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What was it like to live in a Victorian household? What time did the servants have to get up? What was the food like and who cooked it? How did the clothing differ for the different types of servants? How much did the servants get paid? This fascinating book takes you back in time and shows you what it was really like to live in Victorian times, for those both above and below stairs, and what sights and smells would be around you.
|Publisher:||The History Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||250 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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Life In A Victorian Household
By Pamela Horn
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Pamela Horn
All rights reserved.
Middle-class Victorian Homes
When Seebohm Rowntree conducted his social survey of the people of York in 1899 he took 'the keeping or not keeping of domestic servants ... as marking the division between the working classes, and those of a higher social scale'. A large proportion of the maids worked in households with one or two domestics only, around three-fifths of the nation's servant-keepers falling into this category. Among them were artizans and small shopkeepers, like the Bethnal Green woman who employed a ten-year-old girl in the mid-1860's to look after a baby and to serve in the shop. When she was thirteen the girl went to another small London household, where she had a good mistress and plenty of food but had to sleep in a basement kitchen. This swarmed with black-beetles and made her 'very wretched at night'. She also had little free time, being allowed out on Sundays only to go to church. She left after a year.
However, most domestic staff — both male and female — worked in more substantial middle and upper class homes than these, even when they were the sole helper in the house.
The Victorian middle classes have been called 'the most home-centred group in British history'. Charles Dickens in his Sketches of Young Couples (1840) claimed that a love of home and the 'English virtues associated with it' provided the 'only true source' of 'domestic felicity'. As society became increasingly industrialized and commercialized, and as growing numbers of the population lived in towns, the home came to be seen as a refuge from the competitive pressures of the wider world. In 1801 around one in five of the 9 million people living in England and Wales were urban dwellers. By 1901, with a total population of 32.5 million, that proportion had swollen to four out of every five residing in towns. Significantly, out of the 32.5 million, around 1.3 million were domestic servants in private households — 1.28 million of them women and girls.
Houses came to be seen almost as personal kingdoms, protected from intrusion by those who were not family and friends by the gates, hedges and walls that marked their boundaries. Within this setting, the home served as a focus for entertainment and recreation, as well as for rest and recuperation, particularly for the menfolk when they returned from the daily demands of business or professional life. Outside the house, the gardens of the more affluent became showcases for plants, with carefully cultivated flower beds, and fruit and vegetables grown for the table. Some had hothouses, which enabled more delicate or exotic plants to be raised. Gardens were places for relaxation, too, with afternoon tea served on the lawn, croquet and archery contests organized, and impromptu games played by the children. As the Registrar-General put it, in connection with the 1851 census of population: 'The possession of an entire house is ... strongly desired by every Englishman; for it throws a sharp, well-defined circle round his family and hearth — the shrine of his sorrows, joys, and meditations'.
That view was shared by John Ruskin's father, the founder of a prosperous London wine firm, when he declared in sentimental mode: 'Oh! how dull and dreary is the best society I fall into compared with the circle of my own Fire Side with my Love sitting opposite irradiating all around her, and my most extraordinary boy'.
In reality, much of family life did not match this optimistic picture. For many individuals, the intimate daily contacts and close relationships proved stifling and led to quarrels and unhappiness, as John Ruskin's own unfortunate marriage was to demonstrate. Single daughters at home, especially as they grew older, often found the restrictions irksome. In the early l830s, when Florence Nightingale was in her early thirties, she expressed this general discontent, complaining of the role expected of well-to do women like herself, and the lack of purpose in their lives: 'They are taught from their infancy upwards that it is a wrong, ill-tempered, and a misunderstanding of "woman's mission" ... if they do not allow themselves willingly to be interrupted at all hours ... The actual life is passed in sympathy given and received for a dinner, a party, a piece of furniture, a house built or a garden laid out well, in devotion to your guests ... in schemes of schooling for the poor ... The time is come when women must do something more than the "domestic hearth".'
Nonetheless, those darker aspects did not prevent society from emphasizing the centrality of family life for the nation's wellbeing. That applied to all classes and in reinforcing the philosophy, religion played its part, through the values and moral standards it imparted and the sense of community which membership of a church or associated religious body engendered. F. M. L. Thompson, in a study of the development of the prosperous London suburb of Hampstead, commented on the high level of Sunday worship recorded in mid-century. He saw this not merely as a manifestation of faith but as an indication of the power of the local church 'to confer social acceptance and assist [the] personal advancement' of those who attended. By that means communities were formed 'out of the individual family atoms' residing on Hampstead's new housing estates.
But the dwellings of prosperous Victorians had another, more public, role alongside the security and privacy they conferred on their occupants. Through their size, appearance, style and location, as well as through the number of domestic workers employed within them, they served as visible symbols of their owner's position in the world. To meet the need for residential 'zoning' linked to this, a multiplicity of suburbs was constructed, each carefully ranked so as to keep the classes apart. Edgbaston, for example, was regarded as the 'Belgravia' of Birmingham, a place where affluent businessmen and professional people lived and where there were prohibitions on the opening of commercial premises within the area. Similarly, Alderley Edge in Cheshire was described in a local guide as the 'residence of the merchant princes of Manchester'. Katharine Chorley, who grew up there at the end of the nineteenth century, claimed that the 'poor people' living in it 'were almost exclusively the personal retainers of the Edge houses, the gardeners, the coachmen and later the chauffeurs'. She then added drily: 'Like a large house and garden, a wife or daughter with nothing to do was an emblem of success. There were plenty of servants ... so domestic chores were mostly limited to ordering the meals and doing the shopping and domestic responsibility to captaining the staff'. For the rest, they 'filled in time' by paying calls, which was an accepted social duty and, in accordance with the etiquette of the day, was the only means of getting to know new neighbours. 'And it was essential to leave the [calling] cards in correct numbers. To get this wrong showed ignorance of polite manners and therefore brought the caller's whole social position into question'. The younger and more energetic women played golf and tennis, and for the older ladies there was bridge. '"Sewing for charity" filled in a little more time.'
This preoccupation with securing the 'right' address was appreciated by London estate agents, too, when they advertised houses to let to wealthy families coming to the capital to enjoy the pleasures of its social Season, between April or May and July of each year. Care was taken to emphasize that the properties offered were in 'choice' locations or were suitable for 'a family of the highest position', as typical advertisements in The Times of 11 and 12 March, 1887, phrased it.
Within the household itself similar concerns about segregation and classification existed, so that those residing 'upstairs' were divided from their domestics, who were 'below stairs'. As Lady Cynthia Asquith commented, it was a time when 'employers and employees ... knew their places, and kept to them as planets to their orbits'. Hence when the architect, Robert Kerr, published his book, The Gentleman's House (1864) he selected 'privacy' as the most important feature of such a property. By that he meant the separation of the family from their servants. He put this ahead of other desirable characteristics, such as the comfort of the house and its convenience. To achieve the desired end it was essential that 'Family Rooms [should] be ... private, and as much as possible the Family Thoroughfares'. He considered it the foremost of all maxims, therefore, 'that the Servants' Department shall be separated from the Main House, so that what passes on either side of the boundary shall be both invisible and inaudible on the other'. On the same principle, in large houses, there should be a separate staircase for the sole use of the domestic staff as they went about their duties. Even out of doors it was important that the walks of the family in garden and grounds should 'not be open to view from the Servants' Department.' Whatever the size of the household, 'let the family have free passage without encountering the servants unexpectedly, and let the servants have access to all their duties without coming unexpectedly upon the family or visitors.' The underlying concept was that the 'family [constituted] one community; the servants another.' In such circumstances a system of bell pulls was an essential feature of any well-to-do home, so that the servants could be summoned when needed.
It was part of the same process that what Lady Cynthia Asquith called 'the turmoil, stress, and steamy odorous heat of cooking was kept well battened-down below stairs'. In this way the smells associated with the preparation of food were kept distant from the family's own living quarters. Inevitably this meant dishes had to be carried a considerable distance to the dining room — a practice that meant extra work for the servants and sometimes cold food for the diners.
Even in relatively humble homes, the division between family and servants was often maintained. Flora Thompson noted how in rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s and 1890s while some shopkeepers and tradesmen treated their young maids as 'one of the family' in other households they were 'put into caps and aprons' and had their meals in the kitchen. When, as with one widow, who ran a blacksmith's smithy and acted as village postmistress, the employer herself ate in the kitchen, the maid was provided with a small side-table in the same room for her meals. It indicated her 'separation' from the mistress.
Part of the middle-class desire for their dwellings to be seen as indicators of economic success arose from the long-established example of landed families, for whom the country house had always been more than a home. For grandees at the top of the servant-keeping hierarchy, with retinues of retainers running into dozens, their establishment could constitute 'a settlement as large as a small village'. In this way their house served as a power base, whose imposing structure demonstrated the owner's authority, wealth and superior social status. Its architecture and interior decoration affirmed his cultured taste, education and good breeding, as well as his affluence. As Jessica Gerard has noted, a large country house with its 'opulent hall and reception rooms served as a public stage of the rituals of social performance which presented the family to greatest advantage, enhancing its prestige among social equals and exacting deference from inferiors.'
The middle-class urge to achieve social standing through the size and location of their home was extended to the hospitality they provided and the furnishings and fittings displayed. This led one writer on household management, J. H. Walsh, in his Manual of Domestic Economy (1857) to deplore the 'reckless extravagance of expenditure' which occurred when friends and acquaintances vied with one another. 'This is more especially the case in the large provincial towns', he wrote, 'where dinner-parties, evening parties, carriages and horses, expensive clothes and all the various items which help to swell the Christmas bills, are indulged in ... Because Mrs. A. has given a large and tastefully-arranged dinner-party, Mrs. B. must out-do her if possible ... Every one wishes to be thought a step above his or her real position'. For Walsh, a 'well-ordered English household' was one where 'every real want' was 'quietly and regularly supplied at the cheapest possible rate consistent with good quality'. In choosing the location of a house, the prime concern should be whether it offered good air, good drainage, good soil, and a good water supply rather than other considerations. That was sound advice at a time when typhoid was a major killer and when the death of the Prince Consort in December 1861 was attributed to a contaminated water supply.
The spirit of emulation was extended to house contents, too, despite the criticisms of Walsh and other authors of household management manuals who thought like him. Families wanted furniture and fittings which looked new, stylish and expensive. Ornaments, mirrors, carpets, curtains, and a multiplicity of sofas, chairs, tables, and display cabinets, to say nothing of the all-important pianoforte, gave many Victorian rooms a cluttered appearance. In the upper middle-class home of Linley and Marion Sambourne in Kensington, for example, an inventory of 1877 revealed that the drawing room, the centrepiece of the house, contained 250 objects, including a vast array of ornaments and knickknacks, to which they added over the years. To keep these well dusted must have presented their housemaid with a formidable task. There were sixty-six upright chairs in the Sambournes' house, ten of them in the best bedroom, where they slept. There were two small tables in that room as well, in addition to the usual bedroom furniture. The walls were covered with pictures, including the halls, with sixty-two framed photographs in the front hall and thirty-five in the rear hall. Almost three hundred items lined the walls of the staircase.
It was in this acquisitive and competitive atmosphere that the highly religious Marion Bradley, wife of a master at Rugby school, ruefully noted in her diary during September 1854, that she must economize in her budgeting: 'I cannot see in looking round how I can be more economical in the house, for I always check any extravagance I meet with in the bills ... Where I do see my tendency to extravagance is in indulging my taste for elegance in furnishing. I shall not if I can help it spend any more money in adorning rooms nor in uselessly fine dress for the children, but God must be my helper in this resolution ... for I am miserably weak.'
Members of the aristocracy greeted with hostility and contempt the ostentation of the aspiring middle classes and, in particular, the attempts at social climbing by the nouveaux riches. Lady Frances Balfour, after a visit to Alfred de Rothschild's newly-built Halton House in Buckinghamshire, noted sourly: 'I have seldom seen anything more terribly vulgar ... Oh! but the hideousness of everything, the showiness! The sense of lavish wealth thrust up your nose!'
Charles Dickens, too, mocked the pretensions of plutocrats lower down the social scale when he described the 'bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London' occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, in his novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865):
Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their servants were new, their plate was new ... their pictures were new, they themselves were new ... For in the Veneering establishment, from the hall chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and up-stairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings — the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.
William Morris, the arts and crafts pioneer, in 1879 declared acidly that he had 'never been into any rich man's house which would not have looked the better having a bonfire made outside it of nine-tenths of all that it held.'
Nevertheless, many wives and daughters took pride in newly refurbished rooms and in the admiration their efforts evoked among friends and acquaintances. In late 1889 Jeannette Marshall's parents moved from their old home in Savile Row to a newly-leased property in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Their two daughters were given the task of selecting the colour scheme and designs of the new house and they set to with a will. The four drawing-rooms alone had two separate colour schemes and even the servants' bedroom became a matter of pride, with its pale brown paintwork and yellow and white floral paper. On 5 May, 1890, when the family had the first formal 'at home' day for visitors, the girls happily received the plaudits of their guests. Jeannette noted in her diary that those who came had been 'in raptures pure & simple. We had our fill of compliments, & no mistake'. As her biographer puts it, by the move the Marshalls appeared to have 'turned over a new leaf. It was as though acquiring a house worthy of being shown off had bestowed on them the self-assurance and warmth of born hosts'— qualities which had been lacking in their Savile Row days.
Excerpted from Life In A Victorian Household by Pamela Horn. Copyright © 2011 Pamela Horn. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 Middle-class Victorian Homes,
2 Mistress of the Household,
3 Recruiting and Replacing the Servants,
4 Life Below Stairs,