Monthly Archives: September 2012

BBC Programme: Servants – The True Story of Life Below Stairs

Servants in 1912 at Erddig, Wales (copyright Erddig Archives, National Trust)

According to a new three-part programme about real servant stories presented by Dr Pamela Cox, it was only a century ago that 1.5 million British people worked as indoor servants. This is estimated to be more than worked in factories or on farms. Given that the population of Britain (as England, Wales and Scotland) in 1911 was over 40.7 million, this does not seem a large number – about 3.7 % of the population in Britain. And yet, there will be few British people with family roots in the United Kingdom who do not have a servant ancestor. I have stumbled across at least 6 in my tree alone working as such in 1911.

Most of this information comes directly from the Census Enumerators’ Books. I spend a great deal of time carrying out family history searches – it’s part of the day job. So inevitably, I have to do searches of the census in order to track familial movement, growth, and occupations. Likewise, when researching a country house between 1841 and 1911, the censuses provide me with an idea of how far people have travelled to find work at ‘the big house’. What the BBC programme promises to do however, is focus on the nature of employment in both town and country from the 19th century to the Second World War. The first episode will concentrate on the Victorian elite in their country piles, but careful consideration will be made of those aspiring new mistresses in their middle-class homes who were eager to emulate household routines of the elite and become the best hostesses. Good servant references required loyalty, but with other modes of employment and indeed other houses from which work could be sought, servant mobility was greater than ever.

Some useful statistics.

Using 1911 as our guide, here are the numbers for servant employment, whether it be had in the country or town (including private residences, hotels, and lodging houses and type of work such as dressing, cleaning, cooking, driving, gardening, gamekeeping etc.).

In England and Wales

Male indoor domestic servants: 54, 260

Male outdoor domestic servants: 226, 266

Female indoor domestic servants: 1, 359, 359

Other service – males: 107, 151

Other service – females: 374,577                                      

Total: 2, 121, 613

In Scotland

Male indoor domestic servants: 3, 721

Male outdoor domestic servants: 23, 973 

Female domestic indoor servants: 135, 052  (In Edinburgh, female domestic servants constituted 5.3 per cent. of the entire population; in Aberdeen, 2.6 per cent.; in Glasgow, 2.1 per cent.; and in Dundee, 1.4 per cent.)

Total: 162, 746

There are many more themes to explore and the BBC is likely to deliver a great deal of them for its viewers and iPlayer addicts like myself. Population and occupational statistics are not for everyone! So be sure to discover more about daily routines, eating habits, clothing, attitudes to domestic service and the development of the modern-day ‘live-out’ servant role. Enjoy! I will return, no doubt, with a review in the not so distant future.

A selection of advertisements commonly found in 19th century newspapers, these are taken from the Birmingham Daily Post, 1880.

Links:

BBC Online Magazine and the new series http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19544309

Review of Servants – The True Story of Life Below Stairs, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9552656/Servants-The-True-Story-of-Life-Below-Stairs-BBC-Two-Preview.html#

A great place to start on the subject of census returns, where you will find statistics, travel writing, geographies and more, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/ (supported by the University of Portsmouth).

Family Tree Forum, with good quotes about 19th century servants http://www.lewcock.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=186&Itemid=0

19th century servants’ quarters in town and country http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-servants-quarters-in-19th-century-country-houses-like-downton-abbey/

Pittsburgh newspaper The Catholic Journal and its rules for domestics in the 19th century http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/useful-rules-for-servants-a-19th-century-guide-288851/

Leave a comment

Filed under Servants