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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).

The Engagement of Servants


Servants' registry

A very general method of obtaining servants is by answering advertisements, or inserting advertisements for the kind of servants needed. In this latter case care should be taken to make the advertisement quite intelligible; as much information should be given in the space respecting the requirements, wages, age, etc., etc., as possible.

Then there are the registry-offices, but these have lately fallen rather into disrepute, and it is difficult to get suited with servants except from the very best of them. Another, and to my mind the best, plan——though it is apt to make you a very decided nuisance to your friends——is to inquire on all sides amongst your acquaintances if they know of any one requiring the sort of situation you wish to fill up, asking also your various tradesmen if they know any good servants out of place. When you have heard through some of these sources of a servant, never be content without a personal interview, or else commission some friend to see the servant for you.

Be most particular in putting searching questions respecting the work which she will be expected to do. Show her your own paper of rules for work, and explain exactly how much, and what the work is, your hours for meals, regulations respecting holidays, perquisites (to be dealt with further on), and all such matters. Then procure the address of the last mistress, and supplement your knowledge through her before you close the engagement.

It is most important that all the work he or she will have to do should be pointed out to every servant in this interview, as so very much depends on it; and it is by no means fair to engage any servant without thoroughly setting before them the work they are required and expected to do.

Then if your interview or correspondence with the late mistress is entirely satisfactory, the engagement can be entered into.

In large houses the housekeeper engages the female servants under her, with the exception probably of the cook, lady’s-maid and nurse; and the house-steward those beneath him, the butler, if no house-steward is kept, with the exception of the valet and head-coachman, who are generally selected by the master; when there is no house-steward, the head-coachman engages those in the stable department below him.

But in those establishments which cannot be called large, the mistress engages all the women servants, and the master the menservants. In giving the character of a servant leaving your service, you may well bear in mind the golden rule before named, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you,” and be guided by it. It certainly is not carrying that rule into practice, to give a false or unjust character, or to withhold information which it is of importance the new mistress should possess.

It is neither usual nor legal to ask a mistress to give a character a second time for a servant, that is for the servant to do so; indeed, it is very rarely asked for, only in exceptional cases, when it would probably be granted. I have done it myself, but it was a case in which the mistress who should really have been the one called on, had been undoubtedly unjust to the girl and treated her badly.

A servant can be dismissed by master or mistress by either giving a month’s notice, or else a month’s wages instead of the notice. They can be dismissed without notice for any decided lapse of duty, such as being intemperate, insolent, dishonest or disobedient to a direct order from either master or mistress; but “wages can be claimed up to the date of dismissal, unless that dismissal was for embezzlement or other felonious acts; ” and it is usual in cases of ordinary dismissal to pay a month’s wages, at least it is often done to avoid disputes, though in cases in which the fault is clearly on the side of the servant it could not be legally claimed.

In giving the character of a servant who has been dismissed for ill conduct, the master or mistress is bound to give an entirely truthful character of that servant, neither excusing nor over-stating the fault; indeed, if they suppress any real knowledge they have which would go against that servant were it stated, they lay themselves open to the charge of giving ” a false character.”

“An action will not lie against an employer for giving an unfavourable character of a servant even though it be in writing. Communications of this nature in answer to inquiries are considered privileged. But if it can be proved that an employer has given a false character from motives of malice, then an action for libel will lie against him; but the representation must be proved to be false as well as voluntary. Masters and mistresses are, however, under no compulsion to give any character to any servant, unless at the time of engaging the servant they entered into an agreement to do so.

—— Our Servants, Their Duties to Us and Ours to Them (1883) by A.G. F. Eliot James

Outdoor Servants: The Stables

Manderston House Stables
Photo credit: Lisa Jarvis – Wikimedia Commons

Horses were the backbone of Edwardian society, and even as the motorcar supplanted the carriage, the measure of a gentleman was always in how he treated his horses. The care Edwardian gentlemen lavished upon their horses was shown in the PBS documentary, Secrets of the Manor House, which featured the luxurious stables of Manderston House–an immense building in and of itself! The American elite copied this practice and also built opulent stables for their horses (Hartwood Acres near Pittsburgh, Philadelphia comes to mind). Naturally, just as the actual manor house required a large staff to keep everything running smoothly, the stables required their own staff of employees to pamper and exercise the horses. Below is a description of the different roles and requirements for a stable, as well as typical wages and livery.

Varieties And Duties

The most humble kind of stable manager is a pony boy, whose labour in the stable is one of many duties. In large places, an odd man will be occupied almost entirely with outside house work, and will have little or nothing to say to the stable, which, in the opinion of grooms and coachmen, should be kept sacred from outside intrusion. We meet among cooks, gardeners, and officials of all kinds, the same dislike to unprofessional inspection. In small establishments, the odd man will probably divide his time pretty equally between the house, stable, and garden.

The groom-gardener who has at least half of his time for devotion to the stable, may be reasonably expected to look after a horse and trap, or two saddle-horses, the time occupied in the exercise of which might be regarded as equivalent to that spent in driving the dog-cart or gig. Any driving which the groom-gardener would have to do, would naturally be of an unpretentious character, and he would not be expected to wear livery, beyond a top coat and tall hat. A strapper in a hunting stable and a stable helper under a coachman would be on about the same social standing as a groom-gardener. The strapper is not supposed to ride, and the stable-helper not to drive. Either of these men ought to be able to do three horses well, and also to lend a hand at cleaning saddlery, harness and carriages. In a job-master’s yard, in which there is usually the stimulus of tips, more work would be expected, say, that of five, or even six horses; but its execution would be of a rough and ready nature. In tram and omnibus yards, a stable-helper will generally have to do ten or a dozen horses in a “lick and a promise” kind of a way.

A single-handed groom or an ordinary groom who is in a subordinate position in a stable, will have a comfortable job in grooming, feeding, watering and exercising two hunters or two polo ponies, which he ought to turn out in first-class style. If he is industrious and has a boy to help him when the ponies are brought on the polo ground for play, he will be able to do three ponies, which he can exercise together by riding one and leading the other two, one on each side. A single-handed or ordinary groom can do all the stable work for three horses which are in work; but he cannot give them a sufficiency of exercise, supposing that he leads only one at a time. The difficulty as to exercise would of course be obviated, if the master or one of his family did all the riding.

As a rule, a single-handed groom would not have as much time to devote to the grooming and exercising of his horses, as an ordinary groom; because he would have to do stud groom duties in arranging about fodder, mending of gear, replacement of stable tools, etc. Supposing that a single-handed groom was not expected to ride or drive, and that extreme smartness was not demanded, he ought to be able to look after a two-wheeled trap and harness, as well as three horses. A carriage groom will do about the same work as an ordinary groom, allowing for the time he may be absent from the stable. His duties are to go out with the coachman, sit beside him on the box, perform the work which a footman would otherwise do, clean harness, and strap.

A single-handed coachman would be able to do a carriage and pair in first-class style, if the turn-out was not wanted oftener than every second day. We must here bear in mind that the work on the horses, carriage and harness, and the cleaning of the man’s livery, will take about five hours.

A groom or coachman would not esteem a single-handed place as much as one in which he had a man under him. Besides, stable servants as a rule like the society of their fellows, and appreciate a comfortable saddle-room, which is a luxury seldom found in a single-handed situation. Married men, and especially those who are no longer young, often like the independence of a single-handed job.

A groom-coachman generally has some help. He has to ride exercise as well as drive, and can do a couple of horses. He is simply a groom who has to drive.

A second horseman holds a position about equal to that of a groom-coachman, and in a large stable would be under a head groom. In a stable of ten or twelve horses he might act as head groom; and in one of half that size, as working stud groom. In Leicestershire, a second horseman is generally supposed to do two horses and his own hunting things, which I think is more than he can properly attend to, if he has to go out oftener than three times a week with his master or mistress.

A working coachman would have to feed his animals, look after their shoeing, trimming, clipping, etc., clean the carriage, do one horse or two if there is not much driving, and exercise. The man under him would muck-out, clean harness, cut chaff, bruise oats, and do the larger part of the grooming. Supposing that there were three horses, which would be a full allowance for the two men, if the carriage went out often; the helper would have to do two horses. A working coachman occupies a somewhat better position than a groom-coachman; because he has not to do the rougher part of a groom’s work, and is supposed to have a carriage groom or helper under him.

A head groom in a large hunting stable is like a head-lad in a racing stable; his business being to see that the orders of the stud-groom are carried out. He would probably have to feed the horses, ride exercise, strap one horse, and superintend the cleaning of saddlery. In a stable of, say, fifteen horses or more, I do not think that he ought to be asked to strap. If the master is his own stud groom, the head groom will usually occupy a more independent position than when he is under a stud groom.

A man who was engaged simply as a coachman ought not to be expected to strap; for the performance of that duty would practically make him a working coachman. He ought, however, to wash and clean his carriage, do his livery and boots, trim and clip, see to the shoeing, forage, bedding, clothing, harness, stable gear, etc., and superintend all the work done by the men under him, as well as drive. As a rule, when an owner advertises for a coachman with a man under him, he really means a working coachman; because he could not reasonably expect that the stable helper could do all the strapping.

A head coachman would be required only in a large establishment, in which there would be also a second and even a third coachman. His duties, like those of a stud groom, would be limited to driving, superintendence and management. A second coachman would have to drive, do the livery and boots of the first coachman, do a carriage, feed and superintend work. The duties of a third coachman would be similar to those of a working coachman.

Wages, Board And Lodging

The pay of stable servants varies greatly according to locality and place; but out of London, it may be taken generally as follows:

Ordinary grooms, strappers and stable helpers, from 18 shillings to a guinea a week
head grooms, second horsemen and working coachmen, 25 shillings
head lads, working stud grooms, and coachmen who would not have to strap, 30 shillings
stud grooms and head coachmen, from 35 shillings to 2 guineas
young riding lads, 7 shillings a week and keep; and full-grown lads, 18 shillings with lodging.

Men drawing 25 shillings and upwards would probably get a cottage, fire and lighting. Some liberal employers give vegetables and milk. In London, an ordinary groom ought to get 25 shillings a week, supposing that he has to find his own lodging.

As a rule, a groom can get board and lodging in a private family of his own position in life, for about 12s. 6d. a week in the country; and in London, for about 16 shillings. Lodging in the country would cost about 2S. or 2s. 6d. a week, and 4 or 5 shillings a week in London. I have found that when seven or eight riding lads club together, they can feed well on 6s. 6d. a week, supposing that they get free fire and room, and that one of them does the cooking.

Allowances And Tips

When a riding lad is sent on a journey with or without his horse, he is usually allowed six shillings a day for his extra expenses. Considering the rapid manner in which the incidental expenses of travelling mount up; this concession might be given to ordinary grooms under similar circumstances.

In some places, chiefly those in the carriage line, the master gives an allowance for extras and tools, which would include brushes, combs, wash-leathers, rubbers, dusters, sponges, soap, silver-sand, oil for dressing leather, harness composition, scrapers, curry-combs, brooms, hoof-pickers, plate powder, boot-top powder, breeches paste and burnishers. Five shillings a week would be a fair allowance to a coachman for three horses, and a shilling a week for each saddle horse.

A shilling may be regarded as the recognised tip to grooms for minor services, such as holding a horse, putting up a horse while the owner is calling at the master’s house, going a message, etc. Half-a-crown may be looked upon as a fair tip to the coachman who drives one away, after one has been on a short visit at a friend’s place. This might be increased according to additional services rendered. A tip to the stud groom for a mount out hunting in the Shires, might reasonably vary from ten shillings to a sovereign, with, say, half-a-crown to the man who had to strap the horse. It might here be objected that the strapper and not the stud groom should receive the larger tip, as he had to do all the work.

Livery And Stable Clothes

As a rule, the only stable servants who would wear livery are coachmen (including head coachmen, second coachmen and third coachmen, according to the size of the establishment), carriage grooms, second horsemen, and pad grooms. Their livery would consist of a black silk hat, livery coat (like a frock coat, only single – breasted), waistcoat, breeches and top-boots. Besides these articles of clothing, coachmen and carriage grooms, both of whom are dressed in the same manner, would have a double-breasted top-coat, macintosh, and in some cases a fur cape. All servants in livery should wear a stand-up collar with square ends (not turned down), white cotton (usually pique) tie, and gloves.

The livery coat would be of the colour chosen by the master, and the top-coat would be of the same colour, or of drab, which always looks in place with a servant’s top-coat. The buttons of these coats would be gilt or plated, according as the harness and mountings of the carriage were brass or plated. Uniformity as to colour and buttons should be preserved in the livery of the other servants.

The livery coat of a coachman and carriage groom would be longer than that of a second horseman or pad groom. Waistcoats are as a rule of coloured stripes, and sometimes of a whole colour, such as scarlet. White buckskin cloth (cotton) is generally used for breeches; although real buckskin (leather), which is a good deal dearer, looks better. The colour of servants’ tops varies greatly; pink, white, straw, cream, salmon, light-brown and nut-brown being the most common shades. White buckskin gloves look smarter than tan leather gloves, which serve their purpose equally well, give no trouble to clean, and cost about half the price. Driving and riding gloves should be at least two sizes larger than ordinary gloves, so that the action of the hands may be in no way cramped.

If smartness is not aimed at and a special colour for the livery is not assumed, the coachman may with propriety wear plain dark-coloured trousers along with a black or dark blue livery coat. Trousers in this case will look much better than breeches and gaiters, which is a combination that has been handed down from early Christian times. I may point out that a “gaiter” is a combination of a legging and a spat. In winter, even fashionable coachmen often wear trousers and boots of nondescript pattern, so as to save their breeches and top-boots; for as they have not to get off the box until they are within their own yard, the lower part of their body will remain hidden by the apron from public view. As a carriage groom will have to be ready to dismount at any time when out driving, he cannot safely follow the example of the coachman in this respect.

The servants in stables of good class are usually allowed a suit of stable clothes every six months, after which time they are generally considered to belong to the servant. It is, however, more satisfactory to both parties for an arrangement as to the possession of used clothes, both stable and livery, to be definitely fixed before engagement. A suit of stable clothes consists of a coat, waistcoat and breeches of strong tweed and leggings of box-cloth; or coat, waistcoat and trousers, according to the requirements of the particular servant. Some masters allow a pair of lace-up boots (preferably without hooks) along with the half-yearly suit of stable clothes. A good portion of the expense of this concession comes back to the giver by the fact that with a liberal supply of ordinary boot-leather, the servant will not be inclined, as he might otherwise be, to wear his top-boots under his trousers.

The length of time which livery is supposed to last will depend on the degree of smartness demanded by the master. If the family goes up to town every year, a new suit of livery all round will probably be required at the beginning of each season. A second horseman will certainly need two pairs of white breeches to start with. The same allowance might be made to carnage grooms and pad grooms, and might be extended even to coachmen. Some masters supply collars and white ties and pay for their washing.

~ Stable Management And Exercise by M. Horace Hayes (1900)