Saturday, January 24, 2015

The "nerve" of the English Domestic Servant, by Diane Scott Lewis


While we think of servants of the past being much abused (and many were) I found out different in my on-going research. In the eighteenth century, a time when domestic service was seen as easier than toiling in a shop or factory, a poor farmer’s sons and daughters would go happily into this type of work. Even a parson’s family did not look down on the occupation. However, the English domestics thought of themselves as a cut above.

The English servant was quite independent and rarely satisfied with low wages. Instead of being content in the early part of the century with £2 a year, they were demanding as much as £6 and £8. Writer Daniel Defoe wanted to see wages fixed at no more than £5, or soon this rabble would insist on as much as £20.

Lord Fermanagh, when writing to a friend about his butler, who had the audacity to ask for £10, said: "I would have a sightly fellow and one that has had the smallpox, and an honest man, for he is entrusted with store of plate, and can shave, but I will give no such wages as this."

The English servant stood up for himself, giving notice or running away if ill-treated. One servant, after being struck by his master, turned on the man and killed him with a pitchfork.

Foreigners were amazed—since they treated their servants like slaves—to see a nobleman like Lord Ferrers hanged in 1760 for the murder of his steward.

In the earlier part of the century there was a scarcity of women servants, but later, after years of bad harvests, starvation sent many girls into service.
One lady, upon advertising for another housemaid, had over 200 applicants.

If wages were low, servants in a large house could supplement their pay with vails (tips). One foreigner complained after dining with a friend at his home: "You’ll find all the servants drawn up in the passage like a file of musqueteers from the house steward, down to the lowest liveried servant, and each of them holds out his hand to you in as deliberate a manner as the servants in our inns on the like occasion."

One clergyman reported that when he dined with his Bishop, he spent more in vails than would have fed his family for a week.

At least the Duke of Ormonde, when inviting a poor relation to dine, always sent him a guinea ahead of time for the vails.

A movement, rumored to have started in Scotland, was put forth to abolish vails, but nothing came of it.

If servants believed themselves independent, striving for respect, their employers often demanded too much from them for little pay. Mrs. Purefoy advertised for a coachman, who can not only drive four horses, but must understand husbandry business and cattle, plus he’d also be expected to plough. She also required a footman who could "work in the garden, lay the cloth, wait at table, go to the cart with Thomas, and do any other business that he is ordered to do and not too large sized a man, that he may not be too great a load for the horse when he rides."

Servants were derided by their "betters" as being lazy and selfish, especially when they’d leave their positions for higher wages and vails.

Of course, many servants during the eighteenth century—especially in the larger towns and cities—were mistreated and far underpaid, if paid at all.

Still, some servants were honored and treated as members of the family, as shown by this epitaph on a coachman’s headstone: Coachman the foe to drink and heart sincere; Of manners gentle and of judgment clear; Safe through the chequered track of life he drove; And gained the treasure of his master’s love...


To learn more about my eighteenth-century novels, please visit my website:

http://www.dianescottlewis.org


Source: English Country Life in the Eighteenth Century, by Rosamond Bayne-Powell, 1937

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