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Inquiring readers, I despise housework.  As I lugged my vacuum cleaner from room to room I thought: ‘It could be worse. I would only have a broom or mop had I lived in 1810.’

And so I should be grateful to clean my house in the 21st century. But what were the duties a typical maid of all work or housemaid during this era, and what cleaning supplies did they use?

The Housemaid c.1782-6 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

The Housemaid c.1782-6 Thomas Gainsborough, Tate Gallery, Public Domain

Dusting & Sweeping:

A Georgian/Regency household experienced a daily fight with dust, one that was usually lost. A wealthy family could afford more than one housemaid, but ordinary housewives most likely only had a maid of all work to help her. The poor were left to their own devices. Most roads and lanes in cities and towns were made of dirt that turned into mud on rainy days. Animal droppings from horses and cattle driven through town by drovers dried into dust if not swept from the street. Brisk winds would sweep dirt and flakes and dried droppings through cracks and crevices around windows and under doors. On mild days, windows were cracked open to admit fresh air, allowing the detritus to drift in a constant invasion.

Front entrances (indoors and outdoors), floors, and rugs also required constant maintenance. The job to clean them was unceasing.

In 1776, Susannah Whatman wrote the following in The Housekeeping Book for her housemaids:

“In cleaning floors…use as little soap as possible (if any) in ‘scouring’ rooms. Fuller’s earth and fine sand preserves the colour of the boards, and does not leave a white appearance as soap does.[Note that this job was performed on hands and knees.] All the rooms to be dry scrubbed with white sand.”

Susannah also wanted her maids to use a painters brush on ledges, furniture, and window frames – then follow up with feather dusters. Under no circumstances were they to dust pictures “nor the frames of anything that had a gilt edge.” They were never to dust black busts.

[Other mistresses expected housemaids to dust daily with clean linen cloths. After cleaning spots on wood furniture, they rubbed the wood with linseed oil until shiny.]

Daily chores:

  • Rise early to prepare the ground floor for the family. (more about this below)
  • Sweep the hall and staircase, and the “banister occasionally rubbed with very little oil and every day with a dry cloth.”
  • “To keep a small mop in the cupboard of the WC (water closet), and use water everyday to keep the inside clean.” The maid also had instructions to use only warm water during frosty weather.
  • Sweep the steps in front of the house
  • Force back all the window shutters so they will not get warped. Regarding shutters and drapes, they must be regulated according to the movement of the sun to prevent the sun from shining in full on carpets, painted furniture, pictures, and furniture with mahogany wood. For north facing windows, “the rooms must be aired, and the flies and flygokdubgs destroyed in time.”
  • Work in the Storeroom after her housework is finished, except on Saturday

Weekly housekeeping duties:

  • Tuesdays wash her own things and the dusters in the morning, and help wash stockings. In the evening iron her own things.
  • A_Woman_doing_Laundry_by_Henry_Robert_Morland

    A Woman Doing Laundry, Henry Robert Morland, 18th C., Denver Art Museum, public domain

  • Wednesdays fold with the Laundrymaid
  • Saturdays whisk the window curtains, and shake mats and carpets.

Her list goes on and on, which makes one wonder when and if the housemaid in Mrs Whatman’s house had any spare time

Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew states that housemaids were the women who kept the house running. I’d like to add that the housekeeper (or mistress of the house) made sure the people she supervised stuck to their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules in the performance of their duties.

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place

Her First Place, George Dunlop Leslie, 19th c.?, Wikimedia, public domain work.

The reasons for the housemaids’ early rising was to make sure to lay & light the fires so that the family arose to a warm room. They then emptied grates of ash and cleaned them. For morning ablutions they hauled clean and heavy buckets of warm water up to the family’s rooms, sometimes as much as four times per day. After the family had bathed and washed and started their day, the maids took away dirty water and emptied chamber pots. They opened or closed curtains, then made beds in the morning and turned them down at night.

Pehr_Hilleström-Två_tjänsteflickor_vid_en_bäck (2)

Two Maid-Servants at a Brook, 1779, Pehr Hilleström, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the evening housemaids ironed or mended clothes, or tended to their own needs. Their day was never ending.

As the 19th century progressed, however, housework became less onerous. This was due to new inventions. Rumford fireplaces were more efficient and smaller than traditional fireplaces, and emitted more heat due to their design. Indoor plumbing was slowly introduced and by the end of the 19th century had become common even in middle class houses. Kitchen stoves with flat tops and doors that opened to an oven were invented and were sold by 1790. Their design encouraged the production of new flat-bottomed pots and pans. Insulated ice boxes kept an ice block from melting, keeping foods like milk and meats fresh. By 1809, methods of preserving food through sterilized glass containers or hermetically sealed cans reduced daily food preparation.

These inventions eased the intensive labor of maintaining and keeping a clean and smooth working household, allowing for fewer servants to perform the same chores or dividing the tasks in a different, more efficient way. Still, I thank my lucky stars for today’s automatic can openers, reusable storage containers, electric vacuum cleaners, freezers, water heaters, and sanitizers.

Regardless of our modern improvements, I still hate to do housework.

____________________

More About Female Servants:

Additional Sources:

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From fox hunting to whist — the facts of daily life in 19th-century England (1993). NY, Touchstone, published by Simon & Schuster.

Whatman, Susanna. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman. (Foreword by Christina Hardyment, afterword by Thomas Balston.) First published in 1776, published 1987. London, National Trust Classics.

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Introduction

Inquiring readers: This is the first of a post on the subject of the upward mobility for two upper servant positions. Part One examines the duties of the lady’s maid, and her motivation for continuing in a position that was hard and demanding, and that required her to be loyal and subservient to her mistresses’ whims and wishes from early morning to late at night, and at times past her usual long hours.

Through her visits to grand houses, such as Godmersham Park, Jane Austen became familiar with the lives of ladies maids and housekeepers. These two positions belonged to the class of upper female servants, but even with their “status” and the deference they received from the lower servants their service required long work hours and extensive knowledge of and years of training in their respective duties and situations. Their hours were determined by the requirements of the lady of the house and her social schedule  (although, in the instance of the housekeeper, the master of the house might also have a great say, especially if he was unmarried, like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley.)

Fronticepiece2

Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, public domain. Image 1

The Lady’s Maid

According to The Woman’s Domain, the position of the lady’s maid was one of the best in the female hierarchy of servants. Most of her day was spent above stairs working in her lady’s dressing room. She frequently accompanied her lady on travels and visits, a privilege not accorded to many. In public, she was expected to dress fashionably in clothes that were tasteful but not as fine as her mistress’s. Better yet, she was chosen by her mistress and employed directly by her.

The Complete Servant (1825) mentions that the “business of the lady’s maid is extremely simple, and but little varied.” The book’s authors describe the lady’s maid’s duties:

  • She is generally to be near the person of her lady ; 
  • and to be properly qualified for her situation, her education should be superior to that of the ordinary class of females, particularly in needle work, and the useful and ornamental branches of female acquirements.
  • To be peculiarly neat and clean in her person and dress is better than to be tawdry or attractive, as intrinsic merit is a much greater recommendation than extrinsic appearance. 
  • In her temper she should be cheerful and submissive, studying her lady’s disposition.
  • It will be her business to dress, re-dress , and undress her lady; and, in this, she should learn to be perfectly au fait and expeditious, ever studying, so far as it depends on herself, to manifest good taste, by suiting the ornaments and decoration of her dress to the complexion, habits, age , and general appearance of her person . (p237)

The image below lists the skills that a lady’s maid is expected to possess. 

contents2

Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain. Image 2

A lady’s maid had no set work hours. Her attention was devoted to her mistress’s comforts and whims. This left her with little time to devote to her family or to visit them. Her schedule was erratic and changed  at the last minute to accommodate unexpected house guests and family trips or travels. She was also expected to attend to her mistress after a  late night return from a ball or visit. During the day she accompanied her mistress while shopping or walking. In this capacity, and while traveling by her mistress’s side, she was expected to behave and dress appropriately, but never to wear clothes more fashionable  than her employer. 

The following image lists the behavior a mistress expects from her lady’s maid, which are described in detail in The Duties of a Lady’s Maid.

Contents 1

Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825. Image 3.

In between caring for her mistress, she was expected to mend her clothes, remove spots, iron, and make poultices, lotions, and cosmetics. She was also a hairdresser, dresser, cosmetician, cleaner, supervisor of lesser servants, seamstress, and companion all rolled into one. In other words, she had no free time except for the few days and hours a month allotted to her. 

The Day of a Lady’s Maid

The Complete Servant lists the lady’s maid’s exhaustive duties:

Morning

  • Her first business, in the morning , will be to see that the housemaid has made the fire , and properly prepared her lady’s dressing room: -she then calls her mistress, informs her of the hour, and having laid out all her clothes, and carried her hot water, to wash, she retires to her breakfast with the housekeeper and other principal servants.
  • When her lady’s bell rings, she attends her in her dressing  room – combs her hair for the morning, and waits on her till dressed; after which, she folds and puts away her night clothes , cleans her combs and brushes  and adjusts her toilet table.

Noon/Afternoon

  • About one o’clock the family generally take their lunch, and the servants their dinner.– After this, she is again summoned to attend her lady’s toilet whilst dressing to go abroad.
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires , both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .

Evening

  • Previous to her mistress ‘ retiring for the night , she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only now, but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, etc. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them , before she folds them away. If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to adminis ter her medicines , and sometimes to read to her. 

Progress of the Toilet Dress Completed Gillray 1810-British Museum

Progress of the Toilet, Plate 3, Dress Completed, James Gillray. Crude copy, 1810. British Museum. Image 4.

During a Lady’s Maid’s “Free Time”

  • In the absence of the housekeeper, she will be required to make tea and coffee for the drawing room company. 
  • At her leisure, practise reading aloud, from the best author; as it is important to acquire a proper style and manner of reading, in all the varieties of poetry or prose, ode or epistle, comedy, or sermon; avoiding, alike, the dull monotony of the school girl, and the formal affectation of the pedant, but following nature as her guide, in all that appertains to emphasis, modulation, and delivery.
  • If acquainted with the superior branches of needle work, she might afford her lady much gratification, in presenting her, occasionally, with such trifles as will be acceptable, and suitable ornaments for her person This will evince her disposition to be grateful and to oblige; and this, combined with a feminine sweetness of temper, and suavity of manners, cannot fail to be her sure recommendation to the esteem of her superiors and others, through all the various circumstances of life. 
  • She lays out and prepares the several articles that may be required for her dinner, or evening dress, and afterwards employs her self at needle work in her own room, or in her other avocations, till her mistress returns to dress for dinner, perhaps about five, when she attends her for that purpose; and having done this, it may happen that no further attendance on her mistress’s person will be required till she retires to bed: meanwhile she employs herself at needle work, as in the morning * more else in the various occupations of getting up the fine linen, gauzes, muslins, cambrics, laces, & washing silk stockings, taking the spots or stains out of silks, [text?] … for doing which the best receipts are annexed . 
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires, both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .
  • Previous to her mistress’s  retiring for the night, she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only do (?), but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, & c. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them, before she folds them away. 
  • If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to administer her medicines, and sometimes to read to her. To qualify herself for this latter purpose, and to acquit herself with propriety

After years of service, she hoped that her loyal and attentive companionship would be rewarded by her mistress or the family in her old age. Sadly, this was not always the case if a widowed husband remarried or a son with his own wife inherited the estate. One would imagine that in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. John Dashwood would bring her own lady’s maid in place of the widow Dashwood’s loyal maid servant. 

A Female Servant’s Attraction to the Job of Lady’s Maid

In the early 19th century servant turnover was already surprisingly high. (This trend became more worrisome as the century wore on.) Those who remained with a household did so for job security, They might not have had other prospects for employment, or they might have moved to better employment. Some stayed for the chance of advancement; or in the hope for a pension after years of loyal service; or, as with a lady’s maid, for a chance to travel beyond her local parish or county. In those days a majority of the working poor or lower working classes lived and worked within walking distances of their villages or homes and rarely ventured beyond that during their lifetime, although there were exceptions.

The working lives of lower servants were not easy. They slept in cramped attic rooms that they shared and that were cold in winter and hot in summer. Many toiled in damp basements throughout the day, and carried heavy buckets of water to heat for food, laundering clothes, or bathing.

No wonder upper servants – land stewarts, butlers, and valets on the male side, and cooks, lady’s maids, and housekeepers on the woman’s side – were positions preferred by those who sought employment. These occupations came with the perks of private rooms and status in the servant hierarchy. Servants who worked under them deferred to their wishes, since few from the lower order spoke to the master or mistress of the house.

Upper servants took years to acquire the necessary skills for their positions, which took years of patience and planning. This personal investment was worth the wait … IF an upward bound position opened.  A century later, Barrow and Molesley in Downton Abbey experienced the travails of thinking they had achieved their goals, only to lose their positions and settle for situations lower down again. 

The Education of Sarah Neal, Whose Ambition Was to be a Lady’s Maid

The road Sarah Neall took to becoming a lady’s maid is described in The Woman’s Domain by Lumis and March. Sarah embarked on her ambitious journey as early as the age of eight. Her father, an innkeeper, sent her to a small private day school for girls in Chichester – which was named Miss Riley’s – to start her on her journey. There she  learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her instruction included scripture, a general knowledge of geography, the counties of England, names and dates of kings and queens, and a smattering of classical culture. Mr. Neal, a working class gent, could not afford French instruction, which was a desirable skill, but he had the means to give her a start that no laborer or unskilled worker could have afforded for their daughters. In her early years Sarah learned the foundational skills that sent her in the direction of achieving her ambitions. Miss Riley’s school and schools like hers were  a common pathway for working class girls to learn the rudiments required for an upper servant position

After attending Miss Riley’s, Sarah apprenticed to a dressmaker for four years where she honed her skills in dressmaking. She also took lessons in hairdressing and millinery. Eventually, Sarah landed a job as one of two young lady’s maids at Uppark, a 17th-century house in South Harting in West Sussex. She was the younger of the two maids, where she hoped for a possible advancement to housekeeper. In her position as lady’s maid, she kept a diary about the places she visited, which documented events but not her thoughts nor descriptions about her employers. Sarah left her position when her mother’s poor health required her to attend to her needs. (More about Sarah in Part 2 of this three part series.)

Uppark_Kip-early 18th C-Wiki

Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image. Image 6.

Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice mentions the Bennet servants at Longbourn: They were a butler, Mrs Hill, and two house maids. Very little is known about each, but Mrs. Bennet required Mrs. Hill’s services several times when she was needed, notably when Mr. Collins announced his visit. The two house maids in Pride and Prejudice dressed and cared for six women, as well as tended to the household duties along with Mrs. Hill. One only can imagine their chores. Lydia and Kitty’s requirements must have been quite a task compared to Mary’s, Elizabeth’s, and Jane’s demands, which I surmise were more restrained. Austen never described those interactions in detail, and so we can only guess.

In Longbourn, Jo Baker the author, weaves a story about Mr. Hill, the butler; Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and his wife; Sarah (16) and Polly (11,) the two house maids; and James Smith, a mysterious man of all work. Baker discussed the two young maids and their duties at length, and I wondered if she fashioned young Sarah after Sarah Neal, so aptly described in the Woman’s Domain and by her son, H.G. Wells in his autobiography (which is why we know so much about her). 

The Perks of Being a Lady’s Maid

As mentioned before, the lady’s maid spent the majority of her day above stairs in comfortable and often luxurious surroundings, ready to change her mistress’s dress or to rearrange her hair for an evening out at a moment’s notice. She received a major perk that other upper servants did not – her mistress’s old clothes that were out of fashion. It was important that she look presentable when accompanying her lady on walks, visits, or out of town trips. She could not under any circumstance outshine her employer. For extra money she had the freedom to sell her second-hand gifts or refurbish them. The travel, the visits to grand houses, her companionship with her lady when she read to her or listened to her confidences – all these were hers in exchange for loyalty, sacrifice from seeing her family freely, and for being discreet.

Curiosity-Ladys-Maid-British-Museum

Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

Description (British Museum): A pretty lady’s maid stoops in profile to the right to gaze with prurient eagerness through a key-hole. She holds a salver with her left hand, letting two jelly-glasses slide off it, while her other hand is beneath her dress. A lady’s bonnet and gloves and a cocked hat and sword, carelessly laid down, show the object of her curiosity. She wears a graceful white gown and a lace cap over her curled hair. April 1817. Etching with hand-colouring.

For the reader: Think about this image re: the Lady’s Maid as discussed in this post: Knowing what is expected of the lady’s maid and her conduct, what about this image disturbs you? What in the details do you see related to her work and attire? What is the satire? Feel free to place your thought in your comment.

The Young Lady’s Maid 

Lastly, this post addresses the young lady’s maids who are hired in large families to wait on a group of young ladies or one in particular. (Recall that Sarah began her career when she was 18 or 19.) Recall Mr. Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana. He felt responsible towards her and probably made sure she was “protected” when his schedule and social activities took him away from Pemberley. The duties of her young lady’s maid were to cater to her personal needs and comfort, to be her companion during outings, and to read to her or converse with her during private periods. This young lady’s maid’s duties were similar to her more mature counterparts, and she would be expected to follow similar directions and instructions to serve her young mistress.

Her situation was considered initiatory to a better trajectory in life. A more mature upper servant in the household would provide oversight. In young Miss Darcy’s instance, this would most likely be the housekeeper. Successful young lady’s maids grew up with their mistresses and stayed with them for years, achieving a deep affection and close friendship for one another. These young charges as they matured often knew their ladies better than their own families. 

Next post in this series: Part Two: Lady’s Maid to Housekeeper and Her Responsibilities.

Resources:

Original Sources:

The Complete Servant; Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants, FROM THB HOUSEKEEPER TO THE SERVANT OP ALL WORK , AND FROM THE LAND STEWARD TO THE BOOT – BOY ; WITH USEFUL RECIPES AND TABLES , BY SAMUEL AND SARAH ADAMS , Fifty years Servants in different Families . LONDON : PUBLISHED BY KNIGHT AND LACEY , PUBLISHERS OF BOOKS CONNECTED WITH THE USEFUL ARTS , at the James Watt , in Paternoster – Row . MDCCCXxv (1825).  Price Seven Shillings and Sixpence. From The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Free google play book.

The Duties of a Lady’s Maid; With Directions for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette, LONDON : PRINTED FOR JAMES BULCOCK , 163 , STRAND . 1825 . Free Google play book, downloaded 1-11-2022. 

Wells, H.G.,  Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). 1934, Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #539, where this book is in the public domain with restrictions. Link to the book: Downloaded 1-14-2022.

Sources:

Lummis, T.& March, J. in association with The National Trust, The Woman’s Domain: Women and the English Country House (1993 2nd Ed.) Penguin Books, England.221 pp.

Meade-Featherstonhaugh, M. & Warner, O. Uppark and Its People (1995, 2nd ed) The National Trust, London.

Pool, D. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England. 1993. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, NY.

Servants in Regency England: Fall 2016 Adapting Jane Austen, A Xavier University First Year Seminar

Images:

Image 1: Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 2: Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 3: Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 4: The Progress of the Toilet, Dress Completed, Plate 3, 1810. Gillray, British Museum

Image 5: The Dressmaker, Book of Trades, 1804, Rijks Museum, anonymous. Click on the title.

Image 6: Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image.

Image 7: Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

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Inquiring Readers: Servants and the working class are ever present as background characters in Jane Austen’s novels. Readers in her time were well aware of their important duties in all levels of Regency households. They were essential in the running of daily life and/or an estate, and therefore were given no distinction in Austen’s novels unless their roles moved the plot forward.

Introduction:

Without much explanation, Austen’s contemporaries could easily gauge the number of servants that the Bertrams or the Woodhouses employed (at least 7-9 inside their grand houses and more in the fields and gardens) against the socially downward turn the Elliot family and Dashwood women experienced by the number of their reduced help, which in the latter instance was three. The Dashwood women were able to maintain some kind of social status within their unenviable income of £500 a year and with the help of a friendly (and very rich) Mrs. Jennings.

Mrs and Miss Bates employed a maid of all work to help them with their daily chores, although they were dependent on the kindness of their neighbors to help make ends meet. Fanny Price’s parents in Portsmouth engaged two housemaids, impoverished as they were, their poverty due no doubt to Mr. Price’s drinking and meager income, which needed to stretch to clothe and feed a family of 12. Only Mrs Smith, Anne Elliot’s old school friend, an impoverished widow, was too poor to “afford herself the comfort of a servant.” (Persuasion, Chapter 16.) She lived in public accommodations in Bath, whose landlady employed only one servant for her lodgers.

Hogarth portrait of 6 Georgian servants, 3 men (boy to older men) and 3 women, all wearing caps

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, mid 1770’s. Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons , via the Tate Gallery.

Austen’s descriptions of her characters reveal much about the way they treated their help. Imagine having to work under Mrs. Norris’s direction or Mrs. Elton’s! Those two exacting women, neither of whom possessed an ounce of compassion, set the most stringent standards, yet still found time to complain about their staff’s performances.

Compare their attitude to Colonel Brandon’s, who treated underlings with respect and caring, or Mr. Darcy, whose housekeeper’s admiration for her master helped change Elizabeth’s opinion of the man she rejected for being too proud, distant, and arrogant. 

Austen’s oblique descriptions of other characters’ interactions with their servants – Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father), for example – causes the reader to contemplate poor James’s situation as his coachman. James was asked to ferry guests like Mrs and Miss Bates back and forth, regardless of time or weather, which was considered a terrible imposition by Austen’s contemporaries. Mr. Woodhouse’s cook, who probably failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards for boiling an egg or making gruel, must have suffered silently through his passive aggressive sighs of disappointment for not achieving perfection. 

Then there is Sir Walter Elliot, whose ego was twelve sizes larger than his income, and whose ability to employ the help he was accustomed to was reduced to such a degree that his daughter Elizabeth chose not to invite the Musgroves to dinner, but only to an evening get-together where the lack of servants would not be so obvious. Sir Walter’s major sin in the eyes of Austen’s contemporaries was to squander his fortune to such an extent that he had to rent out his estate and downsize to a mere townhouse in Bath.

Watercolor of a busy office in which prospective employers interview and look over potential servant applicants

Register Office for the Hiring of Servants, Thomas Rowlandson, Watercolour, 1800-1805, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons, Yale Center for British Art.

Servants and help in the Austen family’s household:

The Austens lived a rural life in Steventon Rectory, a life that fed Jane’s budding creativity. Servants in small villages did not necessarily live with their employers. A few might have lived with the Austens, but others worked during the day and returned to their families at night, or worked only the hours they were needed. (Worsley, p. 95.) Laundresses, for example, were employed only on certain days, for their work was strenuous, with intensive labor required for this task. 

“The Austen household was large, with eight children – six boys and two girls – as well as additional pupils, for Rev. George Austen supplemented his clerical income by taking in boy pupils as boarders. There was also a small farm, to supply the family with meat and vegetables, and there were maids and manservants to help with the work. – Jane Austen: A Life

As the above quote suggests, an active working family managed Steventon Rectory. The house sat on Glebe land, or land that yielded revenue to a parish church. An 1821 plan of the Glebe land shows Steventon house, its outbuildings, a yard, and fields. (Robinson Walker, detail from the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.) The family were hardworking. Rev. Austen visited his parishes, collected tithes, raised sheep and pigs, supervised the farm, oversaw the workmen, and taught a boarding school of young boys, among many duties. Mrs Austen tended to the kitchen, the kitchen gardens, chickens, and her alderney cow (which produced a copious amount of milk for its small size, which resulted in a rich butter). She guided her family, the household (including the boarders), and house servants. According to Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, (p. 7):

“…though the family always kept a cook, they did not aspire to a housekeeper to plan meals, organise stores and superintend the daily work of the kitchen. This was done first by Jane’s mother, later by Jane’s sister Cassandra, with Jane herself as subordinate…”

Linda Robinson Walker (Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven?) created an impressive table that shows the number of family members, students, and servants living, studying, and working in the rectory between 1775 and 1795. The chart totals the number of people living in the house, which ranged from 9-20 during that time. Within that total number she included 4-8 servants.

In a letter to Cassandra, Jane wrote fondly of Nanny Littlewart dressing her hair. Nanny is Anne Littleworth, who fostered Jane and Cassandra when they were quite young. Jane mentions as many as nine servants in her letters in 1798. The laundry, for example, “was to be handed over from Mrs Bushell to Mrs Steevens; there was a new maid: ‘we have felt the inconvenience of being without a maid so long, that we are determined to like her.’” (Worsley, p.95.)

In 1801, after Rev. Austen retired and the Austen parents and their two daughters moved to Bath, Mrs Austen expressed her desire to retain two maids, although she kept Rev. Austen in the dark regarding those plans. (Le Faye, Letter 29, p.69.)  At this time, the family’s income was drastically diminished, as were the number of servants. Not until the women moved into Chawton Cottage, did their peripatetic life become stable and a semblance of normalcy re-establish itself, including Mrs. Austen’s work in the gardens, with overseeing the chickens and kitchens and servants. 

Jane also visited many great houses: Stoneleigh Abbey, her mother’s ancestral home; Godmersham Park and Chawton House, both owned by her brother Edward, and Manydown Park, where she received, accepted, and then rejected a proposal from Harris Big-Whither, its heir. These visits acquainted her with the management of great houses and the numbers of servants required to service them and their extensive grounds. Her personal observations were reflected especially in her letters. 

Engraving of Godmersham Park, Kent

Godmersham Park, Kent, 1824, John Preston Neal, digitized by the British Library.  Creative Commons. Wikimedia CommonsWikipedia.

Gossip and the lack of privacy between servant and employer: 

And now to the servant “problem,” meaning the lack of privacy they represented to those who were served, and the gossip among the servants that irked their employers. In Japanese cultures, where dividing walls consisted of screens largely made of wood frames and rice paper, people learned not to actively listen to their neighbors and intrude on their privacy. 

Servants in Austen’s era, who dressed, bathed, fed, and catered to their employers needs and whims could not help but notice their moods, hear their private conversations, or know about their most intimate habits.

In turn, as a form of self protection, employers simply chose not to notice their staff. Their schedules also did not coincide, for the staff were the first to awaken and the last to retire to bed. They entered rooms to stoke fires when their employers were still asleep, or cleaned and dusted them when those rooms were empty. If they did encounter each other, few exchanges, if any, occurred. 

There were some personal interactions, of course. A master spoke to his valet, steward and/or butler; the mistress to her personal maid, and to give instructions to the cook and housekeeper. These individuals acted as buffers between the employers and the majority of the staff. 

“A good servant was scarcely noticed by his or her employer. To serve is to wear a cloak of invisibility, as it is in Persuasion:

‘Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?’ [Mrs Smith]

‘No. Was it not Mrs Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular.’ [Anne Elliot]” – (Worsley, 2017, pp 95-96) “

This short discussion in Persuasion demonstrated the matter of factness with which Austen (and Anne) regarded this exchange.

Servants were human, however. They gossiped about their betters below stairs or in the kitchens. Often, they were the source of gossip for their employers. Mrs Smith, who, as a cripple, lived a solitary life, learned all she wanted to know through Nurse Rook, who kindly helped her and told her about all the goings on. 

“Call it gossip if you will; but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.” – Mrs. Smith, Persuasion, Ch 17.

Some individuals, like Lydia Bennet, lost all decorum when she ran to show off her engagement ring to the servants. This was another method by which Austen alerted her readers to Lydia’s recklessness.

Conclusion:

While Austen’s details of her characters and daily life were spare in her novels, her letters revealed personal observations that filled in the gaps for today’s readers. Suffice it to say that Jane’s contemporary readers easily understood her characters when she described their attitudes and treatments towards staff. Two hundred years later we have lost much of that knowledge and require annotation to fully understand the customs of that bygone era, but a lady in Austen’s time would have known how to maintain her dignity despite all the familiarity..

The most fitting ending to this short essay is a quote by Lucy Worsley about Mrs Smith’s network of information (p 96): 

“ Mrs Smith [revealed] to Anne the hidden spy network of servants, nurses and maids that brings her all the Bath gossip. Like Mrs Smith, Jane would notice more than most people did about the invisible people who kept households running.” 

_________

Sources:

Giles, K. Help! – Servants During the Regency, Randolph College, downloaded 6/2/21.

Jane Austen: A Life, Jane Austen’s House, downloaded 6/2/21

Lane, M. (2018) Jane Austen and Food, Lume Books (Kindle)

Le Faye, D. Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.) Oxford University Press

Mulan, J. (2013). What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Chapter 8: “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” (1st ed. U.S.). Bloomsbury Press.

Robinson Walker, L. (2005). Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question. Persuasions On-Line, 26 (No. 1 (Winter)). http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol26no1/walker.htm

Worsley, L. (2017). Jane Austen at Home (1st ed. U.S.). St. Martin’s Press

Posts about servants on this blog:

The Green Baize Door: Dividing Line Between Servant and Master, January 2012.

Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian Era, August, 2012.

Laundry, Georgian Style, August, 2011

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work, June, 2009.

Hiring Servants in the Regency Era and Later, May, 2009.

Footmen: Male Servants in The Regency Era, January, 2008.

Regency Life: Finding a Job as a Servant, June, 2008

Every Day Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washer Women, July 2007.

The Scullery Maid, November 2006.

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By Brenda S. Cox

“”By our sufferings, since ye brought us 

To the man-degrading mart,— 

All sustain’d by patience, 

taught us Only by a broken heart,— 

Deem our nation brutes no longer . . .” – Quote opening The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. The quote is from William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Such narratives at this time often began with quotes from Cowper’s anti-slavery poems, or from the Bible.

We’ve been looking at the situation of black people in Jane Austen’s England. We started with “‘Women of Colour’ in Literature of Jane Austen’s England,” considering Miss Lambe of Sanditon, Olivia of The Woman of Colour, and other fictional women of the time. Next, we learned a little about black people in general in Austen’s England, based on statistics and records, in “Black England: No Wall of Separation?” 

What about the lives of individual black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England? Most of those people were in the lowest “ranks” of society and didn’t leave journals or diaries. Scholars are trying to piece together some of their lives. For an example, listen to Gretchen Gerzina’s talk on Pero Jones and Fanny Coker, an enslaved man and a free woman working as servants in a 1780s Bristol household. 

Today I’ll introduce you to some of the most well-known black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England; people that Jane Austen may have heard of or read about. I can only give you a brief taste of their fascinating stories. For each one, I’ll give you links so you can explore further if you wish. For some, you can read their stories in their own words.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) by David Martin (1737-1797). Public Domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg

Dido Belle

Austen must have known about one real mixed-race woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804). Dido’s father was a British naval captain, Sir John Lindsay, and her mother was a black enslaved woman named Maria. Lindsay was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, who became Chief Justice of England and made several rulings benefiting black people in England. Lindsay asked his childless uncle and aunt to raise Dido, and she grew up in the Mansfield household.

When another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, lost her mother at the age of six, the earl and his wife took her in and raised her along with Dido; they were around the same age. A portrait of the two girls as young ladies shows an apparently close relationship, though the white girl takes the central place in the picture. It is unclear exactly what Dido’s position was in the household. One guest noted that she did not eat dinner with the family and their guests, but joined them afterwards. She then walked arm-in-arm in the garden with her cousin.

The earl became very attached to Dido. In his will he confirmed her freedom and left her money. Dido married a white French servant, John Davinier. Her money enabled him to rise to the status of “gentleman.”

Dido’s white cousin Elizabeth Murray married wealthy George Finch-Hatton, a friend of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. On a visit to her brother in 1805, Jane visited the Finch-Hattons. She was not impressed with Lady Elizabeth, writing on Aug. 24, 1805, “Lady Elizabeth for a woman in her age & situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself.”

It seems likely that Austen would have known about Elizabeth’s adoptive sister. She might conceivably have met her if Dido visited while Jane was at Godmersham, though we have no record of a meeting. Perhaps Austen was imagining how Dido Belle became a beloved member of the Earl of Mansfield’s family when she wrote Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is a little like Dido in that she arrives as a marginalized member of the household, but eventually becomes a valued family member.

For more on Dido Belle, you can listen to “Dido Belle and Francis Barber” or read Paula Byrne’s Belle.  (Byrne also has a chapter (12) on Dido in The Real Jane Austen.) The movie Belle  gives an imaginative portrayal of what Dido Belle’s life might have been like, based on the few facts that we have. Etienne Daly has been researching Dido and her family, and you can find his posts on All Things Georgian

Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), 1768. Public domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IgnatiusSancho.jpg

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), born on a slave ship, ended up in England. The Duke of Montague took an interest him, educated him, and made him his valet, then his butler. Sancho eventually owned a grocer’s shop in Westminster. He was also a composer and art critic. He mixed with people like Thomas Gainsborough, who painted his portrait. Sancho married a black woman and had six children. He owned enough property that he could vote; he is the first known African-background person in England to have voted in a general election.

Sancho’s letters were published in 1782, after his death. Sancho supported the abolition movement; one letter condemns “the Christians’ abominable traffic in slaves” as “uniformly wicked.” In another he expresses his faith by looking forward to heaven, “the promise of never, never-ending existence and felicity.” He also wrote to encourage a young man who had recently gone to India to stay firm in his faith: “Read your Bible—As day follows night, God’s blessing follows virtue—honor and riches bring up the rear—and the end is peace—Courage, my boy—I have done preaching.”

You can read the original Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1784), with a memoir of his life. Modernized paperback versions with more commentary are also available, as well as Dr. Gerzina’s talk on Sancho

Samuel Johnson, one of Austen’s favorite authors, left most of his possessions to his black manservant, Francis Barber. Samuel Johnson, from a portrait attributed to John Opie R.A., 1911.

Francis Barber

Samuel Johnson, whose writings Jane Austen appreciated, thought highly of his black manservant, Francis Barber (1745-1801). Born enslaved in Jamaica, Barber was brought to England as a child by his master Richard Bathurst. Bathurst had him baptized him and named him. When Bathurst died, his will freed the boy.

Barber worked as Johnson’s servant. Johnson, who was against slavery, educated Barber and treated him like a son. Barber’s black friends came to visit him in Johnson’s home. Barber left Johnson for a few years, working for an apothecary, and then in the navy. Johnson got him out of the navy and brought him back. Barber married a white wife, Elizabeth, and had five children. They all lived in Johnson’s home.

When Johnson died, he left money, an annuity (yearly income of £70), and most of his possessions to Barber: property, books and papers, and other items. Barber and his wife moved to Lichfield, where he eventually ran a village school. 

Barber’s children and grandchildren married white people. Most became manual laborers, blending in with the poorer population of London. Barber’s son Samuel grew up to become a Methodist lay-minister (a preacher who was not ordained).⁠

For more on Francis Barber, you can check out Dr. Gerzina’s talk, or this biography.

Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography went through multiple editions and was published in multiple languages. archive.org/details/lifeofolaudahequ00equi_0

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was the most famous formerly-enslaved person in Austen’s England. From the Igbo people group in Nigeria, he was enslaved as a child, owned by a series of people and traveled the world. Through trade, he earned enough to buy his freedom from a Quaker master when he was about 21. After several people in Georgia and the West Indies attempted to kidnap Equiano and re-enslave him, he decided to move to England. From there he worked as a seaman on long voyages.

Equiano became a leader of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. His autobiography was published in 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  ran through nine editions in England, and was widely read in the US and translated into Dutch, German, and Russian. (Equiano’s owners gave him several names when he was young; Gustavus Vassa was one that he continued using in England.) Equiano traveled around the country promoting his book and campaigning against slavery.

Equiano vividly describes his African childhood and his experiences on a slave ship and as an enslaved man. (Some scholars believe he was actually born in South Carolina rather than in Africa, but his autobiography describes his childhood in Africa.) He tells of the abuses suffered by slaves, and the challenges he faced as a free black man.

In 1774, Equiano was dramatically converted to Christianity. More than 20 pages of his autobiography describe the various people who shared passages from the Bible with him, his own conviction of sin, and finally his vision of “bright beams of heavenly light” coming into a “dark place” as he accepted Jesus’s death for his sins. He became a member of the Church of England. Equiano often tried to persuade others to become Christians. He attempted to get ordained and go as a missionary to Africa, but the bishop chose not to ordain him.

In 1786, Equiano was asked to help with a new project. At first he was enthusiastic about the idea. The government was planning to send a group of black people to Sierra Leone in Africa to set up a colony there. Equiano was to supervise the provisioning of the ships. However, he complained of corruption and poor, insufficient supplies, and was dismissed from his position. The expedition did take place, but the colony faced huge difficulties and many died.

Equiano closed his autobiography with a plea to end slavery, and instead to trade with Africa for goods like indigo and cotton. He went on to explain that he had included many seemingly small details of his life, since he had learned to see the hand of God in all those details, and to learn lessons “of morality and religion” from all that happened; he hoped his readers would also learn from his experiences.

For more on Equiano’s life, I recommend his autobiography. It was very popular in the eighteenth century, though we don’t know if Jane Austen ever read it. Modern versions with additional material are also available. For a briefer survey, listen to Dr. Gerzina’s talk.

Like many black writers of the time, Gronniosaw included his Christian testimony in his memoir.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1705-1775), an African prince from Nigeria, became a Christian while he was enslaved in America. Like many of the formerly-enslaved people who wrote their stories at this time, he includes his faith experiences. His owner was a Reformed Dutch minister who sent him to school. Gronniosaw was converted when he read Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted, so he was obviously very literate. He wrote, “I was so drawn out of myself, and so fill’d and awed by the Presence of God that I saw (or thought I saw) light inexpressible dart down from heaven upon me . . . I seemed to possess a full assurance that my sins were forgiven me. I went home all my way rejoicing . . .”.

Gronniosaw was eventually freed and settled in England. He was influenced by multiple denominations there. He became friends with the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, joined a Baptist church, shared his testimony with Dutch Calvinists, and received help from Quakers. When he wanted to marry a white English woman who had helped him grow in his faith, the leaders of his church objected: not because of race, but because she was poor. He paid off her debts and married her anyway. She was a weaver; he worked at whatever jobs he could find.

 Gronniosaw, like most black people in Britain, was not born in a British parish and therefore not eligible for parish help when he was in need. In his memoir he describes one severe winter when he and his wife were both unemployed and “reduc’d to the greatest distress imaginable.” He did not want to beg, but when their “last bit of bread was gone” he had to ask for help. They moved elsewhere and his wife found work again as a weaver, but the situation was still difficult. He thanks God for the “charitable assistance” of others and looks forward to relief in heaven.

You can read Gronniosaw’s story in his own words in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.

Mary Prince’s autobiography increased public outrage over the abuses experienced by enslaved people in the West Indies.

Mary Prince

The only autobiography of a black woman in England that we have from this time is the story of Mary Prince (1788-183?). Mary was born into slavery in Bermuda. She later lived in Antigua, where Moravian missionaries taught her to read and write in a Bible class. She joined the Moravian church, which helped many enslaved people in Antigua. Mary married a freeman in the church, though the Church of England there apparently did not allow slaves to marry. A Moravian missionary attempted to buy Mary’s freedom, but her owner, John Wood, refused to let her go. He took her away from her husband and brought her to England.

In England she fled from the Wood family’s cruelty. The Anti-Slavery Society took her in. She worked as a servant for the secretary of the society, and the society helped her published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, in 1831. At the end of her story, she is enjoying the kindness and hospitality of Christians in the Anti-Slavery Society, and appreciates going to church three times on Sunday. But she longs for her husband and her home, and cannot return because that would mean returning to slavery.

Gretchen Gerzina shares some of Mary’s story on Britain’s Black Past,  using some of Mary’s own words. You can read Mary Prince’s autobiography in various editions, and on google books. The Moravians also record information about Mary.

Black Clergy

We also know of a few black or mixed-race clergymen in Austen’s England. Brian Mackey, the son of a white father and a black West Indian woman, held two church livings in 1805.  We only know about his racial background because one of his contemporaries, clergyman William Holland, was his parents’ neighbor and wrote about Mackey in his diary. Nathaniel Wells, mentioned in last month’s post, had two sons who became clergymen. Philip Quaque (or Kwekwe) was a black African who studied in England, was ordained, and married an English wife. In 1766 he returned to Cape Coast, Africa, as the Church of England’s first African missionary. For more on black people in the Church of England, I recommend Black Voices: The Shaping of Our Christian Experience by David Killingray and Joel Edwards, which includes extensive quotes from black people in England over the centuries.

These are only a few of the many black people who lived at least part of their lives in Austen’s England. I hope you will have a chance to read some of their stories in more detail. And please tell us about others you are familiar with!

 

Note: Last month when I talked about mixed-race Nathaniel Wells and his wealth and position in society, I should also have said that Wells, as his slave-owning father’s heir, owned slave plantations, and the enslaved people apparently were not treated well. Gretchen Gerzina tells more of his troubling story in Britain’s Black Past

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

Other Sources

  • William Holland, Paupers and Pig Killers, 106. Jan. 25, 1805. (On Brian Mackey)
  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)
  • Dr. Johnson’s portrait is from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Johnson_(1911)_Frontispiece.png
  • You can find further resources here.

For more on individual black lives in Austen’s England, check out Professor Gretchen Gerzina’s series, “Britain’s Black Past,” on BBC radio.

I also recommend recordings of this year’s excellent Race and the Regency series from Jane Austen and Co.

 

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

 

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By Brenda S. Cox

“Well! I am really haunted by black shadows. Men of colour in the rank of gentleman, a black Lady cover’d with finery, in the Pit at the Opera, and tawny children playing in . . . the gardens of the squares . . . afford ample proofs of Hannah More and Mr. Wilberforce’s success towards breaking down the wall of separation.” –Letter from Hester Thrale to Mrs. Pennington, June 19, 1802 (Hannah More and William Wilberforce were leaders in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.)

Last month we looked at what fiction like The Woman of Colour can show us about the lives of black people in Jane Austen’s England. This week let’s consider what we can learn from records of the time.

Kathleen Chater, author of Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, researched the lives of black people in eighteenth century England. She searched parish records, newspaper accounts, trial accounts, and private diaries and letters. She found that the term black was often used for any darker-skinned people, including immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and China. In official records, those from Africa might be identified as Negro, black, or many other terms. (Jane Austen seems to use the word black for people with dark hair and eyes and tanned skin, but it’s not likely that official records would use that definition.) So it’s not always easy to tell which people group records refer to.

Kathleen Chater examined a wide variety of records, including parish records, trial records, newspaper articles, and private diaries and letters, researching the situation of black people in eighteenth century England.

Based on Chater’s data, Jane Austen likely saw black African people in London. Chater writes, “Wherever they went, upper- and middle-class people must have seen Blacks, because many were the servants of the upper classes, employed in highly visible positions. They opened doors to visitors, they served meals, they drove coaches in the streets.” Wealthy women liked to have a black page boy or footman serving them. Black musicians played in Army bands and led the Guards through London to Hyde Park. Other black Londoners were soldiers, sailors, shopkeepers, or a variety of other occupations.

An estimated three to five thousand black people lived in Austen’s London, with smaller numbers in the slave ports of Liverpool and Bristol. (Another estimate is that there were around 15,000 black people in 18th century England, but Chater doubts that number, which is not reflected in records of the time.) Many black people in the port cities were transient; they were mariners who were only in England for short periods of time. Some were fugitives from America. An estimated ten thousand black people were spread out through the rest of England (0.1 % of the population).

Black sailors were treated as equals on board ship. Public domain image by George Cruikshank and Lieut. John Sheringham, R.N., 1822,
http://www.loc.gov/item/2006690787/.

Despite an intensive search, Chater did not find evidence of any specifically black communities or black churches at that time. About 80% of the black people in England were men. Many of them married white people, and they and their children became part of the English spouse’s community.

The situation for black people in England was different than it was in the Americas. Their numbers were much smaller in England, so people may not have perceived them as a threat to their society as countries with large numbers of enslaved people did. Slavery as an institution was not practiced in England. Enslaved people were sometimes brought to England, though, from America or the West Indies. The Mansfield judgment in 1772 implied that they were free in England, but it wasn’t totally clear. Enslaved visitors sometimes escaped or were freed, and settled in England. Others were taken back to the overseas colonies. Britain had a self-contradictory position on black people. They treated them as property to be exploited on the plantations of the West Indies, yet gave them human rights in England.

Lord Mansfield, whose name may have inspired the title of Mansfield Park, raised his mixed-race great-niece Dido Belle. He also made several rulings opposing slavery and the slave trade, but could not abolish either. Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo, about 1737, public domain.

Chater found little evidence of institutionalized racial discrimination, though there were individual racist incidents. It appears that black people in England generally had the same rights as white people. Black people were allowed to testify in court just as white people were, as long as they had been baptized. (Baptism was required to make sure that they acknowledged God’s authority and so would tell the truth. A Muslim was allowed to swear on the Quran, so this was not a matter of religious prejudice.) Some black servants received wages, and others did not; the same was true of white servants. Black people could hold parish offices: Chater lists a black churchwarden, a black parish constable, and a black sexton. There were limitations on apprenticeships for black people, but similar restrictions applied to all “foreigners”; most black people in England at this time came from outside the country. 

In Austen’s England, a person’s social class, or rank (as Austen calls it), was the most important factor of their identity, not skin color. Black working-class people were treated more or less like white working-class people. Mixed-race children of middle- or upper-class people were treated much like their white fathers.

For example, Nathaniel Wells was the son of a white plantation owner in St. Kitts and a black enslaved woman. He inherited great wealth, moved to England, and bought an estate in Monmouthshire. One visitor described him as “a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro.” However, his color did not bar him from the life of a country gentleman. Wells married the daughter of George II’s former chaplain. He served as a justice of the peace, a county sheriff, and deputy lieutenant for the county. He was also a churchwarden from 1804 to 1843. Two of his sons became clergymen, holding church livings.

For worship, black servants generally attended parish churches along with others in their households. Black people were baptized, married, and buried at Anglican churches, like most people in Britain. They were often baptized as adolescents or adults rather than as babies, since most were not born in England. Enslaved Africans brought into the country sometimes sought baptism under the mistaken idea that baptism would make them free. Others sought baptism because of a genuine religious conversion experience. Some were baptized and took “Christian names” in order to become a full part of the community or to get married. Cather found records that black people were part of all the religious groups of the time, except for the Jews and Quakers. (It is possible, however, that the Quakers simply did not record the race of their adherents.)

According to Chater, most people in England who had black servants “seem to have felt accountable for their Black servants’ spiritual welfare. Not only did servants attend church with them, they also took part in family prayers at home, a practice which reinforced the bonds between members of the family and their household.” This was also true of white servants, of course. In English society, those in higher positions were responsible for dependents in lower positions.

Memorials in churches around England show the esteem that some families felt for their black servants. One in Lancashire, dated 1793, describes “Augustin Leonard, A Black Man” as “a faithful servant And affectionate husband And sincere friend And Beautiful companion.” Another in Cornwall, dated 1700, says Philip Scipio was “an African whose Quality might have done Honour To any Nation or Climate And Give us to See that Virtue is Confined to no Country or Complexion Here Weep Uncorrupted Fidelity And Plain Honesty.” Some today may look on such inscriptions, for black or white servants, as patronizing. However, within the social structure that was taken for granted at that time, they seem to have been meant sincerely. 

Black and white servants appear to have had equal status “below stairs.” Thomas Rowlandson, 1810, public domain. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/811400

In London, however, many black people were not attached to white households. Some had difficulty finding work and became beggars. In about a month’s time in 1786, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor gave financial help to almost 2,000 black people in London. This was not necessarily 2,000 different individuals, of course. Some were probably repeat visitors, and some may have been from outside London.

Far fewer black people lived in the English countryside. Austen may not have known any in the country villages where she lived, unless a local squire had a black servant. In the town of Moreton in Devon, a black man caused great excitement. One witness wrote that “Peter the black servant to General Rochambeau” was the first black person to get married in Moreton. For this great event, “The Bells rang merely all day. . . . a great number assembled in the Church yard, and paraded down the street with them.”⁠

It appears black and mixed-race people in England were accepted as part of society, though such people did face some prejudices. Sadly, the people of England seemed to be blind to the suffering of enslaved people on their overseas plantations. Long campaigns had to take place before the slave trade, and then slavery, were outlawed in the British Empire. As Hester Thrale wrote in the letter quoted at the beginning of this article, Christian leaders like William Wilberforce and Hannah More led those campaigns. Two writers Austen loved, Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper, also contributed. Women supported the campaigns greatly by boycotting West Indian sugar. Free black people in England made major contributions as well. Many such men and women helped white Britons see enslaved people as human beings like themselves who deserved freedom.

Next month we’ll look at the stories of some individual black people at various levels of society who lived in Jane Austen’s England.

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

 

This Tuesday, April 27, Professor Gretchen Gerzina will be speaking on “The Black Woman in Nineteenth Century Studies” at 5 PM EST. The announcement says, “Black and mixed-race women in nineteenth-century Britain were represented in fiction, drama and high and low art. However the reality of their actual presence couldn’t be more different from these exaggerated representations.” Sign up and attend to learn what Dr. Gerzina has to add to this discussion!

Yesterday Chawton House and the Newton and Cowper Museum hosted a study day about William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Videos, which are still available, include a fascinating talk on Cowper and Abolition. Cowper’s poems not only contributed to the fight for abolition in England, but also to the fight against slavery in the United States. For links to the other talks, which were also excellent, click here.

Sources

  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Silvester Treleaven, Oct. 17, 1808. 
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)

You can find further resources here.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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