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

Monday, 14 September 2015


As we count down to the final season of Downton Abbey, starting this Sunday 20 September, today's post is all about how Downton's servants might have found their jobs. Yes, I know it's fictional! But bear with me because it's interesting to imagine how long-serving members of staff like Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore originally obtained their places with the Crawley family. There was, of course, word of mouth and the 'Situations Vacant' columns in newspapers, but there were also servants' registries or registry offices: the equivalent of today's employment agency.

Servants' registries were usually run by ex-servants who had set up a business with their life savings, often in conjunction with another enterprise such as a newsagent or grocer. There was a huge expansion of these offices during the Victorian period to cater for the rise in demand for servants by the middle classes, and most provincial towns had at least one while in large cities there were numerous offices. The servants' registries specialised in matching up domestic servants with mistresses who had vacancies.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)
Ladies wanting servants would contact a servant’s registry with their requirements, such as the type of servant and salary provided. The office would match up servants with employers, and the larger ones had private booths in which prospective maids could be interviewed. In most cases, both mistress and servant would pay a fee for the service. Charities such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (M.A.B.Y.S.) and the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) also ran registries.

While these offices catered for the lower end of the servant market, there were also registries which tended to the needs and wants of upper-class customers like Lord and Lady Crawley. One example was Mrs Hunt's Servants' Registry Office and there is an excellent post about it on Emmy Eustace's blog. Mrs Hunt's was a famous registry office with an impeccable reputation. Only the very best servants with first-class 'characters' were considered for positions advertised in her agency and she offered a 'no engagement, no fee' policy. This registry office supplied both male and female servants; Emmy Eustace's blog post is about a footman who applied for work through the agency.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)
I can easily imagine Lady Crawley writing to Mrs Hunt's requesting details of possible butlers, housekeepers and cooks, and Mrs Hunt herself visiting the Crawleys at their London residence when they were in town for the season. Dependable and highly skilled upper servants like Mrs Hughes, Mr Carson and Mrs Patmore would have found it relatively easy to find work through a servants' registry and they would have been used to moving around the country for the best jobs; it was part and parcel of climbing the career ladder in domestic service.

Mrs Hunt's "suited" over 50,000 customers a year, according to a journalist for the magazine Living London. When he visited the office in Duke Street in 1900, he discovered that there was "a black list which is carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants’ characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient."

The problem with 'characters' was that masters and mistresses were not legally obliged to provide them, hence the trade in fraudulent written references. If a ‘character’ was not forthcoming to show to a future employer, it would automatically be assumed that the servant was an unsatisfactory employee. By the same token, a mistress might write an untruthfully positive reference just to be rid of a troublesome maid, passing the problem on to the next employer.

'Afternoon wear', Cassell's Household Guide, 1911
While Mrs Hunt's catered for high-class clientele like Lord and Lady Crawley, at the other end of the scale were the fraudulent registry offices which placed tempting advertisements in the provincial newspapers. The Pall Mall Gazette (15 January 1894) reported:

"When servants answer them they are summoned to London by the registry-keeper who has advertised. On arrival in London, the deluded servants are unable to get any information about the situation advertised. The situations, in fact, do not exist, the servants having been deluded into coming up in order that they should lodge at the registry office, at a charge leaving a fine margin of profit to the keeper. Nor do they get a room to themselves at these so-called servants’ homes. Seven, eight and nine are packed into one room, and the poor victims can do nothing but remonstrate, fearing that if they leave their chances of obtaining the desired situation will be made so much the more remote…Servants lodging at these wretched homes are sent to employers where they cannot stop. For instance, a good servant is sent to a bad place, where he or she will not remain, and a bad servant is sent to a good place, where the master or mistress will not put up with incompetency. Thus the poor servants are constantly kept returning to the registry lodgings, impoverishing themselves while enabling these land-sharks to live in luxury."

The journalist from Living London alluded to the risk to servants of answering "specious advertisements.  There are “situations” with “good wages for suitable young women” which are not “places” within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed."

From 1907, registry offices within the London County Council area were licensed and these annual licenses were withdrawn if there were complaints. However, local authorities elsewhere in Britain did not take advantage of powers to do the same so a registry office in London with a revoked license could legally set up again outside the capital. It seems that the best way for servants to avoid fraudulent registry offices and misleading advertisements was to find situations via personal recommendation only.

From 'Servant London' in Living London (1901)

For employers like the Crawleys, word of mouth would always have been the most favoured method of recruitment, closely followed by high-class servants' registries like Mrs Hunt's. If, as is rumoured, many of the staff at Downton are made redundant in the final series, they will all have impeccable characters to offer a new master or mistress.

* A version of this post originally appeared last year on my A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England blog

No comments:

Post a Comment