Posts Tagged ‘Servants’

maid of all work

Our modern perception of the hired help in Jane Austen’s day is that this group lived rather static lives. The servant class was quite fluid, however, and many people worked in their positions for no more than 2-3 years at a time.  Good workers were in top demand and on the lookout for higher pay and better employment, while those who were inefficient could be hired and fired on the same day. The situation was more stable in large rural households, but even in these establishments junior servants tended to leave after a year or so.

With enclosures of common lands preventing the rural poor from supplementing their diets with homegrown  food as was once the custom, children quickly became an economic burden. As soon as they were old enough children were expected to add to a family’s income. As many as sixty percent of young men and women worked or found labor before moving on to the next stage in their lives*, which usually meant marriage and setting up their own household. With job prospects so poor in the countryside, a steady migration of people  to towns and cities meant that new arrivals were constantly seeking work and filling up empty servant positions.

No matter how strapped for cash, even the most modest households employed servants, if only a maid of all work. Jane Austen and her mother and sister were by no means rich, but when they moved to Chawton cottage they required the services of at least two servants. After leaving Norland Park and moving to Barton Cottage, the Dashwood women, who had to learn to live on £500 per year, employed male and female help. Even Fanny Price’s poor parents in Portsmouth were able to afford a maid. Chances were that these families found their help through recommendations from others. Listed below are the ways that a servant and master typically found each other:

1.Word of mouth

The most common way to hire help was to ask  friends and relatives or your own servants to recommend someone. This system worked well for two reasons. If the servant was happy with his employer, he would probably recommend a friend or family member to apply for a position. The employer benefited from these referrals, since they came from someone they trusted.  Allowing a complete stranger to work in your home was a risky business and one could not be too careful when choosing someone new.  This caution worked both ways. Scullery maids began to work  when they were only twelve or thirteen years old. One can imagine the relief their parents must have felt in knowing that their daughters had been employed by a decent family.

Recommendations came by letter as well. Forty years after the Regency Period ended, Florence Nightingale wrote this missive to an acquaintance:

My dear [Parthenope Verney]

It occurred to me after writing yesterday if you are going to set up a needlewoman under the housekeeper, Mary Jenkins, Bathwoman, Dr. W. Johnson’s, Great Malvern, has a niece, living at Oxford, a first-rate needlewoman, eldest girl of a very large family, who wants or wanted a place. If she is at all like my good old friend, her aunt, she would be a very valuable servant. Perhaps her needlework would be almost too good for your place. I believe she is a qualified “young lady’s maid,” though when I heard of her, she had never been “out,” i.e., in service. Perhaps she has a place. I think it answers very well in a large house to have as much as possible done at home, as little as possible “put out.”

2. References

Working for a private employer, no matter how menial the job, was better than working in a factory or making a living on the street. A servant of good standing could obtain a written character from their current employer. These testimonials would be especially important for a servant seeking work with a complete stranger. The catch was that employers were under no legal obligation to provide their employees with these references, and without one it was almost impossible for an individual to find a good position.  Servants were at the mercy of their employers when it came to these references, and much is made of this fact in modern fiction and film. Ideally, a written character protected a new employer from hiring a lazy or insolent person or, worse, one who had been caught pilfering. Servants who forged their own characters or altered one ran afoul of the law.  The Servants’ Characters Act of 1792 made it quite clear that he (or she) who is found guilty of making up a reference will

“be convicted of such offence in manner aforesaid, every such servant … shall thereupon be discharged and … all penalties and punishments to which at the time of such information given…”

As usual, the deck was stacked in favor of the employer. Servants who were turned out without a character ran in danger of finding a new position in less than desirable circumstances, or worse, would have to work on the street or seek shelter in a workhouse, where life would be bleak and almost unendurable.  The script on a handbill from 1815 discusses how young homeless girls can be rescued from life on the streets:

“WINCHESTER FEMALE ASYLUM: 1815 Handbill (195x320mm) announcing the opening of an asylum in Canon Street for girls between 13 & 16 to prepare them for their career as servants, with a strong emphasis on moral development. The project – “to rescue many young persons from misery and infamy and make them respectable members of society” – is outlined in detail by the joint matrons.

Registry Office, Rowlandson

Registry Office, Rowlandson

3. Registry offices

Servant registry offices were places where employers and servants could find each other without having to advertise. People who just arrived in town or who had no success finding employment through word of mouth, would go to the registry office and enter their name, their job skills, and the kind of employment they were seeking in a registry book.  Servant registry offices were not regulated during the Regency Period, and while reliable places did exist, some registries were no more than procuring offices for houses of ill repute or at the very least guilty of shady businesses practices, taking a customer’s money for doing next to nothing or taking advantage of a gullible person. Compulsory government licensing of registry offices was not instituted until the early 20th century, and those who used these concerns had to research them ahead of time. This was easier said than done and nearly impossible for someone who had just arrived in the city and had no means and few skills to uncover useful information.

The custom of hiring servants at “statue fairs” and “mops” still exists in theory if not in practice in several parts of the adjoining counties, but thanks to the low scale of advertising, such a system is not needed now, the introduction of register offices was a great improvement, the first opened in Birmingham being at 26 St John St, (then a respectable neighbourhood), in January 1777, the fee being 6d, for registering and 3d, for an enquiry, there are a number of respectable offices of this kind now, but it cannot be hidden that there have been establishments so called which have been little better than dens of thievery, the proprietors caring only to net all the half crowns and eighteen pences they could extract from the poor people who were foolish enough to go to them. – Source, Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham, 1885

Servant registry offices were divided into three classes: 1. Those who took fees from the employer and servant; 2. Free registries for servants, but the employer paid. The servant might be asked to pay a fee after finding employment; and 3. Registries for foreign servants. This source in Victorian London.org discusses the  problems registries and their clients faced:

If the proprietor is anxious to safeguard servants, his business generally comes to nothing. Those registries which are conducted on the merchandise principle, where the interest of the proprietor begins and ends with the fee, anid girls are bundled off to situations without inquiries as to where they are going, or who is to be their mistress, will bring in money; but registries conducted on philanthropic principles seldom pay, and certainly do not make much profit.

In other words, buyer beware. Often servant registries recruited people by distributing handbills in various cities and towns. They would register as many servants as possible in order to offer as wide a range of choices to prospective employers. While this practice benefited the employers and registry offices, it meant that fewer positions were available than the number of servants who were registered.

This rather amusing satire from Punch about Hiring Servants places the servant in control of her hiring. Reading between the lines, one can imagine how much fun people from belowstairs must have had in reading these droll inaccuracies about servant attitudes and behavior. While this article was written during the Victorian Era, it is still interesting to note how little had changed in fifty years in the relationship between servant and master:

The best market to go to in order to suit yourself is a servant’s bazaar – as it is called – where mistresses are always on view for servants to select from. On being shown up to a lady, you should always act and talk as if you were hiring her, instead of wanting to be hired. You should examine her closely as to the company she keeps, and the number of her family; when, if there is any insuperable objection – such as the absence of a footman, a stipulation against perquisites, a total prohibition of a grease-pot, or a denial of the right of visit, by a refusal to allow followers – in either or all of these cases, it will be as well to tell “the lady” plainly that you must decline her situation. It is a good general rule to be the first to give a refusal, and, when you find you are not likely to suit the place, a bold assertion that the place will not suit you, prevents any compromise of your dignity. If you like the appearance and manner of the party requiring your assistance, but with some few concessions to be made, the best way to obtain them will be by declaring that you never heard of any “lady” requiring whatever it may be that you have set your face against. By laying a stress on the word “lady,” you show your knowledge of the habits of the superior classes; and as the person hiring you will probably wish to imitate their ways, she will perhaps take your hint as to what a “lady” ought to do, and dispense with conditions, which, on your authority, are pronounced unlady-like. If a situation seems really desirable you should evince a willingness, and profess an ability, to do anything, and everything. If you get the place, and are ever called upon to fulfil your promises, it is easy to say you did not exactly understand you would be expected to do this, or that; and as people generally dislike changing, you will, most probably, be able to retain your place.

The nurse, detail of the Breedwell Family by Rowlandson

The nurse, detail of the Breedwell Family by Rowlandson

When asked if yen are fond of children, you should not be content with saying simply “yes,” but you should indulge in a sort of involuntary, “Bless their little hearts!” which has the double advantage of appearing to mean everything, while it really pledges you to nothing. Never stick out for followers, if they are objected to; though you may ask permission for a cousin to come and see you; and as you do not say which cousin, provided only one comes at a time, you may have half-a-dozen to visit you. Besides, if the worst comes to the worst, and you cannot do any better, there is always the police to fall back upon. By-the-way, as the police cannot be in every kitchen at once, it might answer the purpose of the female servants throughout London, to establish police sweeps, on the principle of the Derby lotteries, or the Art-Union. Each subscriber might draw a number, and if the number happened to be that of the policeman on duty, she would be entitled to him as a beau, during a specified period.

Oh, ah, let em ring again, George Cruikshank (Servants ignoring the bell)

Oh, ah, let em ring again, George Cruikshank (Servants ignoring the bell)

Always stipulate for beer-money, and propose it less for your own advantage than as a measure of economy to your mistress, urging that when there is beer in the house it is very likely to get wasted. You will, of course, have the milk in your eye when proposing this arrangement. Tea and sugar must not be much insisted on, for they are now seldom given, but this does not prevent them from being very frequently taken.

Mrs. Beeton would have disapproved of the ribald liberty Punch took in the above passages. While her outlook was more realistic,  she wrote a rather rosy and optimistic entry in her book on Household Management (1865) that avoided discussing the pitfalls of hiring a stranger to work in one’s home:

Engaging Servants is a most important—and nowadays a most onerous—duty of the mistress. One of the commonest ways of filling vacancies is to insert an advertisement in one or more of the newspapers, setting forth what kind of servant is required, whether the house is in town or country, and the wages offered. There are many respectable registry-offices where efficient and reliable servants may be engaged. A mistress whose general relations with her servants are known to be friendly should have little difficulty, and will often find suitable applicants presenting themselves from the circle of friends of the servant who is leaving. It is hardly safe to be guided by a written character from an unknown quarter; it is better, if possible, to have an interview with the former mistress. You will be helped in your decision as to the fitness of the servant by the appearance of her former place. The proper way to obtain such an interview is to tell the applicant for the situation to ask her former mistress if she will be good enough to appoint a time when you may call on her; this courtesy is necessary to prevent unseasonable intrusion. Your first questions should be relative to the honesty and general conduct of the servant; if the replies are satisfactory, other qualifications can be ascertained. Inquiries should naturally be minute, but brief and strictly to the point.

The fourth way that master and servant found each other was through advertisements. This topic merits a post by itself, which I will write about at another time.

More on the topic:

  • Servants at Emo Court – this account of servants at Emo Court records their positions, names, ages, and length of service if this information was available.

Read Full Post »

the-governess-1739-jean-simeon-chardin2“With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace, and hope, to penance and mortification forever” – Jane Austen about Jane Fairfax in Emma

Working as a governess meant a life of limbo for the poor gentlewoman who was forced to support herself due to reduced financial cirdumstances. Jane Fairfax had every reason to fear her future employment. Governesses were a threat to both their employers and the servants of the house,  reminding their female employers of how close they were to finding themselves in a similar predicament. Because of their genteel upbringing governesses lived a life of isolation, not fitting in with the servants belowstairs, not even the housekeeper, butler, or nanny, who, while they belonged to the upper ranks of servants, came from humble origins. Governesses seldom earned enough to save for their old age, and their services were often exploited and undervalued.  Dinah Birch writes in her review of Other People’s Daughter: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon:

Their “predicament was earnestly debated in journals, advice books and manuals, educational treatises, newspapers, charitable commissions, lectures, reviews and memoirs. She became the object of inadequate charity, useless compassion and offensive condescension. Worse still, she had to endure the sense of having fallen from her proper place in the world, for most governesses had been brought up amid domestic comforts and cheerful expectations.”  

This passage from  The Uneasy World Between describes the governesses’ dilemma succinctly:

The governess was often perceived as being an emotional and social threat. Many gentlewomen were forced into the role by some financial catastrophe, reminding the families they worked for of a terrible possibility. Moreover, their intimacy with children often roused the mother’s hostility, and a war for the child’s love was the result. By the middle of the century, a spate of bank failures had hugely oversupplied the market with under- educated would-be governesses, some of whom were reduced to working for £20 a year, or even for nothing except bed and board. What happened to these when they grew too old to work — perhaps only at 40 — does not bear thinking about. Only very few governesses earned more than £200 a year; Sir George Stephen in 1844 only found a dozen. Charlotte Brontë, paid £20 a year in 1841, was much more typical. The social inequality flowed, however, in an unexpected way. Many governesses, more ladylike than their employers, were expected to give a sheen of social elegance to the children of the nouveaux riches. Resentment tended to flow both from the employers and from the servants’ hall. ‘I don’t like them governesses, Pinner,’ the cook in Vanity Fair says of Becky Sharp. ‘They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me.’ The ugly situation was very clear to the more thoughtful women in this class. ‘I should be shut out from society,’ Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘and be debarred the imperfect pleasures of friendship — as I should on every side be surrounded by unequals.’The one truly typical story here, perhaps, is that of a crushed and struggling woman, Nelly Weeton. We only know about her because she wrote a journal, discovered long after her death, cataloguing with great ill-humour and resentment the treatment she received at the hands of her drunken and snobbish employers, her bullying father and brother and ultimately an appalling husband. She’s not an attractive figure, full of self-pity and complaint, but her tragic story shows how much governesses at the bottom end of the market had to put up with.

The classic governess in our collective minds is Jane Eyre. She came from a relatively humble background,  but many a young governess came from a background and breeding that equalled  her employers. This definition written in 1849 in The Living Age  describes how  untenable the situation could be:

“…the real definition of a governess in the English sense is a being who is our equal in birth manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth.  Take a lady in every meaning of the word born and bred and let her father pass through the gazette and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children…There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be in birth mind and manners above their station in order to fit them for their station. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful anomalies of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant.

Governesses depended on the kindness of their employers. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, who later became Mrs. Weston, was fortunate enough to be treated like a member of the family. One surmises  that she was one of the few to make closer to the  £200 per year described above, than the average of  £20 pounds per year that most governesses earned. In real life, Agnes Porter (c. 1750-1814) was one of the lucky women to be treated with respect when she worked as a governess to the children and grandchildren of the second Earl of Ilchester. She wrote down her thoughts as an unmarried, employed gentlewoman in journals and letters that have been published. A devoted parent, Lord Ilchester took his children with him on on trips, leaving Agnes with enough  free time to entertain friends in her private apartments. She was also invited to dine  in with the family or spend an evening with them.  While Agnes’s experience was a relatively good one, she still would have preferred to be married. Becoming someone’s wife was a desirable goal, since prospects were bleak for a woman who was not “the property’ by anyone. ‘I could not forbear partially and deeply reflecting on the ills that single women are exposed to, even at the hour of death, from being the property of no one.’ ” (Information from: A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter). 

In 1886, novelist Wilkie Collins wrote the following dialogue about the governess, Miss Westerfield,  in The Evil Genius: The Story:

Mrs. Linley returned to the subject of the governess.

“I don’t at all say what my mother says,” she resumed; “but was it not just a little indiscreet to engage Miss Westerfield without any references?”

“Unless I am utterly mistaken,” Linley replied, “you would have been quite as indiscreet, in my place. If you had seen the horrible woman who persecuted and insulted her–”

His wife interrupted him. “How did all this happen, Herbert? Who first introduced you to Miss Westerfield?”

Linley mentioned the advertisement, and described his interview with the schoolmistress. Having next acknowledged that he had received a visit from Miss Westerfield herself, he repeated all that she had been able to tell him of her father’s wasted life and melancholy end. Really interested by this time, Mrs. Linley was eager for more information. Her husband hesitated. “I would rather you heard the rest of it from Miss Westerfield,” he said, “in my absence.”

“Why in your absence?”

“Because she can speak to you more freely, when I am not present. Hear her tell her own story, and then let me know whether you think I have made a mistake. I submit to your decision beforehand, whichever way it may incline.”

The implication, of course, was that anyone with compassion would have hired Miss Westerfield. Learn more about the governess in the following links:

Read Full Post »

“Marianne’s [letter] was finished in a very few minutes; in length it could be no more than a note; it was then folded up, sealed, and directed with eager rapidity. Elinor thought she could distinguish a large W in the direction; and no sooner was it complete than Marianne, ringing the bell, requested the footman who answered it to get that letter conveyed for her to the two-penny post. This decided the matter at once. – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 26

Footmen appear prominently in Sense and Sensiblity, 2008, and Emma 1996. They stand at attention in a row with the other servants when John and Fanny Dashwood arrive at Norland Park to take residence, and flank a seated Mrs. Ferrars when she banishes Edward and Lucy Steele from her sight. A footmen, as mentioned by Jane Austen, conveyed Marianne’s first letter to Willoughby when she arrives in London.
In Emma 1997, the viewer is treated to the ridiculous sight of footmen moving kneeling cushions among the rows of strawberries as Mr. Knightley’s guests pick the fruit in his garden. By and large, footmen represented a status symbol. Chosen for their looks and height, they wore livery of a style that was popular a century earlier, with “knee breeches and braided coats with shoulder knots. At Clandon Park in Surrey in 1876, Lord Onslow provided his footmen with silk stockings, gloves and pumps, and one guinea per annum to pay for powder to dress their hair for state occasions.” (Household Management, p 18.*)
According to Daniel Pool, footmen knew their status, and were generally known for their self-importance and lack of humor. The popular saying went that “calves came before character.” Taller footmen were paid higher wages, but the best status symbol of conspicuous wealth was a pair of footmen who were matched in height and looks.
Although footmen were assigned duties both inside and outside the house, such as polishing the silver, or riding on the back of coaches, they spent an inordinate amount of time conspicuously waiting, either in an entrance hall, dining room, or wherever their services might be required at a moment’s notice. “Daily comfort is provided by servants who are almost always invisible in Austen’s novels. They are there to provide leisure and services for their superiors and to disappear—like Thomas, the footman in Sense and Sensibility: ‘Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed'”**

“Has no letter been left here for me since we went out?” said [Marianne] to the footman who then entered with the parcels. She was answered in the negative. “Are you quite sure of it?” she replied. “Are you certain that no servant, no porter has left any letter or note?” – Jane Austen, Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 26

When the man replied, “none,” Marianne turned her back to him dismissively and moved to the window.

Servants were regarded by the gentry much as a backdrop, like wallpaper or furniture. Such indifference did not go unnoticed. Eric Horne, author of What the Butler Winked At (1923) observed: “Do they ever ask themselves this question, ‘Where did I come from? And Why? Where am I going to, and when?'” (Below Stairs, p. 95.***) In most cases, apparently not.

Read more on the topic in these resources and links:

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: