The end of an era

Augustus James Voisey Fletcher was born in Gurney Slade, Somerset, in 1928, the son of James Fletcher, a farm labourer, and his wife, Naomi (née Dudden), who before her marriage had been in domestic service.

A century before the wife of a farm labourer – indeed of many – would likely have been in service. By the 1920s it was much rarer as being in service was. Naomi’s experience – and of one of my grandmothers – was of the last generation before it near entirely died out. By the 1950s very few would have been in that service.

Something worth remembering about that past. In England at least service was, for most who did it, more like an apprenticeship than it was a life.

23 thoughts on “The end of an era”

  1. These days we have au-pairs; or nannies for the well-off. It’s a form of domestic service; and an apprenticeship for their own future child-raising.

  2. Read Just William books from the 1930s. The Browns and the Botts have slaves that they have just purchased at the auctions in Bristol… no sorry I’m mixing it up with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    Nevertheless William was part of a standard middle class family and they had a maid. Read EF Benson, ALL his characters have staff. I can even go back into my own family history in the 1891 census and there is a live-in maid amongst the family.

    A surprisingly small number of women were engaged in agriculture (13,000 in 1911 ) and until the war intervened the biggest employer for women was indeed domestic service.

  3. Yes, in 1890, entirely normal. And something of a rite of passage. By 1945, pretty much dead except among the very rich.

  4. Andrew C - relative of a domestic to a relative of the Stars.

    My gran worked as a domestic in Cary Grant’s mum’s house. That’s how famous I am.

  5. Pretty much, but not entirely. My great-grandmother had a maid (for some reason the word tweeny comes to mind) into the 50s. I’ve vague memories of her. Hardly rich. More middle-middle class.. Great-grandfather worked for ICI. I have his gold retirement pocket watch. They were insufferably Edwardian though. Grandmother died insufferably Edwardian in the ’80s. I doubt she approved of dying. Very vulgar unless you were Queen Vic or the Old King.

  6. Both my grandmothers were in service until they married and my paternal great-grandmother went back into service, after her husband died, as housekeeper to a local farmer. My maternal grandfather had also been in service in the 1870s as a gentleman’s gentleman until he joined the army. In later life, working as a pit carpenter, he was apparently always immaculately groomed. One of my female cousins was in service until the late 1940s as live-in maid to a local vicar.

  7. Weren’t women required to resign from jobs in the civil service upon getting married?

    It was a benefit to the parents of single girls who went into domestic service because it represented one less mouth for them to feed and was generally a respectable and secure environment for their daughters. Those familiar with the books of Rosie M Banks may recollect her bestselling Only A Factory Girl and recognise that the liberty of employment outside the home was attendant with risks.

    Selective Employment Tax, introduced by Harold Wilson funally marked the end of domestic service.

  8. My granny was in service of a widow. Granny was bequeathed the house. Otherwise all of my family were labourers, minor tradesmen, in service or squaddies. We didn’t have maids, or slaves. Why we share the guilt for slavery is not known to me.

  9. @ rhoda klapp
    “Why we share the guilt for slavery is not known to me.”
    Because you don’t write for The Grauniad.

  10. My mother, born 1923, was in service after she left school at 14, at the same house as her parents – her mother was cook, her father head gardener. Then WW2 came along and she left service to make Bren guns.

  11. Live-in domestic service largely disappeared post-War; but it was replaced with live-out domestic service. Everyone I know has cleaners, window cleaners and gardeners. Many have someone to do the ironing and to walk the dog as well. We employed a live-out nanny for our daughter.

  12. Is wonder if there is, perhaps, a correlation between the lack of domestic staff for all but the top-end nobility, and tax rates going up to what they are to pay millions of single women to procreate, then spend the rest of their lives sitting on their asses watching Jeremy Kyle on a large plasma screen TV in a flat paid for by housing benefit?

  13. Didn’t Agatha Christie once say that she never thought she would be wealthy enough to own a car, but couldn’t imagine not having a maid?

  14. The house my parents moved into in 1959 was a good-sized 3-bed semi built in 1910. They were built on their own with a commanding view for relatives of the local bigwig, and the small bedroom was for the live-in maid, though my sister, whose bedroom it became, would have been very put out if I had referred to her as such.

  15. @Tractor Gent
    Very common for houses of that period. The room will often be plumbed for a sink. May even have the original Butler. And the finish is usually a lot lower standard than the rest of the house. Just a plaster skim, often not particularly well done.
    Little of the dressing done in the rest of the house. Cornices, chair rails etc.

    It’s why my low opinion of houses from that period. They look all right where it shows. (Until they fall to pieces) But the construction behind it is crap. It’s in the maid’s room you see how crap.

  16. In our 1920s house the room that is now my study was the maid’s bedroom. You can tell because (i) it’s the only room without a bell pull, (ii) it’s the only room without a fireplace, and (iii) it’s above the kitchen and scullery so presumably was heated mainly by convection from below. It also has the best views in the house, albeit through what seems to be the cheapest window glass.

    I have no idea when it was last used by a maid – perhaps sometime before the rise of the extravagant idea that each child should have its own bedroom.

    I wonder whether live-in maids lasted longest in the countryside, where any maid who didn’t live in would have had a long trek to reach the house. In, or on the edge of, a town there would be much less need for a liver-in.

  17. Sorry if I’ve told you this before, but scrolling through a late 19th century census return I spotted someone whose occupation was given as rabbit killer’s wife.

  18. My ancestors differ

    On paternal side men mostly business owners and wives raised children and helped in business
    On maternal side men engineers and wives raised children and worked if they wanted too

    @TMB
    Not only civil service, many firms too eg Banks, Insurance

    @TG
    Similar in 6 bed semi. Front was large, high ceiling, many windows rooms. Rear 2 bed wing was through a door and small, low ceiling, 1 window

  19. Sorry if I’ve told you this before, but scrolling through a late 19th century census return I spotted someone whose occupation was given as rabbit killer’s wife.

    Bunny boiler?

  20. @ Tractor Gent
    The house I lived in during most of the ’50s and ’60s was Edwardian five bedroom house with five bedrooms, three large at the front over the reception rooms and the breakfast room and two smaller at the back, behind the bathroom and upstairs toilet over the scullery and pantry: the latter were for servants as could be deduced that they didn’t have bells by which to summon servants. [Naturally I had the smallest bedroom but that was easily big enough for me, and noticeably bigger than some I’ve seen so the Edwardian family’s live-in Maid presumably had a significantly better room than she had been accustomed to at home. For avoidance of doubt: I am sure that this was intended as a single bedroom as the other bedroom in the servants’ wing was a little over 50% larger.]
    Our predecessors were more keen on “modern” technology than dearieme’s predecessors, instead of bell-pulls there were push-“buttons” which rang a bell in the kitchen and showed on a display which room (or if the front door) had rung.

  21. john77: Edwardian five bedroom house with five bedrooms

    Are you sure? Did you actually count them? 🙂

  22. @john77
    Virtually same in our 6 bed, but bells removed except panel in breakfast room. There was also a butler’s pantry off dining room.

    No we didn’t have servants, four of us moved there in 1960s when I was almost 3

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