Today is my last post from Frank Victor Dawes’s Not in Front of the Servants. We will talk about some of the ridiculous stamina servants were expected to have, and just how much we take modern conveniences for granted today.
For example, have you ever wondered how people bathed in the Victorian era before the advent of modern plumbing? You’d see giant copper bathing tubs, and you’d know that housemaids had to carry lord knows how many boiling kettles up how many flights of stairs to fill it. However, what always confused me was: once the bath is over, how do they empty the tub? Is there a rudimentary plumbing system connected to it so you can pull the plug and have it funneled outside?
The water was then baled out manually. Bucket by bucket. I imagine the last little bits of water were then soaked up by sponges and towels.
I would like to put forth my own story here: recently, my boiler broke down and by the time I discovered it, I had to be somewhere quickly (and look very presentable). I had a friend staying with me at the time, and the two of us attempted to fill up my bath tub with boiling water. It took about ten kettles full, along with three enormous pots of water boiled on my stove, and even then I only had about 5 pathetic inches of lukewarm water to splash about it. I cannot image the effort it would have taken to fill that tub (especially if you had to climb up several flights of stairs to do it), and then the effort to remove the water after.
Some larger estates were absolutely hellish when it came to staircases. “Mrs Chambers, in a letter from Plymouth, recalls one such house she served in: ‘There were eighty stairs from top to bottom, sixteen stairs to answer the front door, thirty-two stairs to the drawing room with tea.’ As a footman at Londonderry House, Arthur Inch once put on a pedometer and in the course of a long and busy day during ‘The Season’ when big parties were the custom, he recorded eighteen miles without once leaving the house” (75).
When you walk eighteen miles in a single day, inside one house, I think it’s time for a new job.
This is twice as distressing when you consider that servants had almost no time to themselves, ever. Before 1850 (and in some houses, long after it), servants were given off one day every month, if they were lucky. For some households, it was a day off every six months. These days off were generally used by servants to visit their families, if they were close enough. Never mind going to the beach or seeing a play or sleeping in. It was usually the only time they’d see their families for weeks or months on end.
As the century wore on, and the socio-economic situation changed, and people didn’t go into service as frequently, employers were willing to be far more lenient in order to secure good help. Servants started getting an evening off every week. In some places, it was a whole day off. After World War I, especially, when ‘good help was hard to find’, servants could even be allowed all of Sunday and an afternoon off during the week.
But that didn’t mean employers liked it. “A half-day [or afternoon off] started at 3 p.m. after the maid’s work had been thoroughly done and luncheon [was] served upstairs and cleared away. The following story told to the author by a Harrogate woman took place in the 1920s: One afternoon, a maid who had on her outdoor clothes ready to go and enjoy her weekly spell of freedom which ended at 9 p.m. was stopped by the mistress, who said she hadn’t seen her take down the slip mats that morning. When the girl confessed that, owing to lack of time, this chore had in fact been omitted, she was sent back upstairs to change into cap and apron, take up all the mats and carry them down to the backyard for their daily beating. After that, with a telling off for her ‘wicked ways,’ she was allowed to change and have a belated half-day” (86-87).
Some demands on servants were too ridiculous to be believed. In a letter from the late 1860s, the Reverend Donald M. Owen scoped out a potential employee, but laid some extremely questionable terms for accepting him as a servant. The Reverend writes:
“I can offer you Board in my House and 10s a week to your wife until I can find a suitable cottage for her here – Then – A Cottage furnished and Garden – rent free – Twelve Shillings a week wages – Dinner in the Kitchen every day for yourself – Livery & Stable Clothes provided [….] Of course you w[oul]d have to reduce your number of Children before your Wife moved” (111).
Before your wi–
You want this job? DITCH YOUR BRATS
Who could even make demands like that?
When I first read this, with a very modern eye, I thought, “Where are these kids supposed to go? Shall we just kill them, Reverend?” But then, of course, I realized that if they are the children of servants, it would be common and even expected for them to go into service themselves. He is implying that all children who are reasonably old enough to work need to be dumped into service ASAP. I don’t know how many children the servant in question had, nor what their ages were, nor if they were sent into service, nor if he got the job. This is one of those things that seems, to us, insanely insensitive and even abusive, but back then might have just been seen as the firm conditions of a employer.