Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Monday, 7 September 2015


Last night's episode of Channel 4's Time Crashers saw the ten celebrities working as servants at an Edwardian stately home. The roles they were given included valet and lady's maid, footmen and housemaids, and hallboy and scullery maid. The scenario for the programme was that the master and mistress were hosting a shooting party, and the male servants were involved with setting up a luncheon tent and serving food outside while the women stayed indoors to serve the visiting ladies with afternoon tea.

I've been impressed with the historical accuracy of the programmes in this series so far and this episode certainly gave the viewer a good idea of what domestic service was really like in a country house in 1913. It highlighted the hierarchy between the servants and the division of the roles, for example, first housemaid, second housemaid, and so on. The benefits of working in a large staff and the camaraderie that went with it were shown, as well as the isolation of domestic service in a rural country house.

An unidentified footman, circa 1905. (Author's collection)
The possibility of a career in domestic service was also mentioned with Greg Rutherford as the hallboy being told he could aspire to be a footman and even a butler if he continued to work with the same excellent attitude. The same could not be said for Zoe Smith who, as a scullerymaid, was given the task of plucking pheasants. When she refused, she was promptly dismissed without a character (a reference) and had to leave straight away. Again, this was completely accurate and if she had been a real servant, her prospects for finding another place in service would have been very bleak.

I was surprised, however, to see the housemaids cleaning and lighting fires while wearing black dresses and white aprons - they wouldn't have stayed clean for long! In a country house like this, it was far more likely for them to have a morning outfit and an afternoon one, or to wear an overall to protect their aprons. This was the case even in smaller middle-class homes as seen in these images from Cassell's Household Guide (1911) showing morning and afternoon wear for a parlourmaid:

The celebrities experienced the realities of domestic service such as not being addressed by their real names, their irrelevance as people and the long hours of back-breaking work. In reality, despite the drawbacks of serving in a country house, every ambitious servant wanted to work in gentlemen's service. However, anyone watching this programme and series like ITV's Downton Abbey could be forgiven for thinking that domestic servants only worked in country houses. In fact, the vast majority of those in domestic service worked in much smaller middle-class homes in one- or two-servant households. The lowly 'general' or maid of all work had a far worse job than those depicted in Time Crashers. You can read about some of their experiences in Servants' Stories.

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