Household Servants in England

I read somewhere “everybody had servants except the servants.” I assume that was not true but maybe servants were a lot more common in the past. (pre WW 2?)

Did anyone outside the upper class have servants?

Of course they did, if only on a temporary basis sometimes. Read Bill Bryson’s “At Home.” He isn’t the most reliable source for hard data, but his anecdotal info is massive. Even village rectors had a housekeeper and cleaning woman.

This was true in lots of America as well. Especially in the South, where having an African American housekeeper/nanny was really common until the Civil Rights era. But middle class people all over the country had servants for a long time - of course, the middle class was smaller, there were no minimum wage laws, and housework was a lot more time consuming - so having a "girl"come in was not very expensive and made life a lot easier if you didn’t have girl children of the right age to help you out.

Read books like “The Railway Children”. It amazed me that a woman with no income, and who’s husband was in prison still had a servant.

It wasn’t until WW2 that women began to, a) find better paid work elsewhere, and, b) See housework,especially for someone else, as drudgery.

No, it started much earlier. By the time of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, commentators were speaking of “the servant problem.” The problem was that the lower-class girls who had gone into service were taking jobs in the much higher paying factories. Which indicates that the long hours, low wages, and terrible conditions in factories were preferable to what they were experiencing in houses.

This also coincides with the beginning of electrification. Over the next twenty years, virtually every household chore had a machine that made it much easier to do by the housewife. That included vacuum cleaners, stoves, washing machines, even toasters. By the 1920s it was expected that middle-class women run their own homes without servants. That had its irony: although the appliances made each individual chore easier and faster, the need to do them all by herself took up many more hours of her time.

Only the poorest had no servant, even if she was only a cook-general or a maid-of-all-work. Charles Dickens’s family still had a servant, even when John Dickens was imprisoned for debt for a few weeks.

It certainly isn’t true if you don’t count farmers as household servants. Before 1800 the proportion of people working in agriculture in both the U.K. and the U.S. (and most other countries) was easily a majority. Since then the proportion of people employed in agriculture has dropped to about 2%. Some of those people owned their own farms and some worked for other people, but they weren’t household servants.


While the traditional middle class frequently had servants, that class was also much, much smaller than most people realize. Those living in cities were very often a privileged group until quite recently in history. Cities were also tiny in comparison as well, and the populace consisted of professional managers, scholars, and merchants. They could easily hire a reasonably-sized pool of inexpensive laborers. With the advent of industrialization, the cities expanded and so, too, did the middle classes. However, for a couple centuries, this meant a the migration of population from rural to urban centers. The countryside simply didn’t need the labor due to improved agricultural practices, the transportation revolution, and the introduction of machinery. This meant a constantly growing urban population and another source of inexpensive labor at the same time the middle classes were growing in size in power, and that as families climbed the economic ladder they could easily afford some help.

While the quote in the OP is certainly exaggerated, it’s not entirely misleading. But it does apply only to the a small slice of the human population, and later to a broader cross-section but which is limited in time.

It seems strange to me that you had people who hated black people but would still hire them as nannies for their children. I guess they just wanted to hire someone who worked cheap? (I should add I’m sure that not everyone who hired a black nanny was racist. )

You misunderstand the nature of their feelings. They didn’t think of blacks as evil, conniving people who might indeed be geniuses of crime. They thought of blacks as not quite human sorts who could handle lower-level work like being a household servant well enough but who couldn’t be trusted to higher-level work. If blacks did something evil, it was because they were either too easily lead by their emotions or because some outsider white person was stirring them up. They didn’t want blacks to go away. They wanted them to know their place and work cheaply.

Not England, but in Norway, looking over farm censuses in the first half of the 19th century, it would be common for even a small sub-farm to have a servant girl and maybe a boy to help about. If you were the main farmer, you could have several more.

In towns, if the householder ran a business, it would be common to have not just a servant girl or two, but a apprentice/assistant. But small households would have just a husband/wife and some kids.

Teenagers and (usually) young adults commonly worked in other people’s homes/farms/businesses until they got enough money together to get their own place (something that you could earn a living from) and only then get married. If you never got enough, you didn’t get married.

Hence my grandmother’s comment about the Norwegian girls who would come to the US supposedly to earn enough to go back and get married. “But they never did.”

Now that I think about it. The last person I knew who worked as a live-in servant when she was young died a few weeks ago. Don’t think I know anyone else who did that.

No, but in examining census returns, you’ll find a fair number of those farm households had one or more “extra” females present, sometimes relatives and sometimes hired help. Particularly in households that did not have any daughters of the right age, that’s who ended up doing much of the cooking and cleaning. Even farm families could have enough wealth to afford a servant or two. Not everybody was a subsistence farmer.

My aunt went straight from being a farmer’s daughter to working as a maid “in town.” Since the town had less than 1,000 people and they all depended on the surrounding farms, somebody had to be doing okay. My mother also worked as a maid for a couple of years between high school and nursing school.

homes vs tennaments.
You call it low paid, but the “servant” got

  • board and lodgings … a room, food, the ability to look after herself (beauty, haircuts, clothes… )
  • apprenticeship at home science
  • an upgrade in social circles… perhaps becoming a Mistress is better than becoming a Wife … because the man can have anyone as a Mistress but a wife has to be from approved stock.

The servant got to escape sharing a room with her 8 brothers and sisters, being dragged into bar work and prostitution, or working at factory, mine, street cleaning and so on. and escaped the suburbs where if a girl was raped then the police said “He was drunk, you shouldn’t let him get drunk then !” and did nothing…

Why were all these families crowded into a single room ?

What happened was that UK’s serfs, which in such a modern economy are the farming families who rented land off the farmer, got LAND RIGHTS. Oh they didn’t win the land instantly and had no right to go back to claim land they were on last week if they had already left it, but the law allowed them to claim the right to purchase the land they were currently the farmers of… Other side the coin ? No more serfs… serfs were ejected and the farmer would let the land turn into forest rather than be forced to selling it to the serfs.

There were other land rights issues… eg the clans were living on what was crown land, and when they got title, the title got put in the name of the chief…
Who could sell it serfless and go and live in London.

In my neighborhood of houses built from the 1890s to the 1920s, virtually all the houses have maid’s quarters in the back, as a separate building or attached to the garage. Some people have fixed them up and rent them out for additional income, use them as studios or granny flats; mine is my laundry room. And this was NOT a wealthy neighborhood (and still isn’t). It was solidly middle-class.

I was always fascinated in the Bertie Wooster novels (set in the teens and 20s) how it was a given that a single man couldn’t possibly be expected to survive without the full time (24/7, not 40 hrs/week) services of, at a minimum, a housekeeper, butler (Jeeves), and possibly a cook, too. And these were guys who didn’t work at jobs, but just, well… messed around all day.

When I was a child in the 40s/50s we had servants. Of course, since we were in West Africa, they were black. A couple of them stayed with us for several years - we would go home on leave for three months, and when we got back, even if it was to a different house, there they would be.

As an aside - the ‘N’ word was never used - they were Africans or Natives. Father used to ‘borrow’ a gang from the prison to do the gardening. I remember a visiting Englishwoman having a fit when she found out the the black men cutting the grass with razor sharp machetes were convicts.

In the U.S., we know what the vast majority of people in those circumstances at that time thought of the comparison. They chose factories.

And how long did the U.K. system of service last after WWI?

The reason the factories won over service is wages. A factory worker generates wealth whereas a servant just sucks wealth from a wealthy family. Yes the wealthy family could afford to have servants while wages were low but they didn’t generate any income for the family.

This is somewhat exaggerated. Bertie is definitely wealthy upper-class and can pay for all the help he wants, but in his bachelor apartment he doesn’t have any servants other than Jeeves. This remains the case in all the Bertie Wooster novels from the 1910’s to the 1970’s.

And just to nitpick, not even Jeeves is literally on duty 24/7. He gets his regular afternoon out and occasional days off and vacations, just as other typical servants of the period would expect to do (though of course Jeeves is more likely to have his leisure interrupted by emergencies than the average servant).

Some of Bertie’s single male contemporaries do live in country houses with full staffs, but that’s because they’re basically estates, with tenants and what-not. The number of servants considered necessary depends not on the size of the family but on the size of the house/estate.

My point was not whether Bertie could afford it, but the assumption that a single man living alone couldn’t manage without some kind of household help.

If your point was to show you know more about this subject than I do, you accomplished that.