Review: Servants, By Lucy Lethbridge
What really went on below stairs
'Don't you think George that a few sheep, with lambs gambolling about, would make the fields look furnished?" said a duchess to her butler around 100 years ago. By the next morning, the butler had obliged. This vignette in Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants, a history of domestic service over the past century, is a familiar one: the whims of the aristocracy furnished by its staff.
Domestic service provided occupation for around 1.6 million in the Edwardian era. It was a seam in Britain's social strata that would shatter under pressures of war, women's enfranchisement, and the decline of the aristocracy, but at the turn of the previous century, the demarcations of your retinue marked your social status. Lady Diana Cooper recalls the presence of the "gong man" at her childhood home in Belvoir Castle, whose only duty was banging the brass disc for meals.
The athletic footman, dressed in tailcoat and silk stockings and charged with cleaning his mistress' riding gear and bringing her breakfast in bed, was the male model of his day. If you were to aspire to service, the grand country house was the thing. Pity those who found themselves in the employ of the new middle classes, who had neither the staffing budget to match their aspirations, nor the manners of the aristocracy in dealing with staff.
In 1909, the Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed a law for mandatory social insurance. A precursor to National Insurance, it obliged employer, employee, and the state to chip in a couple of pennies a week in return for workers' health and unemployment insurance. Faithful old retainers and their masters were equally enraged, believing their relationship was already underpinned by a "sacred trust", which the state was trying to disrupt. A servant could be as much of a snob as his master. One valet, notes Lethbridge, "flatly refused on principle to consider a job offer from an ex-editor of the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker."
But by this time, while the silver was still polished, modernity had arrived. The girls in factories were paid less than their counterparts in smart houses, but they had independence, set hours, and many more boys around to take them out. The First World War was to force many a landowner to give up his gardener to the war effort, only to have him return, maimed and unemployable. Women's suffrage went hand in hand with education, and the hope of becoming a housekeeper soon seemed like stunted aspiration.
Lethbridge uses many first-hand accounts in this enlightening and elegantly written social history. One of the best examples is the diary of Alice Osbourn, who started as a nursery attendant, looking after the well-born baby Daphne Baldwin, at the turn of the century. By 1926, their patriarchs dispersed or dead, the two were motoring around as friends in Daphne's Morris cabriolet.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
- 2 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 3 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
- 4 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
- 5 Obama: The only people with the right to object to immigration are Native Americans
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
This house and dental clinic 'piled up like bricks on the brink of collapsing' is why Japan wins at architecture
Jennifer Lawrence scores first UK top 40 single with Hunger Games track 'The Hanging Tree'
Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
James Cameron hypes up Avatar sequels: 'You will s**t yourself with your mouth wide open'
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'