Pamela Cox's new series on servants for BBC2
Dr Pamela Cox looks at the grand houses of the Victorian ruling elite - large country estates dependent on an army of staff toiling away below stairs – in a new series for BBC2 Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.
The Victorians ushered in a new ideal of servitude - where loyal, selfless servants were depersonalised stereotypes with standardised uniforms, hairstyles and even generic names denoting position. In the immaculately preserved rooms of Erddig in North Wales, portraits of servants like loyal housekeeper Mrs Webster hint at an affectionate relationship between family and servants, but the reality for most was quite different.
In other stately homes, hidden passages kept servants separate from the family. Anonymity, invisibility and segregation were a crucial part of their gruelling job - and the strict servant hierarchy even kept them segregated from each other.
In the second episode, Dr Pamela Cox explores what happened when servants directly challenged their masters and mistresses, causing havoc in the golden age of Edwardian society.
It is the story of wayward laundry maids, butlers selling their stories to the press and even suffragette maids. Above all, it is the story of how the Victorian 'ideal' of service came to be questioned - not by employers, but by the servants themselves.
The middle classes had an insatiable need for servants in their heavily furnished townhouses, but at the same time the number of people in the so-called 'servant class' dropped, as young workers were lured into shops and factories. To plug the gap, a new source of servants was found - shockingly, among the urban poor - mopping up orphans, waifs and strays from slums, workhouses and reforms schools and training them for careers in domestic service. As the clouds of war gathered, the whole notion of service was in crisis.
The third episode explores how the 20th century dealt a hammer blow to domestic service as we knew it. It's the story of how - the moment they had a choice - servants left domestic service, leaving the master - servant relationship spiralling into decline.
The Great War dealt the first blow, as menservants enlisted and women stepped in to fill their roles, both in stately homes and factories. Having had a taste of better working conditions, women were reluctant to return to service, with its hated, now old-fashioned starched cap and apron. Mistresses tried to tempt women back with prettier uniforms and even a Masters & Servants' Ball. Yet radical change came from suburban housewives in a new type of house springing up in the 1930s: the semi-detached home. Here new 'daily' servants used novel technologies like the vacuum cleaner - but still had to use the outside toilet.
Women after World War II opted for jobs in offices, shops and the new NHS. Finally typists and clerks overtook servants as the largest category of female employment and servants' quarters in stately homes were transformed into visitor attractions. Today, the rich still have staff and many of the middle classes now rely on cleaners and nannies, but the 'servant class' has long since disappeared.
to find out more and to watch all three episodes.
Friday, September 28, 2012