Review. Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, (BBC2) Episode 1/3

In the midst of moving house clutter, boxes, odds and ends etc., I found a spare bit of sofa and made time to watch the first episode of Servants: the True Story of Life below Stairs. Presented by Dr. Pamela Cox from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, this first programme of three explored the employment hierarchies, working conditions and contemporary attitudes towards servants during the 19th century to the turn of the 20th with emphasis on domestic structures between country and town.

Basement passage at Erddig, Wales, 1973 (National Trust)

We were immediately introduced to Erddig in Wales – the most obvious example of servant culture readily accessible through the UK National Trust. This was country house levels of servitude where servant numbers could be overwhelming, and the mistress of the house had to be adept at managing several departments every day. We caught glimpses of portraiture, photography and verse depicting and describing members of the household staff from housekeeper and butler to carpenter and lady’s maid. Of course Erddig is renowned for its servant portraiture, and the relationships maintained by the Yorke family with their staff from the 1780s have been well documented; a fact of which Cox seemed to have been made aware. Consequently, this visual material became the pivot with which we moved off into the less well documented world of servant lives.

However, Erddig is an unusual case study. It is a small country house with its own set of values and traditions. That the Yorke family preserved so much of their unique relationship with their staff for so long only highlights the eccentricities of that particular household. The dominant generalisation concerning the 19th century country house and its household suggests that servants were seldom seen and never heard. The family spouted orders to nameless shapes and merrily continued with their daily routine above stairs whilst the mechanics of the house ticked away below. And yet, Cox did stress the existence of this ideal both at Erddig and beyond.

Employers were the literate class in most cases. The Erddig poems and ‘jingling rhyming couplets’ about the staff are very one-sided.[1] But this is precisely where Servants and Dr Pamela Cox’s presentation filled a gap in national television schedules. This was an academic take on a subject which has become dramatised and treated with soap opera style editing complete with cliff-hangers and female actors with porcelain skin. The reams of material culture at Erddig are examples of what can be found at archives and libraries across the country. It may not be quite so revealing in its content, but search and you shall find threads of forgotten events and stories which easily bring many of these houses to life. And while it probably didn’t shed any new light on the subject for academics, Servants is very likely to get viewers thinking about working conditions over a hundred years ago.

The Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837. (London, 1998 Edition)

The activities of scrubbing, polishing, mending, fetching and carrying were the norm for the majority of people who did not have others to do this for them. Being paid to do this kind of work did not lessen the burden of a 15 hour or more day, but having your own bed, or a place to keep your own things were the small perquisites of working away from home. Despite some heavy sentimentality in places, Cox cleverly added that being a servant offered instances of cultural freedoms which might have been denied to those who sought work elsewhere. As we moved from the country house and it complex hierarchies, Cox explored the rising trends for middle-class households to keep servants. Many came from the country to seek work in the large townhouses, and so this urban landscape provided the backdrop to different routines, fashions, foods, and entertainments. Servants watched from the sidelines, but they still formed their own ideals and opinions about the things that unfolded around them.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of current trends in British television and how history is portrayed through documentaries. In advertising the programme, great emphasis was placed upon statistics, and indeed throughout the programme we were treated to the private papers preserved by the descendants of those who had worked in service. Even Cox herself declared her maid-of-all-work heritage. As an exploration of ‘real’ lives, I would have expected more demonstrations of actual work, but Servants seems more subtle and of course, academic. The BBC probably suggested that they leave the dressing up and bed-making to Lucy Worsley and the wall-stroking to Dan Cruickshank with this series. For Cox, this programme is about recognising our own heritage; it’s about the ordinary, not the unusual. And with that, we were

Harriet Rogers, lady’s maid and then housekeeper at Erddig.

brought back to Erddig in order to see how servant working lives were often pitted against familial relationships and emotional dependencies. This is life, in any period. Laborious menial work might not be considered noble, and undertaking it for others has always been seen as submissive and miserable. As the programme develops over the next two episodes, these attitudes will become much clearer, I am sure of that, and as we move past our family histories towards the present day, what makes a ‘servant’ will no doubt have a few people shaking their heads.

Links:

Review by Michael Pilgrim in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9574278/Servants-the-True-Story-of-Life-Below-Stairs-BBC-Two-review.html#

Review by Mark Sanderson at The Art Desk http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/servants-true-story-life-below-stairs-bbc-two

There is no world outside Downton Abbey for The Sun http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/tv/4553354/Dr-Pamela-Cox-explores-truth-of-servants-in-early-20th-Century.html

University of Essex review, with further links http://www.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=4504

Brighton and Hove heritage the Regency servant http://rth.org.uk/histories/regency/daily-life/servants

References (Select bibliography as there is a vast number of books on this subject):

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant (1825)

Leonore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, 1995).

Erddig. Guidebook, National Trust (London, 1978)

Jessica Gerard, Country House Life: Family and Servants, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1994).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements. National Trust (London, 1992)

Edward Higgs, Domestic Servants and Households in Rochdale, 1851-1871 (1986)

Pamela Horn, Flunkeys and Scullions: Life Below Stairs in Georgian England (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant (Stroud, 2000)

Frank Edward Huggett, Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times, Part 2 (1977)

Pamela A. Sambrook, The Country House Servant. National Trust (Stroud, 2004)

Pamela Sambrook, Keeping Their Place: Domestic Service in the Country House (Stroud, 2007)

E. S. Turner, What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem. (London, 1962).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (London, 1980)


[1] Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (Routledge, London, 1980), p. 7

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2 Comments

Filed under Recommended Literature, Servants, Uncategorized, Women and the Country House

2 responses to “Review. Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, (BBC2) Episode 1/3

  1. Ian West

    Cox did mention one book which I hadn’t come across before, the Mayhew Brothers’ ‘The Greatest Plague of Life’, with cartoons by Cruikshank. Based on life in town rather than country houses, but quite interesting in places.

    • Yes, the one with the mistress of the house looking aghast in every room! Pamela Horn makes use of it in her book Flunkeys and Scullions, and includes a couple of images by George Cruickshank. I’ve never read the original it in full, but it is available on Google Books as an eBook – http://tiny.cc/9wfllw (if the link works) The full title being The Greatest Plague of Life: or The adventures of a lady in search of a good servant. I think I will make time to have a look this week!

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