I’m reading this delightfully nutty book called Not In Front of the Servants by Frank Victor Dawes. It is, unsurprisingly, a book about what it was like being a servant in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
In my last post, we talked about the horrible double standards employers held about their servants when it came to issues of sex. Today we’re going to talk about various rules of employment that were just plain weird.
“Victorian aristocrats were capable of eccentricity on a rather grander scale [than the middle classes], however. The Duke of Portland had a skating rink installed in the grounds and if he came across a maid sweeping a corridor he ordered her out to skate, whether she had any desire to do so or not” (21).
What if it was summer? Or do they mean a roller skating rink? And why? Is that a punishment? I know that maids were generally supposed to get that sort of ‘rough’ work done before the owners of the house were even out of bed, and they usually timed their work schedules around those of their masters, so their masters never had to come across the horrific sight of cleaning. Heaven forefend.
But is figure skating really a punishment? Or was it just to get the maid out of the house for a while so he didn’t have to see her?
“And don’t come back until you can clean invisibly, or do a triple lutz!”
“The tenth Duke of Bedford detested women servants to such a degree that any who crossed his path after noon, when household duties were supposed to be over, were liable to instant dismissal. It was the rule in many great houses that housemaids must be virtually invisible above stairs” (21).
Y’all, you are in the UK. GET HOUSE ELVES FOR THAT SHIT.
“Some employers were eccentric to the point of being mentally unbalanced. In a letter to the author Mrs Pitt of Didcot recalls one mistress who was in the habit of touring the house in the small hours carrying a loaded revolver in a search for burglars. She would bang on the doors of the servants’ quarters and on one occasion nearly shot the butler in mistake for an intruder. On another occasion she called the police and told them that her gold and diamond watch had been stolen. After all the servants had been hauled from their beds and questioned, the watch was found in the lady’s bedroom.
“Mrs Pitt goes on: ‘One by one the terrified staff left. One maid slipped away while Madam was at church, another didn’t come back after her day off. Cook went on a visit and didn’t return'” (20).
I’m surprised they waited until they had a reasonable excuse, like church, a day off, or a visit. Frankly, the first time she pulled this crap, I would have thrown a smoke bomb in the middle of the parlor and been 10 streets away before it cleared.
Of course, some employers weren’t just weird. They were cheap and cruel.
“Some mistresses had the cutlery in the servants’ hall stamped ‘Stolen from …’ and others were kinder to animals than servants, providing better blankets for their cats and dogs than they provided for their maids. Mrs Lee of Somerton, Somerset, started in service in 1917 at the age of twelve. She was a kitchen maid to an elderly spinster who kept thirty cats.
“In a letter to the author she writes, My work consisted chiefly to cook for these animals and the amount of food cooked for them was wonderful – porridge for breakfast, a joint for dinner and a big saucepan of hot milk for tea‘” (19-20).
Christ in a beehive, you guys, I don’t care if there were thirty cats. They must have been the FATTEST cats in England. Keep in mind that this was, without question, better than the maid herself was eating.
“Some [employees], of course, were treated with almost incredible meanness. In a letter to the author a former maid recalls working for a family before, during and after the First World War, who scrimped and saved to such an extent that they even sold newspapers to the fishmonger to gain a few pence. The so-called ladies of the house gave the maid their cast-off clothes, but kept back money to pay for them out of her scanty wages. The house was wired for electricity, except for the maid’s bedroom, where a candle had to do. She helped to nurse the master during a terminal illness and when he died he left her £50. Later she learned he had left a total of £32,000. Soon after that the mistress decided to sell up and live with her daughter, so the housemaid found herself without a job after nine years of service with the one family” (38).
NINE BLOODY YEARS? You have the patience of a saint.
There was even an economy of names:
“Even the kindliest of employers seems to regard their servants as chattels, thinking nothing, for instance, of changing their names arbitrarily if they happened to clash with those of ‘the family.’ Mary or Jane were common generic names for servant girls. Anything varying from the norm (Ada, or Marion, perhaps) was pretentious, and not allowed. The more senior female staff were addressed by their surnames only.
“In a letter to the author Mrs Stewart, of Evesham, remembers that in her grandmother’s house, before 1900, maids were called by the names which that venerable lady had chosen for each position. Thus the head maid was always Emily, the next Jane, the cook Charlotte and the kitchenmaid Mary. Whatever their own names happened to be, they were ignored.” (36).
I do find it remarkable that employers were willing to open up their homes and personal lives to complete strangers and not even be bothered to know their names. That girl you call Emily? She dresses you every morning. That girl you call Mary? She probably empties your chamber pot. That’s right, a person whose real name you don’t know, whom you almost never see, is probably on very friendly terms with your most intimate bodily functions. HOW IS THAT NOT WEIRD? EVEN AT THE TIME?
But then again, I suppose it was also a very pragmatic erosion of identity. If ‘Mary’ isn’t good enough to deserve her own name, she probably won’t start getting radical ideas, like thinking she’s too good to empty out your poo. You start calling her by her real name (something probably horribly above her station, like Valentina, or Persephone, or Capulet Octavia Pimms Spiffing Wellington III), and soon you’ll be left emptying out your own poo.