Servants in the High Street
Cheshunt High Street
By Nicholas Blatchley
When we think of servants, we tend to associate them with households in the grand Downton Abbey style, but during the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, many families of tradesmen or prosperous artisans would routinely have “a girl to do”. Some would live in, others not, but servants featured quite prominently in the censuses, especially earlier on.
The 1851 census lists 48 people described as servants, while the 1911 census only has 25, and these included both resident domestics and members of the family who were in domestic work elsewhere. A few weren’t what we’d think of as servants — shop assistants, barmaids, even a teacher — but the vast majority were domestic servants, cooks, gardeners and the like.
One very notable difference between the two censuses, as might be expected, was the age of the servants, particularly the females, who made up the majority of both lists. In 1851, apart from a few older specialists such as cook or nurse, almost all the servants were in their teens or twenties, with teenaged girls making up the largest group. The youngest were Ann Avey, a house servant, and John Gater, a butcher’s boy, who were both thirteen, but there were numerous servants of fourteen or fifteen.
Ann Avey was servant to James Gibson, a grocer, and his wife Rosa, who had two baby sons. The household also included George Laxton, a fourteen-year-old errand boy, and another house servant called Emma Venables, of the venerable age of sixteen. All are listed as being born in Cheshunt.
John Gater worked for a butcher called Joseph Taylor and his wife Cecelia, who had five children all under ten. They also had two nineteen-year-old house servants, Hester Bennet and Emma Corne, and it’s easy to imagine the two girls mercilessly teasing the young boy. Or maybe they mothered him — it’s impossible to know. As in the Gibsons’ household, all three servants came from Cheshunt.
By 1911, the youngest servants recorded were Rose North, a fifteen-year-old housemaid, along with Esther Tomkins, another housemaid, and a kitchen maid called Amelia Wilkins, both sixteen. A couple of others were in their teens, but the vast majority were twenties or over, the oldest being Emily Munns, 65-year-old housekeeper to retired accountant Henry Rogers. There was also a 22-year-old general domestic servant called Mary Samuel in the household.
Rose North was the servant to Walter Clark, the doctor who lived at Hillview at the time, along with the cook Alice North, who was 25. Perhaps Rose was Alice’s younger sister, or her cousin, and got the position through her influence. Esther Tomkins, in fact, lived next door in Beechholm, where she was the only servant (at least, the only one recorded as living there) of the Boyd sisters, spinsters in their 60s living on “private means”. Amelia Wilkins, meanwhile, worked for the nursery owner George Paul, and was both the youngest and the lowest ranking of three servants.
So how did these middle-class families treat their servants? It’s impossible to tell. Servants to big houses tended to be treated with anything from contempt to a casual noblesse oblige, but many of these youngsters, in particular, might have been neighbours, if not of the same class. There are cases of teenaged housemaids working for families with a similarly aged daughter. Could they be friends, or would there always be barrier between them? Did the Boyd sisters treat their sixteen-year-old maid like a daughter, or like a drudge?
It would be nice to think that, sometimes at least, normal human feelings and relationships took over, but the power of class consciousness at this time shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s likely that, in most cases, family and servants lived separate lives that rarely interacted.