GUEST POST: Edwardian Servants Speak Out! by Michelle Higgs

Servants' Stories Front Cover - Copy

As we prepare to say goodbye to the servants at Downton Abbey, think back to the very first series which was set between April 1912 and July 1914. One of the minor characters, maid Gwen Dawson, wanted a better life for herself and bought a typewriter to do a correspondence course in typing and shorthand; she later left Downton after Lady Sybil found her a secretarial post. Apart from this note of dissent, all the other servants seemed to be happy in their roles – and well they might be. Working in gentlemen’s service was considered the pinnacle of an ambitious servant’s career.

But for the majority of Edwardian servants – those working in small middle-class households employing one or two maids – happiness at work seemed like a distant dream. They worked long hours for low pay with very little time off, and were often treated badly by their employers. Unlike other industries which had been the subject of government investigations, domestic service remained unregulated because it was based on a contract between two private individuals. But in the summer of 1913, servants finally got to have their say.

Morning wear for a parlourmaid, Cassells Household Guide, 1911.

Morning wear for a parlourmaid, Cassells Household Guide, 1911.

An enquiry was set up to determine the conditions in domestic service and to ascertain what improvements could be made. Questionnaires were sent out to maids and mistresses with the results published in Violet (C. V.) Butler’s report, Domestic Service: An Enquiry by the Women’s Industrial Council three years later. There were 708 replies from employers and 566 from servants, plus hundreds of letters which were sent either privately or through the press from employers and workers. A large proportion of the answers were ‘long and careful and eminently human documents’. This was perhaps the first time that the personal opinions of servants had been officially sought on such a scale, and they were eager to have their say.

One maid wrote:
“I am very often shut right indoors from one week to another, Tuesday to Tuesday I never have a day out; my mistress will not be inconvenienced so far. I consider all maids should have two hours each day to call their own, with the option of going out or remaining in the house… Domestic service would not be nearly such a monotonous occupation if a little variation were included. A good home and good food is not all that is required by servants.”

Afternoon wear for a parlourmaid, Cassell’s Household Guide, 1911.

Afternoon wear for a parlourmaid, Cassell’s Household Guide, 1911.

‘A good cook and an abstainer’ earning £30 to £35, wrote that she had a few hours off one afternoon a week, but had to cook late dinners on Sundays:
“I am sorry to say I have no other trade I could do; I should be only too pleased to say good-bye to domestic service. We can only describe it as prison without committing a crime … No, if a girl has brains, by all means let her make use of them; the less brains she has in service, the more she can stand the insults from her superiors, so unless she is naturally dull, put her to something more interesting … Every trade has its compulsory hours, but the poor servant is left entirely to the mistress to treat her as she feels, sometimes not very kindly. Why not shorten her hours, or make the wages hourly, but it must and should be compulsory. Why should not we have time for other things besides work? They should be compelled to let us out once on the Sabbath, and long enough to go a distance…”

There were also plenty of servants who were happy with their lot. A cook-housekeeper with 31 years’ experience of service from the age of 14 wrote:
“I will never regret being a domestic servant. I have tried to do my duty well, and have been well rewarded for doing so. I consider that we are better off than shop-girls or factory girls: we may not have so much money for wages, but we have our board and lodging free, also washing, which is equal to 12s or 14s a week. When the shop or factory girl pays for her food and lodgings she has very little. If a girl is not well trained at home she will never make a good servant: girls now-a-days are spoiled at home; their mothers never teach them how to work.”

Postcard inscribed ‘Maggie, our maid 1916’. Maggie is dressed for war work. (Author’s collection)

Postcard inscribed ‘Maggie, our maid 1916’. Maggie is dressed for war work. (Author’s collection)

The writers of the report discovered that little had changed since the late Victorian period and lack of liberty was still the main grievance. Nothing of any significance transpired as a result of the report’s findings, largely because of the huge financial burden of the First World War. However, war work provided a means of escape to women and girls who were unhappy as servants, and once they had tasted freedom and higher pay, they were reluctant to return to the shackles of domestic service when peace came.

You can find read more true tales of domestic service in Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950 by Michelle Higgs (Pen & Sword, 2015).

Michelle Higgs’ blog about servants is at and you can also follow her on Twitter (@michellehiggs11).

Thanks for the Memories

It seems fitting to take a bow on Edwardian Promenade’s 8th birthday.

I made a soft announcement on my author website this weekend, but now it’s time to share the news on the site in question.

After much soul-searching and thought (forgive the cliché), I am retiring Edwardian Promenade. Taking the summer–and most of the spring–off made me realize how much of myself I sank into the site.

It sounds crazy to think about, but I’ve spent most of my twenties with EP. What began as a casual repository of interesting history rapidly turned into a full-time hobby. And as this happened, the time it took to plan and write an interesting, well-researched post lengthened considerably. I think I averaged about four hours for 500-750 words.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the time spent, but I soon began to grapple with finding interesting ways to present the history. And then I felt guilty, like I was cheating my readers out of intriguing reading, by copy/pasting articles from 1900s magazines with little context. More importantly, I devoted more resources to blogging about my research than actually using it for my fiction!

Nevertheless, it’s been a blast writing for you all. I never thought that I’d meet (virtually) so many great people through EP, or make amazing contacts, or be cited by professional entities (in less than a year of starting EP, a BBC production company emailed me for research–little old me!). I especially treasure my contributors and guest posters, my blogger friends, my longtime commentors, as well as the Downton Abbey & Mr Selfridge fandoms for their wit and for allowing me the opportunity to add my knowledge to the conversation.

But to answer any lingering questions: no, I’m not shutting down the site. Yes, I’ll still be blogging about history (among other things, at Yes, I’m still offering research services. And yes, I will definitely keep up EP’s Facebook page (very easy to share up-to-date Edwardian news–join the 3600+ fans!).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be consolidating most of my blogging to one place–the aforementioned Doyenne of History. Once I settle in, I can blog about the sewing, cooking, reading, road trips, movies, and other things I’ve been holding back on–with a history twist, naturally. The Edwardian Era will always be the center of my history blogging, but now I can stretch my wings to the cool 20th century things I come across in the course of my educational and leisure pursuits.

But thank you all for the wonderful memories. I hope to see you soon at my new website, or if you just want Edwardian news, on the Facebook page!

In the meantime, browse through eight years of archives with this handy table:

COVER REVEAL: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

At long last, I am able to share the cover for Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War!

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Buy NowHarperCollins | Indiebound | Amazon | Powell’s | B & N | iBooks | Add to your Goodreads shelf

Top voices in historical fiction deliver an intensely moving collection of short stories about loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I—featuring bestselling authors such as Hazel Gaynor, Jennifer Robson, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig and edited by Heather Webb.

A squadron commander searches for meaning in the tattered photo of a girl he’s never met…

A Belgian rebel hides from the world, only to find herself nursing the enemy…

A young airman marries a stranger to save her honor—and prays to survive long enough to love her…

The peace treaty signed on November 11, 1918, may herald the end of the Great War but for its survivors, the smoke is only beginning to clear. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives will take courage, resilience, and trust.

Within crumbled city walls and scarred souls, war’s echoes linger. But when the fighting ceases, renewal begins…and hope takes root in a fall of poppies.

Read an excerpt of my contribution, After You’ve Gone, on my website!

Visit my fellow authors: Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Lauren Willig, and Marci Jefferson