee Evening Telegraph so delicately describes them, undertaking heavier household chores. And so, the average housemaid would be expected to ‘do the grates, scrubbing, polishing,’ as well as sewing tasks, mending ‘all house linen, [and] bedroom curtains.’

A maid carries a bucket of coal | Penny Illustrated Paper | 23 February 1907

It is important not to underestimate the caveat of ‘one who can sew preferred’ in respects of a housemaid; the Dundee Evening Telegraph also expecting her ‘to make muslin blinds, splashers, and other odds-and-ends for the bedrooms.’ Meanwhile, the housemaid would be expected to ‘pack and unpack’ for lady visitors without maids, with ‘the head housemaid waiting on the most important visitors, the second maid on the younger women or girls.’

The life of a housemaid was a tough one, involving a high amount of multitasking. The advertisers for the remedy ‘Phoserfine’ spotted this (they also targeted lamplighters, as seen in our blog on unusual and lost professions from the past), the copy of an advert in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer from June 1903 reading:

The busy housemaid, whose numberless duties always seem to require attention at one and the same moment, sometimes, not unnaturally, becomes harassed and careworn under the responsibility and unvarying monotony of her work, and develops what the Great Specialists in Nervous Disorders describe as ‘HOUSE NERVES.’

But ‘Phoserfine’ was on hand to remedy such nerves, one satisfied customer in the form of Miss F. Dash, who worked near Baker Street, recounting how:

For a considerable time I have used Phosferine as a tonic with capital effect. As an aid to digestion and for removing feelings of weariness I consider it more valuable than any medicine…

The Butler

Some servants, however, enjoyed a greater degree of privilege, and were not called upon to perform menial tasks of cleaning grates, or sewing curtains. Chief amongst the servants was the butler, who would head up the male servants, just like the housekeeper would have charge of the maids beneath her.

Cartoon of a butler | The Tatler | 28 November 1906

Woman’s publication The Queen in October 1887 gives a detailed account of the duties that a butler was expected to perform, and details the origins of the word itself, from ‘botteller, one who has to do with bottles.’ For, as the article relates:

The real duties of the butler are, of course, primarily connected with the cellars, the nature and quality of wines and spirits, and the management of the same. He should be fully competent, if called upon to do so, to advise his employer as to the price, quality, quantity, and nature of any wine which it is advisable to lay in stock, and should understand the best modes of fining, bottling, corking, and sealing wines, before they go into the bins.

So the butler should ‘be an educated man,’ educated about wine but also so that he could ‘transact business for his employers, pay wages and bills, and keep his own accounts in good order.’ His position as chief of the domestic staff meant that other servants would ‘refer to him for all instructions and defer to his authority on everything,’ especially if there was no housekeeper employed in the household.

The butler (accompanied by a footman) examines the table settings | Illustrated London News | 19 August 1882

But what other responsibilities did the butler have? The Queen relates how:

The butler waits at breakfast with one or more footmen to assist him, according to the number of male servants kept. He removes all covers, and himself hands everything in the shape of toast, muffins, fruit &c. When the meal is over, it is the butler’s business to remove the china and silver, which latter is his especial care.

He then was expected to serve at ‘luncheon,’ where he ‘generally waits alone,’ before again attending to the family at dinner. It is the butler who would ‘place all ornaments upon the table,’ including the silverware, deciding ‘what glass and china shall be used.’ And at dinner, the butler would be situated ‘behind his master’s chair, slightly to the left side, so that he may be in readiness to remove the covers as soon as grace has been said.’

A butler (left) delivers a message | Illustrated London News | 24 September 1898

The butler’s duties would occupy him right up until late in the evening, The Queen describing how:

Before going to bed, he counts over and locks up all the plate, shuts all the outer doors and windows, and makes sure that the fires are in a safe condition.

On top of all of this, the butler would have care of a household’s smoking room and billiard room, meanwhile answering the ‘front door bell to all carriage-folk,’ and bringing ‘his mistress all messages, cards, and letters.’ The butler’s role may not have been a menial one, but it still involved a great deal of work.

The Manservant

The butler would reach his position having perhaps worked as a valet or a footman, and we found examples of such manservants advertising themselves in the pages of our newspapers. These examples are taken from The Globe, May 1910, under the heading ‘Butler-Valets:’

‘W,’  5ft 9, good appearance, abstainer; would act as valet attendant, experienced and trustworthy; aged 36, 11 years reference, £60

‘K,’ 38, 5ft 7, hunting and shooting things, smart appearance, thoroughly experienced; 15 month’s reference, £60

Globe | 31 May 1910

What is noticeable here is that these potential valets or butlers give their heights, and describe their appearance as ‘good’ or ‘smart.’ This emphasis on appearance was important for employers, whose selection of manservants would convey a certain aesthetic. These adverts also differ from how women would advertise themselves as maids:

GENERAL SERVANT; age seventeen; of neat, clean appearance; can do housework and a little plain cooking; one month and twelve months’ previous character, wages £8 to £10. Mary T.

GENERAL SERVANT; aged sixteen, can do plain cooking; does not object to children; tall, neat appearance, six months’ and nine months’ character; wages £9. Alice B.

A footman and a maid | The Tatler | 8 December 1926

These examples are taken from the Weekly Dispatch (London), July 1885, and appear much more timid in tone, from a ‘little plain cooking’ to the strident ‘hunting and shooting things,’ whatever that exactly means. But still, Mary and Alice stress their ‘neat appearance,’ Alice noting furthermore her height, again signalling the importance of how one’s servants should look.

But what of the daily life of a manservant? We found an article in the Belfast Telegraph from March 1872 entitled ‘Revelations in the Life of a Servant.’ This particular servant was ‘about thirty years of age,’ and had ‘passed through no fewer than thirty houses during his fifteen years’ experience of servant life.’ The article relates how ‘he had served terms with a French banker, an operatic singer, and undertaker, a rich country gentleman, an opulent Liverpool merchant,’ and he was then asked:

‘Who was the most liberal?’
‘The singer.’
‘And the most stingy?’
‘The banker.’
‘And the kindest?’
‘The undertake

Mr. Norton as the footmen in play ‘Beachy Head’ | The Tatler | 25 September 1907

The jauntiness of this little piece, where the manservant advises his interviewer to ‘imitate, and even exaggerate your master’s defects and qualities, and try to become as perfect a copy as him as possible,’ for he ‘will be very pleased to see a counterpart of himself,’ is in direct contrast with the experience of our Irish servant in 1906, and indeed, with that of the general servant.

The General Servant

Men were not expected, usually, to be general servants. General servants were often the only servant employed by a household, and were expected to cook and to clean, amongst other duties. Here are some adverts for the role of general servant, from the Weekly Dispatch in 1885:

GENERAL SERVANT WANTED; aged sixteen; three in family; must be clean, have good character, and be steady; very easy situation; wanted at once; must be of respectable parents and well brought up; a very nice situation and treated with kindness; wages £7 to £8, with rise.

GENERAL SERVANT WANTED, age twenty; strong; no cooking but vegetables; large family; wages £12.

The demands here are fascinating, the first requesting that the applicant be of ‘respectable parents and well brought up,’ but offering a kind family in return, the second, demanding strength and the opportunity to just cook vegetables.

A general domestic servant makes tea | 23 February 1907

The life, however, of general servant, was notoriously hard, and often led to a high turnover. Promises of kind families and easy situations were prevalent in the advertisements of the day, no doubt intended to entice potential servants into applying, on the hope that this situation would be better than their last.

Our servant, writing in the Irish Independent in 1906, outlines the duties expected to be performed by a single general servant in a household for £9 a year:

She is to cook, slush, and butler; she has to up for the milk in the morning, clean the brasses, wash the steps, light the fires, clean the hall and dining room, lay the table, get the breakfast, have the kitchen clean, answer all the knocks in the meantime, and have herself tidy to serve the breakfasts, and have all boots polished by that time.

These were just her early morning duties! For afterwards:

All day long she is kept going making up bedrooms, brushing down the stairs, answering knocks at the doors, and going on messages. In addition to this, she must see to the fires, get meals ready, and rush up and down stairs at the beck and call of her mistress and others. Before going to bed she has to clear out the kitchen range, blacklead and polish it, and sometimes she must stay up late ironing.

A general domestic servant sharpens knives | Penny Illustrated Paper | 23 February 1907

The writer also gives a fascinating account of the meals a general servant in early twentieth century Ireland might expect:

 Breakfast – Tea, cheap brand, 1s 4d per 1lb, bread and margarine. Dinner – Butcher’s scraps and potatoes or such like. Tea – Tea, bread and margarine, or cheap jam. Once a week, perhaps, we might get an egg. It is the exception to the rule for the girl to get anything like the same meals as the family.

It was no doubt, at least in the writer’s mind, as to why so many young Irish girls were emigrating, spurred to do so by ‘bad mistresses, bullying, interfering masters, small wages, long hours and indifferent wages.’

And some twenty years later, not much had changed. A general domestic servant wrote to the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer in November 1925 addressing the ‘Conditions of Domestic Service,’ and detailed the duties of her day:

 I get up at 6.30 a.m. and as it is a fairly large house and six in family I am kept busy most of the day – at which I do not complain. At night when other classes of girls have finished work, I have to cook and lay the supper, clear away, and wash up, turn down beds, fill hot water bottles, get up coals and sticks for morning, and lots of other jobs. It is then bedtime. When it is my so-called free time I have to leave the supper, etc, all ready before I go out, and clear it away and wash up when I come home.

Janet Gaynor plays a general domestic servant in ‘Servants’ Entrance’ | The Sketch | 26 September 1934

By the 1920s there were more roles outside of domestic service available to women, but as our letter writer states:

The work is there, and it has to be done. People have to eat, and the house has to be kept in order, and until some clever person finds a way for household tasks to be done by magic, the domestic questions will remain unresolved.

But there was little doubt, the life of a domestic servant, and particularly of a general domestic servant was a hard one, although more modern day television series like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are guilty of romanticising the work. This was certainly the opinion of 76-year-old Mrs Mary Pedder, who was interviewed by the Fulham Chronicle in September 1973 on the occasion of her golden wedding anniversary.

Janet Gaynor as general domestic servant ‘Hedda’ in ‘Servants’ Entrance’ | The Sketch | 26 September 1934

Mary had worked as a housemaid, and told the newspaper that ‘It wasn’t like the TV shows it,’ referring to Upstairs Downstairs, which was popular at that time. Mary was born in County Durham, and related how you had ‘to work really hard in those days.’ She moved to London in the 1920s and worked at a fashionable hotel as a chambermaid, where she once saw the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.

Top tip: Our newspapers are a treasure trove of first hand accounts, and sometimes these are retrospective ones like Mary’s. So don’t forget to include in your search some of our more modern papers.

The Servant Question

The conditions under which servants had to work naturally led to the high turnover of those employed in domestic service. This issue was dubbed ‘The Servant Question’ and it became one of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century’s hot topics of debate. As the Blackburn Standard scathingly writes in April 1899, ‘Like the rain and the poor, the ‘servant question’ is ever with us.’

Penny Illustrated Paper | 18 May 1895

Indeed, Alicia, writing for the Daily News (London) in November 1907 complains how ‘at the moment being without a cook touches us more nearly than being without the vote.’

Several solutions, however, were put forward to resolve the so-called ‘Servant Question.’ One such idea was included by the Blackburn Standard, which proposed that:

…our housemaids, cooks, generals &c, should form themselves into a…association, and then let themselves out by the hour, day, week, month or year to those long enduring housewives who need their help so badly.

But the writer for the Blackburn Standard in April 1899 was not convinced by this idea:

We are afraid the suggestion will hardly recommend itself. The domestic servant is like the journalist; she must be always ‘on the spot,’ if she is to be of real use. Her leisure time cannot be laid down by time-table but must be found between events.

The Sketch | 16 November 1910

With such an attitude towards servants there was little wonder as to why the ‘Servant Question’ existed. Alicia, meanwhile, for the Daily News (London) in November 1907 observed a current trend in combatting the servant issue:

Some women, tired with the incessant worry and friction attending changing servants – a condition for many mistresses of a home seems a normal one – are tempted to cut the knot for good and all, and seek in a flat to reduce the minimum of trouble in keeping one servant – that is, if lucky enough to keep one.

But getting a flat, at least in Alicia’s mind, was no solution, for ‘flat life for a general servant is deadly dull, and it is not very surprising that girls constantly object to its loneliness and monotony.’ Meanwhile, the Northern Scot and Moray & Nairn Express stepped in with a novel idea from Mrs H.H. Longman in October 1905. Mrs Longman had written ‘several interesting articles’ on the ‘Servant Question,’ and she stated:

Personally, I have never been troubled by the ‘servant question,’ and I think it is because I have learned to treat my servants like human beings – indeed, like friends as soon as I know them.

Penny Illustrated Paper | 29 May 1897

She instead suggested that the ‘Servant Question’ should be labelled the ‘Mistress Question,’ for it was perhaps the simple matter of treating domestic servants as people that would go some way to solving the problem.

We hope you enjoyed our look at the lives of servants using newspapers to be found on The Archive. What discoveries can you make? Begin your journey into the past here with us today, and don’t forget to let us know what stories you have found.


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