The Secret History Of London's Servants

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 88 months ago

Last Updated 13 January 2017

The Secret History Of London's Servants
High Life Below Stairs by James Caldwell after John Collet, 1772 © Geffrye Museum.

The world of domestic servants is all too often either overlooked or absurdly glamorised (here's looking at you, Downton Abbey). In 2016, The Geffrye Museum put on the exhibition Swept Under the Carpet? which aimed to dust off the untold stories and bring the life of London's domestic help to light.

We talked nannies and nits, chamberpots and change with the exhibition's guest curator Laura Humphreys.

Female service was strongly encouraged by law

It's not gender stereotyping alone that ensured domestic help mainly consisted of women. From the 18th century onwards, householders wishing for a male servant had to pay for a special licence, "the same as for a dog or a carriage." Jeeves must have cost Wooster a bomb.

Victorian how-to guides advise servants in London not to set the table until guests were about to sit down, because the dirt coming down the chimneys and in through the doors and windows would settle so quickly.

Grim up north? It was grimmer in London

As Humphreys bluntly puts it: "London is filthy!" Being a servant in the UK's biggest city meant a whole lot of extra cleaning to do.

We're mindful that the historic city was full of flowing piss (thanks for stemming that, Bazalgette and Chadwick). But from the perspective of your average London maid, the advances of the Industrial Revolution mainly meant contending with "a perma-layer of dirt and soot in London houses."

Amazingly, Victorian how-to guides advise servants in London not to set the table until guests were about to sit down, "because the layer of dirt coming down the chimneys and in through the doors and windows would settle so quickly." Tasty, tasty dirt.

London's servants haven't changed that much since the 1850s

By the mid 19th century, London's servants weren't just coming from the rest of the UK. The average fashionable middle class household had an Indian ayah (nursemaid), a European governess and a talented foreign chef. And that's pretty much still the case: nowadays domestic service is in the top three employment sectors for migrant workers.

Left: The First Place by A Erwood, c.1860. Right: The Unfortunate Discovery, printed for and sold by Carington Bowles after John Collet, 1777. Both © Geffrye Museum.

The Victorians were a messy lot

Another problem for 19th century maids and housekeepers, says Humphreys, was "the Victorian love of clutter and knick-knacks." Dusting these delicate and fiddly little ornaments is a liability at the best of times, but repeatedly cleaning them of the constant coating of muck and grimness settling must have been a nigh-on impossible task.

Back-breaking work was part of the job description

Servant memoirs are full of heavy lifting and stinky jobs. The daily grind involved such tasks as "hauling coal and hot water up four flights of stairs" — think of that next time you spill your slightly overfull coffee cup walking the few paces from the kettle to your desk.

Then there's the icky/demeaning stuff: emptying the chamberpots of an entire household, or combing your boss's hair for lice. Again, food for thought if you're miffed at the office bigwig for snagging the last biscuit.

The painful truth for Downton fans: Anna would have lost her job long ago.

Downton Abbey plays fast and loose with the truth

While Humphreys concedes that the large aristocratic houses that so capture the imagination did exist, they were a rarity, and "the reality for the vast majority of servants at the turn of the 20th century was a lonely one." Instead of the rough-and-tumble cast of characters downstairs, your average urban middle-class household had just the one servant, an isolated maid-of-all-work. This would obviously make rather less compelling telly.

And what of your loveable hard-grafting northern maids who tie the knot or get knocked up? An oxymoron, says Humphreys. Working while married was extremely rare; working while pregnant "was unheard of." The painful truth for Downton fans: "I'm afraid Anna would have lost her job long ago."

Protection for domestic help hasn't changed much in 400 years

Legal protection for domestic workers only arrived in the 20th century, and even now in the 21st, it's widely considered inadequate. "Although the world of domestic work has come a long  way in 400 years, there is a lot that hasn't changed at all," says Humphreys. People working in the home are arguably as subject to the vagaries of their employers as ever before. Let's hope we don't wait another half century for change to come about.