Stories from below stairs: the servants' tales revealed at last

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The Independent Online

The life stories of notable domestic servants whose years of faithful attention to famous employers have been largely ignored by historians, have been told in depth for the first time.

The latest online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography recounts their narratives and reveals a fascinating insight not only into life "below stairs" but into the complex and at times touching relationship between master and servant.

Among them is Tita Falcieri, a knife-carrying Venetian gondolier who, sleeping in the poet's coffin, accompanied the body of Lord Byron back to England. He went on to serve the family of Benjamin Disraeli.

The biography reveals how the future Prime Minister pulled strings to ensure the former domestic was cared for, even arranging for his widow to be awarded a state pension. "The thought of the man who had solaced the last hours of Byron and Isaac D'Israeli accepting the fate of the retired butler and becoming keeper of a public house or a greengrocer's shop was not to be borne."

Another remembered is Henry Moat. Born in Whitby, Yorkshire, in 1871, he served Sir George Reresby Sitwell, father of Edith, for most of his life.

The relationship between the two men was often fiery - he was dismissed several times but always returned - not least when Sir George was moved by a "fad". A typical example was when his employer suggested replacing the handles of all his knives with condensed milk. "Yes, Sir George, but what if the cat gets them?" countered the deadpan Yorkshireman. The two continued to correspond until Moat's death in 1940.

A more poignant tale is that of Victoria Hughes, a Bristol woman who was forced to take a job as a lavatory attendant when her husband returned injured from the Somme in 1916.

During her long years of service, Mrs Hughes struck up a rapport with the many prostitutes who worked the Ladies' Mile, becoming confidante and friend to many who came to her WC for "tea and sympathy". She recorded her experiences in a series of notebooks, observing: "My job was to take the pennies and not to moralise. I'll leave others to huff and puff about what went on."

Though few of the millions who now enjoy a daily caffeine fix may know his name, Pasqua Rosee, a Sicilian-born former servant to an English Levantine merchant, Daniel Edwards, is credited with bringing the first coffee house to London. Having originally served his master's friends and family with regular cups, word spread and Rosee was set up in business in a small shed in 1652, with the financial assistance of Edwards.

The merchant also stepped in to save his former servant when his right to trade in the City of London was challenged by other merchants on the grounds that he wasn't a Freeman. Edwards arranged for his father-in-law's coachman, Kitt Bowman, who was a Freeman, to be his business partner. The pair moved their business in 1656 to a site in Michael's Alley and Rosee is credited with later bringing coffee to Holland.

The new biographies also include entries on Samuel Pepys's servants, who feature in his diaries. Among them is Deborah Ashwell, with whom the 17th century diarist enjoyed a clandestine affair that was later discovered by his wife.