Book review: Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th Century Britain

For most of us who shop, cook, clean, open our own front door and work full-time, yet can scarcely afford a home, the idea of a servant is catnip.

Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th Century Britain

by Lucy Lethbridge

Hide Ad

Bloomsbury, 400pp, £20

But by the end of Lucy Lethbridge’s account of what amounts to a century of indentured slavery, we are more likely to consider our busy lives the badge of a free society.

Hide Ad

A hundred years ago, the cost of things was geared differently. At the top end of the middle class, an income of £10,000 afforded two houses, each with a staff of eight; horses; charitable donations, and sporting gear. The man of the house spent £2,000 on sporting activities, £600 on horses, and just £400 a year on those 16 staff whose lives were often hard, boring and unfulfilled.

This drudgery applied particularly to women, a third of whom, if they worked, were in service – the majority in single-servant households with no electricity or gas and all paid less than men for equal work. People judged their own social success in terms of their servants. Paraded as status symbols, footmen taller than six foot earned higher wages than shorter men.

Hide Ad

Lethbridge’s statistics-backed, well-researched and frequently funny book makes plain that the relationships between servants and employers were often so complex that it was not until the Second World War that the “great cobweb of social dependency … disappeared for ever”. Before that, maids washed their mistresses’ loose change to clean off proletarian filth before returning it to the superior purse. Women such as Nancy Astor put the linings of their chiffon knickers (hand-stitched) into organza pouches – in her case decorated with her husband’s racing colours – to be hand-washed at night by her maids.

Here are the quiddities of English servitude, and attitudes to it, at their most peculiar, loathsome or extreme. As Lethbridge explains, desires are easily elevated to necessity once there is a staff to accomplish them. In grand houses the payroll was so long that one stumbled across servants at every turn, from pig boys to spider brushers.

But in the majority of single-servant (“dogsbody”) households, reality wasn’t fun. Those women did heavy manual labour from dawn to dusk while their ostensible owners complained about how much they ate and the cost of their clothing. Lethbridge treads a measured course between informed nostalgia and plain contempt for our idle forbears who had no idea how gilded their lives were.

This provocative book serves as testament to the “tweeny” maid whose eventual extinction led to our own egalitarian, if less luxurious, lives.