Bloomsbury £20

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.

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