As standards of social decorum for the upper classes increased in the later Victorian period, the need for servants in Victorian England increased as well.
A Difficult Life for Servants in Victorian England
The British census of 1891 found that 1.3 million girls and women worked as domestic servants in Victorian England. They were usually recruited between the ages of 10 and 13, after they had been through some elementary schooling. Many employers hoped for the servants they hired to have at least some elementary literacy and numeracy. It was difficult to get in the 1850s, but by the ’80s and ’90s, it was becoming a more realistic expectation.
If you went to work for a middle-class family or an upper-class family, you would usually have to go to live in the house where you were working. If you were working for an upper working-class family, it was more likely that you would live at home and simply migrate over every day to do the work. Wherever you were a servant, the hours of labor were very long.
This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The times when you would have to work hardest were often the holidays when everyone else had the day off because usually, Christmas, for example, the family for which you worked would be hosting a party or dinner and you would have to work to get everything ready. That is one reason why Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is a traditional day for giving presents—boxes—to the servants, hence the name.
The job had many disadvantages. First, as a servant you were under constant scrutiny; at the same time, you were subject to a rigid form of apartheid. You were living very close to the family, but you were constantly being reminded that you were not a member of it. Most employers felt they had a right to look through their servants’ belongings. It was entirely their purview to go through the servants’ chest of drawers and make sure they hadn’t got anything which the employer objected to. Books of advice for middle-class wives are full of instructions about how you have to keep a very close watch on the servants to make sure that they are acting right.
Up to 1860, it was legal to beat your servants without any redress. It was legal to order them to accompany you to church; they sat in the back in a segregated section. Advertisements for servants would specify that they must be Church of England or Presbyterian. Very often columns of advertisements in the papers would say: “No Irish need apply.” Servants were often told to make themselves as nearly silent and invisible as they possibly could.
Life of Alienation for Victorian Servants
It was quite common to have a certain name associated with a certain job. The scullery maid is called Mary. If you hire Gwyneth, you call her Mary because she is the scullery maid. You couldn’t even depend on maintaining your name for the purposes of your working life.
If you were working as a servant in a relatively constrained family that didn’t have much money to spare, you couldn’t even depend on being given enough to eat. There were plenty of stories about servants who were constantly malnourished. It was common for a family to be only just barely able to afford to spend any service money at all. What they did spend it on would be a servant who would sometimes get the worst of everything.
If a servant became sick, you had no job security. You could be turned out by the employer who could be annoyed by the fact that you aren’t available to do the job.
If you lived in, you tended to be remote from your own family and friends. Often you would be living in an alien class environment, and employers didn’t want close contact between the servants and the family—they certainly didn’t want the servant’s family trooping in, nor did they want the servants going off to spend time with their family.
Many of them insisted on “no followers,” by which they meant boyfriends. Of course, it would be difficult to prevent an entire category of the population from having boyfriends, especially teenage girls. That encouraged deceit. The girls looked for ways to have some contact with boys, and that would make the employer feel that the servants were untrustworthy, and they’d say, “It is so hard to get good servants.”
It was common for girls to work in their teens and early twenties, then leave to get married, usually to someone in their social class. It was relatively less common for women to spend their whole working lives in service, although a fair number did.
Being a Servant in Victorian England had a Bright Side
But being a servant did have advantages as well. First, it gave you the chance to live in grand surroundings, far better places to pass your working life than you otherwise would ever have. Every working-class person in London was aware of the workhouse as a place you could go if you fell destitute, the constant hazards of falling into prostitution, the enormous number of homeless people, and the fact that even people who were housed lived in conditions of chronic overcrowding— 50,000 London families lived in single rooms in 1890.
As a servant, you had an attic or shared an attic with another servant. It wouldn’t look like much to us, but to them, it was a great thing. If you had a good employer, you could have at least a limited sense of membership in the family.
Some families were very good to their servants. In a way, the servants were in the same position as the children. This is the age when children were told that you must be seen but not heard; the servants were in the same situation—excluded from the grown-ups’ activities, kept quiet, forced to be obedient and docile. It is a parallel way of life. There are lots of memoirs written by people who grew up in the Victorian era saying how closely they associated with their servants when they were children and how remote they felt from their own parents.
Winston Churchill’s book, My Early Life, is a good example of this. He had a nanny whom he was very close to indeed, but he never had any relationship with his parents; they were remote figures who didn’t have very much time for him. Incidentally, having first looked after him, when he got old enough, the nanny went to work for the Attlee family and looked after young Clement Attlee, who became Prime Minister immediately after Churchill in the late 1940s.
Those that Cared for Their Servants
If your employer had a good sense of responsibility you would get the benefit of your employer’s protection. Here is a portion of a speech that Prince Albert made to an organization called the Servants’ Provident and Benevolent Society:
Who would not feel the deepest interest in the welfare of their domestic servants? Whose heart would fail to sympathize with those who minister to us in sickness, receive us upon our first appearance in this world, and even extend their cares to our mortal remains, who lie under our roof, form our household, and are part of the family?
Clearly, there was some sense of responsibility to your servants and to take their welfare very seriously. A servant named Elizabeth Gaye died in the 1880s. Her employer looked after the funeral and had her headstone engraved: “In memory of Elizabeth Gaye, who, after a service of 40 years, finding her strength diminished, with unparalleled disinterestedness, requested that her wages might be proportionately lessened.”
Learn more about Victoria’s Early Reign—1837-61
It is an incredible story: First, that the family would have all these very long words engraved on the tombstone and, second, that the thing they thought worth singling out to commemorate her entire life was that she had asked for a pay cut because she was aware that she was becoming a little unsteady.
Common Questions About Servants in Victorian England
Servants in Victorian England were a small step up from abject poverty as they generally had quarters and food from the household they looked after, but they generally lived a difficult life of constant work and servitude.