Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern TimesServants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Audio nonfiction 12 hours and 43 minutes

For centuries the way of life that is imagined as so typically upper class English was made possible entirely by vast staffs of servants.  This book looks at the roles of the various servants throughout history and at the changes in society that led to the loss of servants in English life. 

For most of history the poor people near a large country estate didn’t have much hope for a better life than getting in at the big house.  At least there you’d eat better than they did at home.  The social mores of the servants of the great houses were as complex as the social structures of the people they served.  The butlers and lady’s maids certainly didn’t mix with the scullery maid.

Things started to change around World War I.  Many new jobs opened in the military factories that offered more freedom.  Women could get these higher paying jobs that didn’t require them to be deferential to a lady of the house.  They also didn’t live in a house they worked in so weren’t required to obey all the rules of the house.  Once women started to have this freedom there was no going back.

Changes in the English tax code around this time also made it harder for families to keep the large houses so many servants were let go.

In the decade between wars servants were at a premium.  The could dictate their terms and leave and find another job at will.  “The Servant Problem” was written about extensively.  People were getting uppity and not respecting their betters.  For aristocrats who had been brought up to never have to do any domestic work themselves, this was absolutely confounding.  They could not understand why people weren’t happy to be their servants.  Many attempts were made to convince English girls especially that domestic service was a noble career choice.  It didn’t work.

Because of the lack of biddable English servants, foreign workers were brought in.  Many German and Austrian Jews were allowed into England before World War II only if they agreed to be servants.  Because they had to have connections to get the visas, many of them were upper class themselves.  They were horrified at the living conditions of the British.  Most British upper class homes had shunned all labor saving devices because after all, you wouldn’t want the maid getting lazy, would you?  For Central Europeans used to modern conveniences, homes that refused central heating or running hot water or electrical appliances were a throwback to times they had never known.

At the same time homes for working class people were getting modern.  For a while it was not uncommon for servants to live in modern homes and go to work in fancy houses that didn’t have any of the modern conveniences that they had.

Traditional service today is mostly limited to the super rich and fine hotels but may be living on in companies that provide services such as custom meals.