Upstairs Downstairs, Then and Now

The Idle Historian recently pointed me to a great BBC series on the lives of domestic servants in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The three-part documentary is meant to “dispel the nostalgia and fantasies that we have around domestic service.” It is delivered with real passion by Essex University historian Pamela Cox, whose great-grandmothers were in service. With the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey and the new (and even more romanticized) Upstairs Downstairs, this is a good time to remember that life for domestic servants was extremely harsh and often cruel, with few rewards and none of the rights that other workers had (such as they were), not even the right to be addressed by their own name. It amounted to little less than slavery, with a touch of apartheid thrown in for good measure.

Servants were generally considered to be sub-human and disposable, which conveniently justified their extremely low wages and poor living conditions. Servants who were too sick or old to work (or had gotten pregnant, by whatever means) were simply turned out into the street. As Britain industrialized and other forms of work became available, workers (especially men) left domestic service in droves, causing the remaining servants to be squeezed even harder to make up the deficit. Attempts were made to force women into domestic service by denying them unemployment insurance. Employers lamented the “work shy” “servant class,” as though they were put on Earth solely to serve and were being perverse in refusing to do so. As education and employment opportunities improved, workers voted with their feet and servants became a thing of the past for all but the very wealthy, and even they had to grudgingly capitulate to the demands of the increasingly scarce domestic labour supply.

Lest we think this is all in the past and we know better now, the same thing is happening today. Employers in various industries complain that they cannot find willing workers and so they must import workers from abroad. The reality is that the jobs in question are too low-paid and unpleasant or dangerous to attract workers who have other options. However the experience in Britain shows that employers will never admit this. They will blame the “lazy” workers and do nothing to make the jobs more attractive and humane.

Indeed the British did also import domestic servants, including Jews fleeing Naziism who were forced into service no matter what their profession had been previously. This continues today with nannies brought in from the Philippines and elsewhere, some of whom are highly educated, and some of whom encounter conditions as harsh and abusive as their Victorian predecessors. These jobs were and are so bad that only the desperate will take them. What does that say about our society? Are we really classless when we have one standard for “skilled” workers and another for domestic or agricultural workers, or more to the point, one standard for ourselves and another for foreigners? What does it mean when we take advantage of poverty to lower wages and increase hours, either at home or abroad? Do we really believe in the inherent worth and equality of all human beings or only when it doesn’t cost us anything? Documentaries like this are not just a fascinating glimpse of the past but a mirror for the present and we would do well to look.

This entry was posted in History.

4 comments on “Upstairs Downstairs, Then and Now

  1. kcecelia says:

    Great post. Thank you. I’ll watch the documentary. I agree that this still goes on in industries such as animal slaughter. I keep working to change these things, but sometimes I despair; in a world where so many Americans take a Romney/Ryan presidency seriously, I am not seeing a broad impulse toward a more humane work place.

    • Sylvia says:

      Perhaps you’ve heard of the E. coli contamination at a giant meat packing plant in Alberta that has affected all of Canada. I don’t know how we can be surprised by shoddy work when they treat the workers little better than the animals they slaughter so inhumanely. Now they have laid off all the workers, as if it was their fault! We wouldn’t be having these food contamination problems if the workers were given the time, knowledge, and support to process food safely. In the end we just hurt ourselves by exploiting the poor. I think the experience in England shows that it is entirely up to the workers to get together and demand better conditions. Their employers will certainly never do it voluntarily!

  2. Stefanie says:

    “Do we really believe in the inherent worth and equality of all human beings or only when it doesn’t cost us anything?”

    Sadly, I’d say that pretty much sums it up. Whenever I am reading one of Virginia Woolf’s diaries I always end up feeling sad for the servants. Woolf was always complaining about them but I doubt she was a very easy person to work for!

    • Sylvia says:

      Probably not, but the general working conditions were enough to make any servant resentful when other workers were being paid more, had evenings and weekends free, and didn’t have to wear degrading uniforms (maids in particular hated wearing caps!). I suppose that like everyone else of her class Woolf just expected servants to happily devote their every waking moment to her comfort in exchange for room and board and a little pocket money. I guess her servants disagreed!

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