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A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times

by Lucy Lethbridge

Hardcover, 385 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $27.95 |


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A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times
Lucy Lethbridge

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Lucy Lethbridge paints a vivid picture of the lives of British servants through the letters and diaries of those who served in upper-crust households, and explores the complicated relationships and social implications between the server and those they served.

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Excerpt: Servants

Chapter 1: 'A Sort of Silence and Embarrassment'

In 1901, in a slim volume published to mark the accession of Edward VII, the author, identified only as 'One of His Majesty's Servants', sketched an idyllic picture of domestic life in the royal household, stressing the new monarch's domestic rectitude, and his homely side, hitherto unknown to his subjects: 'Few people outside the Royal Family and the circle that is honoured by the King's intimate friendship are aware of the high standard of domestic life that he has always set himself and observed.' Not only, wrote the author, did the marriage of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra have the savour of 'the once-upon-a-time fairy period or the poetic middle ages', but the royal couple loved nothing more than to 'meet for tea', that cosiest of occasions heralding a gargantuan command performance with a 'seemingly inexhaustible supply of cakes both hot and cold, sandwiches of all kinds, rolls and jams'.

To celebrate the sanctity of the English teatime, in 1902, Queen Alexandra invited 10,000 of London's 'maids-of-all-work' to tea parties across the capital to mark the Coronation. The teas were orchestrated by the Office of the Bishop of London and The Times reported that between 10 July and 2 August, although it poured with rain almost incessantly, the girls gathered for 'tea, white and brown bread and butter, jam, lettuces and watercress, seed cake, iced plum cake and strawberries'. These were the tweenies, the skivvies, the slaveys, the grafters: girls who slept in basement kitchens next to the stove, or in tiny bedrooms under the eaves, where it was either freezing cold or oppressively hot. From Norwood, Tottenham, St Pancras, St Albans and Camberwell they came, and were entertained with music, 'fancy sketches' and similar treats by the ladies of the local branches of the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants ('MABYS') and other benevolent institutions. The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, stood on a table in the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park to address the throng and reminded them of their vital role in the development and expansion of the Empire. One thousand teas were served in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace in Fulham. 'We carried it off as well as we could,' remembered the Bishop, 'except that a thousand girls insisted on kissing the band, but as the band did not seem to mind there was no harm done.' The maids-of-all-work, most of whom would have half a day off a week at most, were permitted, 'contrary to the custom at gatherings of this kind', to wear their own clothes rather than their usual uniform of cap and apron. It was reported that they raised their cups to the King and wished the new monarch well.

No aspect of the home spoke quite so eloquently to the English middle-class idea of the ordered life than the presence of servants. From the bustling subterranean townships employed on the landed estates, to the maid-of-all-work who did for the rapidly expanding middles, as representatives of the nation's sense of natural and social order, the deferential servant was as necessary to the English pyramid of social life as the squire or the parson. Foreign visitors to England often marvelled at the efficiently orchestrated hospitality for which the English had become famous. In 1832, on a year-long tour round England, the Prussian Prince Puckler-Muskau reported that: 'The treatment of servants is as excellent as their performance of their duties. Each has his prescribed field of activities; in which, however, the strictest and most punctual execution of orders is expected of him . . . At the same time the servants enjoy a reasonable freedom, and have certain portions of time allotted to them, which their master carefully respects. The whole treatment of the servant classes is much more decorous, and combined with more égards than with us; but then they are so entirely excluded from all familiarity, and such profound respect is exacted from them, that they appear to be considered rather as machines than as beings of the same order.'

The labour which facilitated such an impression of effortlessness was, on the whole, silent, subservient and multitudinous. There was perceived to be an upward momentum for the good servant, a seat at the head of the servants' table. 'Servants, in my childhood,' wrote Susan Tweedsmuir of her youth in a country house at the turn of the century, 'came young to a large house, worked very hard, were promoted, worked less hard as the years went by; were caught up into an empyrean where they had a sitting room of their own. They then wore a black silk dress and were waited on by the under-
servants.' Most young servants in households of this size learned the job by waiting solely on the upper-servants. At Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, where the fifth Duke of Portland, an eccentric recluse, maintained an enormous entourage of ninety indoor servants to attend him, the ten senior upper-servants had ten under-servants to wait on them in turn. In the larger houses, the system was sufficiently capacious to take in servants whose role was never made explicit. There seems rarely to have been a sense that there were too many servants and any stray parties were given vague job titles covering just about anything required of them, or were referred to as apprentices — sometimes for years. A 'useful maid', for example, halfway up the ladder to being a lady's-maid, was often used to accompany young girls to parties. The 'odd man', a vital fixture on an estate, was a manservant who never quite made the grade required to be a front-of-house type and was therefore used for pretty well everything, from carrying heavy luggage to helping with the cleaning. Huge houses could sustain great numbers of the very old and the very young and with their work went the rituals of their particularity, the vital necessity of which no-one thought of questioning. Lady Diana Cooper, who grew up in Belvoir Castle, Rutland, remembered the 'gong man' whose only job was to summon the household to meals by walking the corridors three times a day banging a gong: 'He would walk down the interminable passages, his livery hanging a little loosely on his bent old bones, clutching his gong with one hand and with the other feebly brandishing the padded-knobbed stick with which he struck it.'

The idea that the country estate — supported by farms, orchards, gardens and well-stocked lakes — constituted a microcosm of the natural and social order, had taken root deep in the English imagination. By 1900 the country estate became imbued with a nostalgia captured in the pages of Country Life, a weekly magazine which had been established in 1880 precisely to feed a nation's longings for the ideal country house. Like Edward Ponderevo, the self-made millionaire of H. G. Wells's novel Tono-Bungay, the new-rich quickly learned the social cachet of the old over the showy glitter of the new: 'Their first crude conception of dazzling suites of the newly perfect is replaced almost from the outset by a jackdaw dream of accumulating costly discrepant old things.'

The great estates became the symbols of an Englishness where effortless caste superiority was preserved by the trappings of patronage and rich Americans fell over themselves to marry their daughters to aristocratic families who, in turn, were in need of funds. The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a visit from the New World, was among those seduced by the English milord's resistance to strenuous effort of any kind: 'They have the sense of superiority, the absence of all the ambitious effort which disgusts in the aspiring classes, a pure tone of thought and feeling, and the power to command, among their other luxuries, the presence of the most accomplished men at their festive meetings.'

For many of those American heiresses who did marry into the aristocracy it was often their spouses' practical incompetence — being stumped by the simplest of daily tasks — that proved most perplexing to their new brides. When sitting beside a dwindling fire, a poker at their feet, it was usual to ring for a footman to poke the fire using the very same poker. Yet at the same time, they often went to great lengths rarely to encounter most of those who did the work for them, never to brush up against the spectacle of manual labour itself. 'If someone walked into the room and all they wanted was a handkerchief you had to stop whatever you were doing and walk out until such time as they did this,' remembered an Edwardian maidservant. Lord Curzon, whose intellect was regarded as one of the glories of the Empire, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available so late at night), that he simply picked up a log from the grate and smashed the glass.

Excerpted from Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. Copyright (c) 2013 by Lucy Lethbridge. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.