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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high