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?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent