On the subject of servants and social mobility

Apparently Theresa May has humble roots:

They were two grand family houses 40 miles apart. One in London’s Notting Hill, a huge white affair on four floors with seemingly endless rooms, was where Amy Patterson lived; the other in Reading, Berkshire, red‑brick and rambling, was where Violet Welland spent her days.

Both young women were below stairs, Amy a parlour maid and Violet a nursery nurse.

Here begins a storybook tale of social mobility. For the granddaughter of these humble domestic servants is Theresa May, the Home Secretary and possibly the next Tory Prime Minister.

Gosh! My Word!

Idiots. This is how things worked.

So let us go back more than a century, to 1901 when Amy, then 22, was living and working in Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill — a neighbourhood now full of multi-million-pound mansions where fellow Tories David Cameron and George Osborne used to live.

Tall-ish and dark-haired, Amy was one of four servants in the household of a rich widow from Liverpool, Caroline Henderson, and her two unmarried daughters in their 30s.

Amy had just returned to London after two years in New Zealand. She had been sent there by her father, himself a butler in service, to work for a family in Christchurch. But she grew homesick for London and her family, and sailed back to Britain.

It was a prescient decision. For on the return voyage she met the man who was to become her husband, Wimbledon-born regular soldier Tom Brasier, whose family were carpenters and builders.

He disembarked when the boat docked in India, to return to his regiment, and Amy continued to Southampton. But a romance had started, one which, for much of their courtship, had to be conducted long-distance.

No one is quite sure why, but it was another eight years before Amy — by then 31 — married Tom at a non-conformist chapel in Fareham, Hampshire, after which he was posted back to India and she went with him.

She gave birth to two boys in India, though one died in infancy. Later, after returning to Britain, another three children came along. One of these was Hubert, who would become an Anglican vicar — Theresa May’s father.

Yep.

He was born in 1917 during World War I, in which Theresa’s grandfather Tom Brasier served with gallantry and was decorated, rising to Sergeant Major in the King’s Royal Rifles.

The other grandma, Violet, meanwhile, was only seven in 1901 and living with her family in Reading, though they hailed from Plymouth.

By the time she was 17 she was living and working in a smart, detached house in the town, occupied by distinguished Australian astronomer Walter Duffield and his wife Doris.

She was their nursery nurse, looking after their 11-month-old baby, Joan. Not much over 5ft in height and slender, she fell in love with a leather worker and salesman, Reginald Barnes, from Milton in Hampshire.

Hers, too, was a love that had to be put on hold for most of World War I as Reg, a private in the Army Service Corps, set sail to fight in the East Africa campaign.

He took with him a photo of Violet that she gave him, on the back of which she had written a beautiful and emotional message displaying her deep love for him and even a touch of her native Plymouth idiom in a little poetic flourish.

She wrote, with charmingly muddled grammar: ‘To Reg from Vie with fondest and truest love with all good wishes for great success in East Africa.

‘The ocean between lies such distance be our lot Should thou never see me? Love: forget me not.’

As with Amy’s husband, so Reg also mercifully returned safely from the bloody conflict and they married in Reading a year before the war ended, in 1917, when Violet was 24.

And yep.

The only odd thing in there is the great grandfather who was a butler. That was a career in service and that was the unusual thing. What the two young women did was, well, not something everyone did but something that was entirely normal. Enter service in between school and marriage. One of my grandmothers did it for example (the other was a nurse, one of the very few other ways a woman could work). I’d lay odds that a large proportion, certainly well over 20%, perhaps as many as 50%, of the readers here have a grandparent or great grandparent (for it was a little less common for men but still common enough) who did a few years in service.

It’s one of these things we seem to have forgotten about servants in Britain. It was rarely a life calling. It was, for the vast majority, something done when young and left behind upon marriage.

32 thoughts on “On the subject of servants and social mobility”

  1. So Much for Subtlety

    Theresa’s grandfather Tom Brasier served with gallantry and was decorated, rising to Sergeant Major in the King’s Royal Rifles.

    I don’t see what is humble about that. I can think of a great many things that would not make me as proud if they were true of my grandfather.

    But in the end, this is still Theresa May. Who is responsible for an incredibly long series of bad policy decisions. The idea of her being a *Tory* PM would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrifically plausible.

  2. So Much for Subtlety

    It’s one of these things we seem to have forgotten about servants in Britain. It was rarely a life calling. It was, for the vast majority, something done when young and left behind upon marriage.

    Just in passing, it shows two fundamental, and actually about as unique as you can get, features of pre-immigration British society. One is the delay of marriage until the couple can afford it. Britain is on the right side of the Hajnal line. Delaying marriage means delaying children and so spacing out the population. It also means great pressure on men to get and keep jobs. The other is that people expected it would be generally safe for women to work in someone else’s home. It is not like the Middle East where very politely you find academic sources pointing out it was expected that apprentices would be anally assaulted by their employers. It was not like East Asia where maids are regularly tortured – to the point Indonesia is now going to ban their nationals working overseas as maids.

    At least one of these, and perhaps both, were important for the industrial revolution.

    (And yes I do know the large body of literature about the evil son of the local gentry and having his wicked way with the maids. That does not change the fact that it was rare enough that British families were reasonably happy to send their daughters into service.)

  3. True for me too and I’m only in my 30s. My gran (born 1910 ish) was a nursery maid then nanny before getting married and leaving service.

  4. bloke (not) in spain

    Reading that I recalled at one time I used to live in Lansdowne Road, Holland Park.
    Of course it was in much less of a disreputable area then.

  5. My gran on my dad’s side was ‘in service’ in Bristol. The family story is that at one point she worked for a Mr & Mrs Leach, whose son Archie, went on to find fame and fortune as Cary Grant.

    Two generations later, I am an evil monster (tax accountant).

  6. No idea about my grandmothers, had a great aunt in service for some years.
    May have been more centred in certain areas, can’t imagine Bridgend had as much need for maids as a city did… 🙂
    Seriously perhaps a more modern equivilant is bar or wait staff work – plenty of people get a job in a pub, cafe or restaurant without it becoming a career.

  7. The other is that people expected it would be generally safe for women to work in someone else’s home.

    The mother of the cattle dealer who had my house built was famously wee-free. To the extent that she didn’t get on with his CoS wife. When he was a little bit richer, he built his Mum a very nice house a wee bit further in to the village. Which she promptly turned in to a hostel for young girls in service.

    And yes I do know the large body of literature about the evil son of the local gentry and having his wicked way with the maids

    I would guess that although there would have been issues with actual “gentry” but given how low a social level would have had a “maid of all work”, it probably wasn’t unusual to meet a future spouse that way. Or, given female mortality, Dad rather than son.

    The farmhouse had 2 maids (living in) and a cook in a tied cottage (whose husband ran the stables.)

  8. It’s worth noting that we were all a lot less “middle class” than we are today. When people point to Julie Walters as a “working class” actress because her father was a builder and decorator and her mother was a postal clerk, people forget that those might have been working class, but they were pretty far towards the top of working class jobs in 1950. Being a postal clerk in 1950 was much higher up the social ladder than being a postal clerk today.

  9. So the modern equivalent would be people putting themselves through university by waiting tables or working behind the bar?

  10. My grandmother and a few of her sisters were in service. Sadly I’ve not made it to the top of British society yet, but I’ve still got time.

    @SE: The WeeFrees (and their various offshoots) are barking. There is a good diagram in the Museum of Scotland which attempts to show the lineage of the various branches and divisions of the CoS. It looks like a bloody tube map.

  11. I’d lay odds that a large proportion, certainly well over 20%, perhaps as many as 50%, of the readers here have a grandparent or great grandparent (for it was a little less common for men but still common enough) who did a few years in service.

    Mine was a secretary. Much the same thing, I’d have thought.

  12. pre-immigration British society
    A society which never existed. Before 1905, there were no restrictions on immigration. Both my paternal grandparents arrived as children not long before.

  13. “Not as barking as those who believe that they can disprove the existence of God. Think about it’.

    No one can prove a negative, so I would agree with the above.

    However, you don’t need to believe that you can disprove His existence in order to be a non-believer. Not believing is very much more rational than believing.

    Not that “rational” is always the same as “better”.

  14. PaulB,
    That was a different sort of immigration. Many newer immigrants have unacceptable genetic and cultural faults such as thinning hair.

  15. More “Why I deserve to be Prime Minister” bullshit from the Fish-Faced Hag ™. In this case “because of my modest and humble forebears”.

    She should be in domestic service not her ancestors–altho’ she is not competent enough for that. Useless and stupid is an all too common combo in UK PMs. More common I think than in domestics.

  16. @Jack C

    Too true. I am deeply suspicious of anyone with a ‘funny foreign accent’.

    You can’t be too careful.

    Any one of them could have a bomb strapped to them.

  17. “Both my paternal grandparents arrived as children not long before.” That’s interesting: where from?

    P.S. Your point was bogus of course since, as you very well knew, the commenter meant before mass immigration.

  18. @ dearieme
    So PaulB is a relative newcomer, one of my great-great-grandfathers came over from Hanover when the Elector of Hanover was also King of England. Some other ancestors came more than a millennium ago and some pre-dated te Romans.
    We are *all* immigrants.
    My Welsh and my Saxon anestrors are both the resuts of mass immigration

  19. Oh dearime – soon you will evoke evolution in a desire to claim that the british were all foreigners before 1960.
    On subject – it is of mild interest that getting a husband was not all that easy back then as a lot of males got slaughtered and a lot sequestered in the military , church and such like. And walking out was watched over as well.

  20. So Much for Subtlety

    john77 – “We are *all* immigrants. My Welsh and my Saxon anestrors are both the resuts of mass immigration”

    No we are not. That is just the Left’s standard line to de-legitimate the indigenous population. As far as we can tell, there was no substantial change to the DNA of the British population from the Stone Age to mass immigration in the 1950s. The Anglo-Saxons brought virtually no change to the British isles except their language.

    We are not all immigrants. If we were recognised as animals, this would be called the McDonald Effect – how introduced species reduce other species they can inter-breed with to a planet-wide uniform mass. And the Left would be violently opposed to it. But the Left hates Britain so much, ending the unique relationship that the indigenous population has with these isles, and said indigenous population itself, is somehow progressive.

  21. @ SMFS
    You are being are straight as a corkscrew. The inhabitants of Britain during the Ice Ages were Neanderthals who have died out: while some people have small traces of Neanderthal DNA – and much smaller traces of the Neanderthal DNA that was not shared by “Homo Sapiens” – thereis no-one, repesat no-one, who is neiher an immigrat nor descended from one. And since my grandfather’s cousin traced the family back to before the invasion by Wiliam the Bastard, I cannot be viewed as a recent immigrant.

  22. So Much for Subtlety

    john77 – “You are being are straight as a corkscrew.”

    You are being utterly disingenuous. If we have to reach back to the last Ice Age, I think we can probably agree that immigrants is not quite the right word. If this was applied to another species, that would be long enough to be called native.

    Again this is an alien discourse imported from America, designed specifically to de-legitimise the indigenous inhabitants of the British isles. The simple fact is, thanks to DNA testing, we know there was no significant population change in Britain until mass immigration in the 20th century. As far back as we can possible test or the records go. If that is not close enough to indigenous, then God knows what is.

  23. @ SMFS
    Nonsense. The DNA analysis would only show major changes resulting from immigration by groups with substantially different DNA from the pre-existent population. It doesn’t show the Danish conquest of more than half of England. It doesn’t even say that we aren’t Welsh.
    A large part of my ancestry is pretty indigenous, predating the invasion by Claudius’ legions; another large part immigrated rather more than a millennium ago; if any ancestors descended from the scum following William the Bastard I am unaware of it.
    I am not an alien

  24. “Both my paternal grandparents arrived as children not long before.” That’s interesting: where from?

    From the Pale of Settlement: my grandfather from the Polish-Russian borders and my grandmother from Ukraine.

    They were part of the mass immigration which resulted in the Aliens Act. The Manchester Evening Chronicle wrote:

    the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land

  25. “the … destitute … foreigner who dumps himself on our … rates” seems a pretty fair objection to me. Why should my ancestors have to subsidise them?

  26. bloke (not) in spain

    “A large part of my ancestry is pretty indigenous, predating the invasion by Claudius’ legions; ”
    I think what SMfS is saying is that could apply to most of us. I know it does, personally because the family name’s unique to a tiny village in Cheshire. There’s only about 700 of us & 75% of those (in Engand – not Wales. never Wales) live within about 40 miles of there. In close proximity to the village’s an iron age fort. Could be where the name comes from.
    “It doesn’t show the Danish conquest of more than half of England”
    Because it doesn’t show heads on coins.
    Where I’ve been living was Carthage, then Roman Iberia, then Visigoth (?), then El Andalus, is Spanish, is becoming EU Region Es9 & if those buggers over the way got a chance, would be a suburb of Tangier. And Miguel’s family have been keeping goats, up the mountain, the whole way through..

  27. Why should my ancestors have to subsidise them?

    I don’t know that they received any subsidies. But if they did, the price has been repaid many, many times over by their children and grandchildren.

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