The Alienation and Then Disappearance of Domestic Servants (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley says:

Perhaps the biggest difference of all between [before the twentieth century] and now is the absence of this particular variety of intimacy in the home. People in the past took it completely for gratned that they’d have non-family members living cheek by jowl beneath their roof.

In Tudor and Stuart time, between a quarter and a half of the entire population were employed in domestic service at some point in their lives, and the bond between master and servant was one of the most important social relationships. Being a servant wasn’t something of which to be ashamed: you gained protection and honour by association with your own particular lord… People were proud to serve the man who in return met their physical needs.

Clearly this attitude was long gone by the beginning of the twentieth century, but in 1900 domestic service remained the single largest source of female employment … In the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history, by 1951 a mere 1 per cent of households had a full-time residential domestic servant.

It is clear that Lucy Worsley really does consider the disappearance of domestic servants to be ‘the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history’. In almost every part of the book, she discusses how essential servants were to the life of middle-to-upper class households – which, in turn, were also lower class households, because they were just as much a home to the lower-class servants as they were to the upper-class masters.

Though Worsley does not say it outright, upon reflection, the master-servant relationship in England from medieval times through Tudor times was a lot like a marriage. They were both ‘important social relationships’. They both were relationships which included people sleeping the same room (though Henry VIII generally did sleep in the same room as wives; his closest servants, on the other hand, did sleep in the same room). Both spouses and (close) servants/masters shared a lot of private time together. And both types of relationships were used to forge political alliances. Noblemen would compete for the honor of being, say, one of the king’s ‘Gentlemen of the Bedchamber’ (i.e. the servants who helped the king dress and undress, emptied the king’s chamber pots, cleaned his bed, etc.) because a) being in such close contact with the king meant that the king trusted them (a status symbol) b) they would know a lot about what the king was doing and c) they would have a lot of opportunities to talk to the king and possibly influence him. In short, a noble family which managed to get one of their own to be one of the king’s close servants got some of the same advantages as a family who managed to get their daughter married to a king or prince.

In many noble families, it was common for the junior branches to serve the senior branches. And in medieval times, domestic servants were more likely to be male than female. In ‘great households’ almost all kitchen work was done by men (though in lower-class households, such as small farmhouses and cottages, women did all of the cooking).

In short, domestic service used to be one of the more desirable and prestigious lines of work in English society. Servants felt like they were valued and appreciated by their masters.

According to Worsley, this began to shift even as early as Elizabethan times, when fewer noblemen sought out positions as domestic servants, but real change happened in the 17th century.

The decline in the status of household service was linked to the growing requirement for privacy on the part of the family, and gradually servants began to spend less time with their masters. In the seventeenth century, this took architectural form: the backstairs, the servants’ separate dining hall and the bell to summon service all made their first appearance in the home. In the medieval house there had been no need for bells: you simply shouted for a servant who would have spent all of his or her time well within earshot.

Servants went from being included in the household to being excluded. “By modern times servants were no longer treated with the respect they’d received when they were often young members of minor branches of the master’s own family.” Worsley goes into greater detail about how there was increasing social separation between masters and servants, generally done in a way that rubbed in the servants’ lower social status and restricted their liberty. Here’s another quote:

She treated her maids rather like animals, expecting little from them in terms of taste or care. Curtains should be forbidden, and ‘neither should their own boxes be kept in their rooms … they cannot refrain somehow from hoarding all sorts of rubbish in them’. Given that their trunks, brought from home, were the only private space that the servants possessed in their employer’s house, it seems more than mean of Mrs Panton to take them away.

Rather than animals, it seems like, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, especially in the nineteenth century, masters treated servants like machines. They wanted all of the conveniences of domestic service, but they did not want a social relationship with the servants, they did not want to be reminded that their servants were sentient beings with their own wills.

This was also when domestic service became a predominantly work for females. Whereas in medieval times all domestic service was supervised by men, with the lowering of the status of domestic service, women (usually the wife of the master) became responsible for managed domestic servants. And the servants themselves were much more likely to be women. Worsley emphasizes how this new managerial responsibility was empowering for housewives, which I suppose it was, but what catches my attention was that domestic work was transferred to women around the same time it was losing status.

She says that, as servants became increasingly alienated, they became increasingly unhappy and demoralized.

The great and widespread poverty in nineteenth century England kept the wages of servants low, which in turn delayed the implementation of many labor-saving devices. For example, flush toilets existed even in Elizabethan times, yet did not become common until the second half of the nineteenth century, and some mansions (owned by people who definitely could afford to install plumbing) still lacked flush toilets into the early twentieth century. Why? The early flush toilets did have some serious technological problems, but the main reason was that in the short term it was cheaper to hire servants to clear and clean chamber pots than to install plumbing for flush toilets. Besides, it was so much more convenient to relieve oneself in whatever room one wished and then have a servant to take care of the chamber pot than to have to walk oneself to a flush toilet (what if it was on the other side of the building?!) Similar considerations applied to kitchen technology; many masters and mistresses did not want to spend money on devices that would make kitchen work easier or pleasanter when it was the servants who were doing the cooking.

And then, in the first half of the twentieth century, domestic servants disappeared from English homes. She explains it as “industry and retail, with their higher wages and increased social stimulation, became increasingly attractive to the kind of young men or girls who would once have thought to become servants.” I don’t think it’s enough of an explanation. Worsley says that the 1930s “was the point at which the middle classes felt entitled to servants, but couldn’t understand why they couldn’t keep them.” Though I can make guesses, I don’t think I sufficiently understand why domestic servants have disappeared in the twentieth century. This article about the decline of domestic help in the United States offers different explanations, and also dates the decline to the middle twentieth century, not the early twentieth century (of course, since England and the United States are different societies, I don’t explain the causes and the timings to be exactly the same).

Worsley regards the reduced contact between the lower and upper classes as socially detrimental.

People in poverty feel, and indeed actually grow, poorer if forced to live in a sink estate, while the middle classes flee to their own leafy ghettoes outside city centres. A successful ‘place’ mixes up the different groups in society, forcing them to mingle and to look out for each other. In this sense, a great mansion like Hardwick Hall was successful social housing: in in Bess of Hardwick lived within metres of the dozens of people under her care. It was a life of huge inequality, but people were part of a common endeavour.

This sounds conservative, but it’s radically so. Today we live lives of vastly varying levels of luxury without really being aware of the alternative experiences of those above and below us in terms of wealth.

I can’t help but notice that, according to Worsley herself, servants were treated with the greatest respect when they were closest in class to their masters (such as lower-ranked nobles serving higher-ranked nobles). I suppose even when the servants were relatively closer in social status to their masters there was still enough of a difference that people living with different levels of luxury were in close proximity to each other, and perhaps there was even in that social system much more mingling of people of different socio-economic means than there is in the contemporary United Kingdom.

What is my takeaway from this? First of all, I am so far removed from any culture that regards domestic service as high-status that the idea that it could be prestigious surprised me. And the idea that the social bonds between masters and servants (before the alienation of servants) increased contact between different classes, and that this contact was good for society as a whole, is interesting food for thought. Most of all, I now have much better appreciation for what an important social phenomenon domestic servants – and their absence – are.

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