Working life for domestic servants in 19th century Britain

by Miriam Bell28 Sep 2012

In these GFC days of increased workplace pressure and long working hours, employees might think they have it tough. But put-upon 21st century workers should watch new BBC series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, to see how the average worker’s life has improved.

Contrary to the portrayal of “service” life in the spectacularly successful period drama Downton Abbey, the reality for the vast army of domestic servants employed in 19th century Britain was truly long hours [usually seven days a week, from as early as 5am until as late 10pm], back-breaking work for little money, and no employment rights at all.

According to a Daily Mail article, a domestic servant’s life could include duties like clipping your master's toenails and ironing his shoelaces; being given an "easy to  remember", generic name like Henry or Sarah; and – for female servants – having little power to turn down unwanted advances from their masters.

As further evidence of the harshness of life in service, the Mail also published Edwardian country house, Hinchingbrook’s, rules for its servants:

 

  • Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house
  • Always “give room” if you meet one of your employers or betters on the stairs.
  • Always stand still when being spoken to by a lady and look at the person speaking to you.
  • Never begin to talk to ladies and gentlemen.
  • Servants should never offer any opinion to their employers, nor even to say good night.
  • Never talk to another servant in the presence of your mistress.
  • Never call from one room to another.
  • Always answer when you have received an order.
  • Always keep outer doors fastened. Only the butler may answer the bell.
  • Every servant must be punctual at meal times.
  • No servant is to take any knives or forks or other article, nor on any account to remove any provisions, nor ale or beer out of the hall.
  • No gambling, or oaths, or abusive language are allowed.
  • The female staff are forbidden from smoking.
  • No servant is to receive any visitor, friend or relative into the house.
  • Any maid found fraternising with a member of the opposite sex will be dismissed without a hearing.
  • The hall door is to be finally closed at half-past ten every night.
  • The servants' hall is to be cleared and closed at half-past ten at night.
  • Any breakages or damage to the house will be deducted from wages.

 

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