I possess a fascination for all things historical, but especially those things which relate directly to my own family history.
Unlike most of my peers I took an avid interest in the stories that my grandparents, and great grandparents imparted to me about our families lives. They talked of a different time, a different world, but nevertheless what once transpired, what became collective experience, created a sort of ripple effect upon the lives of subsequent generations. This impact was so severe, the effects remian evident today.
My family is of mixed heritage and fortune. Some are Irish, English and of course Welsh. They have been rich, poor, immigrants, miners, ladies maids, officers, gentlemen and in business. Some have lived abroad and others never left their home town. They spoke foreign languages and played musical instruments, skills which they never thought to teach to the next generation.
In all of this history, throughout all of the stories two threads were always woven the deepest; poverty and domestic service.
Apparently one in ten of the current UK population had an ancestor who worked as a domestic servant. Not so surprising I think considering the perpetual imbalance between wealth, the staunch class division and poor educational standards of the past, if not the present too.
Poverty was, and is of course very real. Although now there are mechanisms in place to help alleviate such misfortune, in my grandparents and great grandparents lifetime this was not always the case. It was a very real threat to be poor, to be below the bread-line.
People couldn’t survive on benefits, they didn’t truly exist as we take them for granted now. People had scant opportunities if they were poor, often becoming a domestic servant or indeed being admitted into a workhouse was their only option.
When people now think of domestic service, the imagery which might spring to mind is the popular Downtown Abbey series or, as I prefer the 1970s British television series Upstairs Downstairs.
Yet, neither of these programmes are a true reflection of what life was like as someone else’s servant.
Below stairs gossip, flirtation, autonomy, opinions, democracy, individuality, freedom, holidays, good food, parties and camaraderie are all fictitious story lines to create good television.
A servant was seen as the other, them, the underclass. Even looked down upon by fellow working class people in other professions.
Servants new their place. They didn’t deign to question their place or to challenge their betters in society. They were the silent majority in the UK workforce.
Mistreatment was normal. Sexual, physical and verbal abuse was common place, and not always at the hands of their ‘employers’ either.
Servants were often under paid, they held no employment rights, they ate left overs, were permitted no free time or holidays, no sick leave and no entitlement to medical care. They could be sacked for illness or any minor misdemeanour without reference, they couldn’t marry, their wages would be docked for anything broken or food wasted. They were controlled by their masters and mistresses, but also by the strict hierarchy of the below stairs staff chain of command.
Plus, it was a 24/7 365 days a year job or grind, with no real scope to develop or progress.
The life of a servant in comparison to other people in other forms of employment was vast. Being a servant was a different kettle of fish. Nothing compared then or now to what these people experienced and were subjected to.
A good servant would be deferential, know and accept their place, display loyalty, follow unquestioningly, never be seen to want or expect more, surrender themselves to be used and abused.
All of this indoctrination still lingers somewhere in my genetics, so much so, it frightens me! Yet, it doesn’t inspire me to listen or to comply, but to rebel.
My families history in service heralds as a warning. It made my family question their status, life, desires and wants. They were not comfortable ‘doffing’ their cap to their betters. Subsequent generations learnt the lessons of those in service, they were inspired to be the complete opposite of what their heritage and ancestry had told them to be. No longer were they content to be seen as somehow less of a person because of their class. They wanted their children to achieve, to be educated, to progress to go out into the world and claim a stake of it for themselves.
This whole rebellion against servitude in service still remains, as I have stated previously. I know it is derived from, and linked to my families experiences as house-maids, laundry-maids, ladies-maids and cooks. I suppose such ingrained ideals and attitudes just can’t be over-thrown at once, they tend to make an impression.
I look at my ancestors lives and still think; no one will treat me like that, I won’t be anyone’s servant.
I suppose this attitude should be celebrated, but, it also has a sting in the tail. It could be seen as a ‘chip on my shoulder’.
Any time I perceive I am being treated like an underling, I cannot accept it, it infuriates me. I have actually left jobs because I felt as though I was being treated like a servant and not an employee! No, I was beaten or whatever else, but sometimes employers do treat staff like usable and abusable, never ending resources. They often forget we are humans with rights. It can be all too similar to how servants were treated in the employ of Lords and Ladies. The echoes of these times too close for my comfort. In my opinion the attitude of the ‘master of the house’ hasn’t altogether left society, merely mutated into another form of abuse of power.
Sometimes though, I find myself envying the servants life. It was certain, it was a path deemed destined and people knew nothing more. Their aspiration were not as complicated as ours are today, their disappointments therefore not as many. It was what it was, a means to an end.
All things considered we look back with the luxury of hindsight, and think that they had to be thoroughly miserable. Yet, I actually believe they wren’t.
Who are we to really judge their lives on our standards! The other side of the coin can present another set of questions; is it better to be master of your own uncertain life, or a servant knowing your place, your path? Or, is it the case that we are all merely servants conning ourselves into thinking we have miracously become the masters? What in fact are we masters of? In reality how far has society fundamentally progressed since the time of domestic service?
Servants and masters, masters and servants; isn’t it all really the same thing in today’s world?