The Manchester Studies Oral History collection contains a series of interviews with women who worked in domestic service. These interviews were carried out in the mid-1970s and gave the women an opportunity to look back at their lives during a period of great social change and to reflect on attitudes towards domestic service.
Coincidentally, as I started cataloguing this collection the film version of period costume drama Downton Abbey went on general release at the cinema. I have never seen an episode of this popular television series, so cannot compare the fictional portrayal of life on a Yorkshire country estate with the accounts from the interviewees. But I do wonder if any of these women would see echoes of their lives in this film.
As I listened to more interviews I discovered that a number of the women do reference Upstairs, Downstairs when sharing their stories. This Edwardian period drama was broadcast between 1971 and 1975 and ran for five series. The fictional household was based in London from 1903 to 1930, which was the time period the Manchester Studies interviewees would have been working in domestic service.
Some of the interviewees could see their lives reflected back at them, with comments like “…oh I was just like Rose…” Rose was a parlour maid in the drama. While others declared “…it was nothing like Upstairs, Downstairs you know!”
The more I listened, the more fascinated I became with the lives of these women; hearing a whole spectrum of experiences. Some felt domestic service was the worst thing that could happen to a young girl, as these two interviewees recount.
Mrs. S. describes her broken spirit ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/9)
Winifred tells of how she was driven towards physical and mental exhaustion ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/43 )
The master-servant relationship is all about power. Martha gives an account of how that power can be wielded with alarming consequences. While working in new post she entered a room lit only by firelight and tripped over the masters’ feet. He then tried to assault her. She describes how she got away and “crowned him” and cut his head open with a glass vase. The son found her crying and asked her what was the matter, when she told him what happened the son admitted that “…he went away last summer for two of the girls from my mother’s shop…” Thankfully Martha was able to flee the household and stay with friends at the Church Army. Not surprisingly, she quickly left that post!
Martha shares an anecdote about one master who overstepped the boundaries ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/19 )
I was also shocked at just how young some of these women were when they first went into service. Many recall leaving school at 14 years old and going to ‘live-in’ with a family they had never met before. Some were following a family tradition as their mothers, aunts and sisters were all employed as domestics. The interviewer often asked if the women ever received any training to prepare them for domestic service.
Ann received particular advice from her mother before she started ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/41 )
Others, including Edith, describe how they attended a school to be trained for service. There was also the prevailing attitude that girls in service were better off.
Mary shares her belief that girls were learning valuable skills for their future ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/23 )
Whilst it is true that there was also a hierarchy amongst the servants in larger households, there was also a great camaraderie with girls forming strong friendships and looking out for each other. There were even opportunities for a bit of fun and some dressing up.
Ivy recalls trying on a fur coat and jewelry ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/24 )
At the outbreak of the First World War many of these young women returned home to their families and began alternative careers in munitions factories. Such change gave them a different perspective on their working lives. As Winnifred points out “…factory is another kind of slavery, anyway, I mean you were no better off in a factory really…” This highlights the limited options available to women at that time.
Following the Armistice and the end of munitions work in 1919 women were seeking employment. For some this meant a return to their previous lives, to working in service. For those women who did return to service it was not to be under the old terms and conditions. Ethel remarks on how employers had to change, they “…had to treat them better because they couldn’t get girls in service.”
Ethel reflects on her time in service and the changing attitudes she witnessed ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/28 )
For other women the social changes brought about by the war also changed their aspirations. As Mary notes, service life changed and “…girls began to want more of their own way.”
Mary reveals how difficult it became to secure good staff ( Manchester Studies Oral History Collection 1103/23 )
I have many more of these fascinating domestic service interviews to listen to and catalogue. For me they are providing an eye opening glimpse into a life I just cannot imagine living. Maybe I will go to the cinema to see how fact compares with fiction?
Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.
The Manchester Studies oral history collection is held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Digital copies of the full-length interviews digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage will be available at Tameside in due course.
You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.