Home » Gender: Politics, Relationships & Thoughts » The Servitude Of Service

The Servitude Of Service

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?

25 thoughts on “The Servitude Of Service

  1. Great post, and what an excellent discussion in the comments! Excellent work on a topic that probably doesn’t get enough attention. After all, we don’t always like to call economic ups and downs and class war what they really are – institutionalized discrimination.

    • Thank you, I’m so pleased you enjoyed reading it, and the further discussion the comments provided. Yes, this is true, it is not a popular topic in ‘advanced’ societies! You are spot on, it is I.D, through and through.

  2. I really enjoyed this entry. Many people don’t realize that being a domestic is just a job, that is about supply and demand and most important, that we are all humans, therefore equals.

  3. “is it better to be master of your own uncertain life, or a servant knowing your place, your path?”

    I think this is the key issue. As moderns we are raised to believe that we should all be free, independent, self-determining individuals. But what if, as I believe, most people don’t want this. What they actually want is to be told what to do, to have the responsibility of important decisions lifted from their shoulders? A frightening thought indeed. Great post raising a great issue for discussion.

    • Thanks for your response Malcolm, I appreciate it. I believe it is a definite key point to consider, a quandary we face in modern society. It’s assumed we should know how to live our lives, and how to negotiate our surroundings to fulfil our dreams, but we don’t! Life often remains an unfathomable mystery, whereby we become lost in the fog of choice! Simplicity or ‘menial’ is too often frowned upon also. Thanks again for your input.

  4. When I was working in McDonalds during my bachelors degree, I experienced what it is like to be considered an underling and looked down upon. It was always the customers who would look at you as if, this was the only job I could do and therefore I was doing it and as if, I was only good to serve people. Many waiters and waitresses feel this as well. There must be something in our emotional evolution that has lead to to the need to establish immediate social hierarchy. However, it came about, it is infuriating though!

    • Thanks for sharing your own experience, I appreciate it. Yes, unfortunately people are often looked down upon for doing what others deem to be menial tasks. I think it speaks volumes about the people looking down upon others though, they are arrogant, ignorant and rude. The British class system has plenty to answer for!

      • In regards to the British Class system; I recall the American comedian Reginald D Hunter saying, “If a class system is what you use to discriminate against the people who look like you, that is a very advanced form of racism.”

        • Yes, I too think it is the last form of prejudice still allowed and forgiven, or ignored and encouraged! We do seem to be OK with others putting us down in general, and we don’t tend to say such things are wrong, or, retaliate in any way. Perhaps it is a sense of shame ingrained into society; menial equals lesser status in society, almost seen as a second rate person in every regard. I absolutely hate it. I think everyone should experience working in a shop or any other job where serving the public is required. I’m quite sure that then everyone would be less inclined to act so supercilious.

          • Yes, unfortunately we have always lived in hope, but hoping hasn’t changed matters. Maybe more radical action is required, but I have little faith in UK society ever truly making demands to change things directly. People are very good at moaning in the UK, but not much else! Now that has to be some historical ‘hand me down’ too!

  5. A great post. It reminds me so of the series “Downtown Abbey” where you see so clearly what you have shared here. Thanks again. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  6. I find the link between generations and behaviours very interesting. I recall after a fairly difficult separation I took myself along to a some counselling sessions. I was very blessed to meet someone who had done alot of work with genograms.

    I was able to go back through the generations in my family and look specifically at the challenges faced within the relationships/and or family units.

    Alcoholism, Abuse, Incest, Domestic Violence, Drug Addiction were all fairly prevalent in several branches of my family tree – a VERY long way back….

    Having grown up as a child whose mother was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, I have rarely drunk any alcohol, and rarely take any medications.

    I recall being dismayed by all of the issues that ran in part of my family tree, through the generations, though the counselor said to me that being aware of those issues was half the battle to addressing them and ensuring they did not go on and continue as a ‘generational curse’.

    Some lessons are very painful to experience, to tell and to listen to, but they can truly be a blessing if we are able to take from them and apply them in our own lives,

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Miss Lou

    P.s: I know it’s at the higher unrealistic end of the spectrum, but oh goodness.. I Love Downton Abbey!! lol

    • Thank you for reading Miss Lou, I greatly appreciate your input on this topic 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your own experiences too, it’s interesting to learn of others perspectives.

      Yes, it never fails to offer any surprise the baggage that often lies hidden in family closets. I see it too as a definite cause and effect for the lives of proceeding generations. It’s an accumulation of learnt behaviour, beliefs, passed on attitudes, how families interact and then what damage they do to one another psychologically. Issues, turmoil and so on, that people never truly let go of, pass down and continue the damage.

      It’s wise to see a professional and work stuff out, to know it isn’t always you but you as a product of your family. Then you can change how you go on in your life for the better.

      My Mum always called it, history repeating itself. If you examine most things this repetition is evident. I suppose its a cycle waiting to be broken.

      I must admit, I find the whole topic thoroughly fascinating! It certainly can be blamed for most issues people have, I know I have seen past family issues impact on me and my other family too.

      I wish you well continuing to work out your own inherited issues. It can be tough to do.

      Well, I enjoyed watching it too! It made good viewing!

      Thanks again, Bex xx

      • Thanks Bex, ‘It can certainly be blamed for most issues people have’ – Yes, I have to say I agree with that statement. Inherited disease/illnesses are not all about DNA, but like you said – learnt behaviours, attitudes and beliefs.

  7. I think a lot of it is the same, just a different title in a different environment. It’s not so much the work that matters, it’s the attitudes, relationships and dynamics of mangers and employees. I’m sure many still sacrifice for the job and do whatever they are asked even when it is unreasonable.

  8. Great post. Highlights the emotional urge (need) many people had to leave their country and start afresh in some place new… a clean slate where they could remake themselves without the baggage.

    • Thanks, I am happy you enjoyed reading it. Yes, exactly so. No doubt this need for a clean slate inspired people to emigrate to Australia, Canada and the US – a sort of longing for freedom they couldn’t find trapped amongst the the shackles of the old Britannia society!!!

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