The Hiring and Firing of Servants

By Charlotte Jordan

There were several options open to servants seeking employment, with personal contacts being the most favoured. Those livng near a large estate might be taken on at the big house but some families didn’t want to employ locals for fear of gossip about private affairs and a local girl might have admirers. Londoners preferred country girls as they were less likely to run away and were believed to be more honest and hardworking.

A traditional way of finding work was at a hiring or “mop” fair. By the late 19th century, most large towns had a servants’ registry but this was the least popular way to find work. Both parties paid a fee but the system was unregulated and open to abuse. Naive country girls paid extortionate fees and were not found a place; employers were also cheated with dishonest servants and false references.

No-one would employ a servant without an interview and a good “character” (reference) was crucial. There was a high turnover of staff and people frequently moved around.

Newspaper adverts were a popular means of requirement and this became more improtant as newspaper flourished in the 19th century. Most positions required a good plain cook who was strong, clean and respectable.

( within the gallery, are a selection of adverts sent to the editor and placed in the Herts and Essex Observer in 1865.)

Only wealthy households employed male domestics because of a tax imposed on them in 1777 to help meet the cost of the American War. A tax of female servants was repealed in 1792. The tax did ease but was not formally abolished until 1937.

Master and servant relations often went sour. In 1931, Abbie Andrews from Ware was employed by Mr W H Lee, a land agent. She was clearly unhappy in her post and quit. Being the lone servant in a modest house could be very hard work and quite lonely.

In a letter to the Lees’ Abbie’s mother says she is poorly and has been made to do washing, which is “woman’s work”. Mr and Mrs Lee were furious and responded with threats of legal proceedings unless she returned to her place, (photos of these documents can be found in the photo gallery.)

Special domestic training schools were also organised, usually financed either by individual philanthropists or by charitable organisations. Locally, the cowper family established a servants’ training school at Birch Green in the 1860s.

Workhouse Servants

Many young servants were recruited from the workhouse, the last and lowest place to find a servant. Workhouse girls were mainly employed as maids to shopkeepers and craftsmen whilst boys were apprentices. They were cheap and steady source of cheap labour and had no-where else to go.

Once they had found a place, young servants in particular faced a culture shock. Many girls had come from small country cottages and had never seen a kitchen range before so being in a house with lots of rooms must have been bewildering. Some girls were frequently verbally abused by their employers as they were unfamiliar with the precious items found in middle homes. Wealthier families did not want to be associated with them and the stigma of the workhouse.

The master of Royston workhouse, William Sparkes advertised his steady supply in London newspapers and received many replies, a couple are shown.

This page was added on 31/08/2011.

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