The Manchester Oral History Collection interviews with women on domestic service allow us to travel back in time through generations to a time and a way of life that we left behind decades ago, but are still fascinated with in this day and age.
Unlike male servants, female servants had no ornamental value and were kept out of sight as much as possible, even though the 1881 census showed that there were five times as many women working in domestic service as there were men. This makes the oral histories of these women even more important; there were so many women working in domestic service but who were these women, and what were their lives like? The interviews allowed these women to reflect on and contextualise their time in service and give us an insight into what life was truly like for them.
Although the wages were low and were paid monthly, accommodation, meals and laundry were provided. There were also perks such as being able to take home leftover dripping or ham. The Sunday afternoon train from Manchester to Northwich was even nicknamed the “dripping train”, as many of the maids would travel home on this train with the leftovers.
This information in particular highlighted the importance of oral history to me, as searching for other references to the “dripping train” in books and journals I found some, but not very many at all. Without testimonies like these, little details and nuances can be lost to us forever, and they really do provide a valuable source of information, as well as being enjoyable to listen to.
Employers would regularly host parties and musical evenings for their friends, providing some entertainment for the servants, but not much, as they were working.
Working in domestic service consumed the lives of these women; there weren’t many opportunities to meet people outside of those they worked with, or any time to keep hobbies or for recreational activities. They were given half-days off rather than days off and even then they had to make sure they had all their work done before they left.
Many of the interviewees stress that within the staff roles there was indeed a class-ception of sorts. There was a hierarchy where the butler sat at the top of the ladder – much like how in Downton Abbey we see Carson running the house. The staff could be broadly divided into the “upper ten” and the “lower five”.
The interviewees do mention that it did depend on the size of the house, as a smaller house would be close-knit, but a bigger staff had more defined distinctions between the roles. In the Downton film we see a heightened version of this, as the house staff are made redundant when King George V comes to stay, bringing his own staff; the King’s butler even prefers to be called the Page of the Backstairs!
Another formality of working in domestic service these women describe is the particular forms of address they were made to use. Staff above them in the hierarchy were called Mrs and Miss, but they were called by just their surnames. Sir and Madam were used to address their employers.
With voting, their employers heavily encouraged them to vote Conservative, advice which they ignored. In Downton, this is reflected through Lady Sybil being ostracised by her family for her liberal views, and even moving to Ireland with her chauffeur husband, Tom Branson.
Women were regularly recruited into domestic service, and like Mrs. H, many enjoyed it. Not all saw domestic service in this way; they saw it as a problem that needed to be addressed. After the First World War a sub-committee of the women’s advisory committee drew up a proposed scale of weekly wages with food, which was largely ignored by employers. Even so, the wages did begin to rise at a faster rate, but mostly for those with specific skills, such as the cooks.
The war and the development of technology had an important role in changing the lives of the upper classes and domestic servants. For women, the idea of working in service became less and less desirable as time went on and more opportunities were made available for them. Finding staff became much more of a challenge for the rich, as people could find better pay and more freedom in other jobs.
Employment for women was much more varied at the time our interviewees were working, and yet they still chose to work in domestic service. Wages and freedom may not have been great in domestic service, but it did provide a safe job where you knew you would have a roof over your head and food to eat. This promise was enough for these women, but not for many others at that time and is certainly very hard for us in the present-time to imagine being enough.
Digitised interviews from the Manchester Studies oral history collection will soon be available from Tameside Local Studies and Archives.
Uma Ghelani, UOSH Project Volunteer