Managing one's servants

Ruth Herman

Human resource management issues are not new; the tricky problem of getting the best out of your staff was as pertinent to the eighteenth century manager as it is today.  For the aristocracy and landed gentry much of the anxiety of managing staff centred on domestic issues.  Even in grand houses the advice was for the wife to take personal control of the arrangements for as one of the many manuals points out when “the lady” resigns up her “Concerns” to the “Governante” or housekeeper, it has “gone ill”, leading to pilfering, even dividing “the Spoil of the Family”.[1]

The possible issues are highlighted in a letter in the Panshanger collection to Lady Cowper in 1720 in which the correspondent is pleased that “As vexatious as your very naughty servants have been to you I am glad you could so far forget them as to omit it in your … letters”. He or she is full of good advice some of which ties in with something that sounds quite enlightened: “the only way to govern them is to make them so content with their places that they shall fear turning away, otherwise we have no restraint upon them.”  This chimes with a published guide to managing servants which recommends “much ease and order as may make their labour pleasant, and their duty desirable. “ The correspondent is gracious enough to allow that Lady Cowper is in charge: “I submit ‘em wholly to your conduct act as absolutely, and I can enable you to do, turn ‘em away and take ‘em [back] at your pleasure, and when you have ‘em use ‘em as you think fit and as for their number, increase or lessen them I will be content.”

If Lady Cowper needed to go further afield there was plenty of empathetic advice available.  One writer goes so far as to claim that “it is not to be wondered at, that in an Age abounding with Luxury … servants should be in general so bad, that it is become one of our calamities not to be able to live without them”. But there is an acknowledgment that while the neglect of duty is not to be tolerated, ‘Masters are to give to their servants that which is just and equal’ and they should not be treated with ‘rigor or contempt’ but given a ‘sufficient and decent provision, both in sickness and health.’  Lady Cowper’s correspondent is sympathetic to her plight but does take the opportunity for a little sharp comment that she is in some way inadequate in her management skills:  “’Tis  plain from this and other , thy servants are generally bad, yet they do not as I observe use me or anyone, so very ill as they do you.”

But the writer of the letter still has some good advice, which may both alarm and satisfy current Human Resource Management  practice such as “neither beat servants nor fine ‘em; the only way to govern them is to make them so content with their places that they shall fear turning away.”   This early modern consultant goes on to offer further words of wisdom, which do seem reasonably fair given the power that the lady of the house had over the domestic staff:  “You find turning away one is no example to mend another, or prevent the like offence as you imagined it would.” It seems that Lady Cowper’s temper might just get the  better of her sometimes, as the next comment is ”Their places are good but they are often so sharply reproached for the small faults, that they grow desperate, hate their places, and do become very easy to commit great”, and warns her against  “teasing them for small things”.

The problems suffered by Lady Cowper include one servant whose “drunkenness got my attention, having one sober day between two drunken ones except that on Friday, it proved quotidian”. This is clearly a hazard common to domestic servants as another commentator points out that she has ‘known several who have loathed the very smell of my spirituous liquor at last to love them to their ruin’[2]  In fact the author of this homily goes on to say that she warns her maidservants that the “consequences of these uplifting spirits, none of you but have sense enough to see, if you would give yourself the trouble of considering … the horrible objects which the streets every day afford you.”

We do not know if Lady Cowper’s staff management techniques improved, but as we have seen there was plenty of help available if it did not.

[1] Richard Steele, The Ladies Manual, 1714

[2] Eliza Haywood A Present for a Serving Maid , 1744

This page was added on 15/12/2016.

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