It’s easy to look back on the eighteenth century and imagine how wonderful it must have been to have a small army of servants to do all the work — at least if you were a member of the upper classes. Fetching and carrying, cleaning and polishing, cooking and washing and mending; the servants did all the work, while the master and mistress passed their time in whatever way they chose. Well, not quite. As anyone who has been responsible for others will know, it takes more than giving orders to keep things running smoothly.
The hiring, supervision and disciplining of the household servants was the job of the mistress of the house. Some were more successful in the role than others. It helped to have grown up in a grand household and seen it done before, but even that gave no guarantee of competence when your turn came. I have been reading the personal diary of an eighteenth-century lady who had nothing but trouble with her servants, despite being the sister of a baronet, brought up in the substantial mansion of Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire.
Miss Gertrude Savile
Gertrude Savile (1697-1758) kept a diary for many of her adult years, though only the entries for 1721-22, 1727-31 and 1737-57 have survived. She never married and was dependent on her brother for a significant, period, until a series of small inheritances made her an independent woman with her own household, first in Nottinghamshire and then in London. She had her freedom, but with it came having to deal with her own servants.
It’s important to note that we have only her comments on them and their behaviour. Their view might have been somewhat different! She was not a person who was easily pleased. Nevertheless, the entries she made in her diary suggest these servants were a long way from the meek, obedient drudges common in today’s costume dramas. They bullied her, stole from her, had affairs amongst themselves, and generally did as they wished whenever she was absent from home.
To avoid endless repetition, I’m going to concentrate on the three of the last four years of the diary, those of 1754, 1755 and 1756. Even so, I’ll be summarising a good deal. Remember that this is a small household, belonging to a single, unmarried woman. For most of the time, she has only four servants: a cook, a personal maid, a housemaid and a footman. Please also note that the spelling has been modernised in all of the quotations that follow. It’s ironic that, in one place in the diary, Gertrude Savile accuses a woman who wrote to her of being unable to write literate English and spell properly. Gertrude’s own spelling is always wayward and from time to time varies between eccentric and downright imaginative!
In January, 1754, she began the year by replacing the housemaid. In March, she sacked the footman, calling him “a stupid, slovenly good for nothing” and accusing him of either stealing or killing one of her favourite dogs. June was a particularly active month in replacing servants. The replacement footman, who presumably came in March, was turned out. She described him as “a sad fellow” who frightened her with “getting into the parlour window”. I have no idea exactly what she meant by this, but she writes that she was afraid to tell him he must go without having a male neighbour present to protect her.
Two days later, she fired the cook, describing her as “lazy and careless” and “as all the rest, a liar and deceitful”. A new footman came at the end of the month, but problems remained. In July, she sacked Martha (“deceitful, cunning, but one remove from an idiot.” ) and Clarissa (“… proved Irish.”) In September, the cook gave notice after three warnings. What these were about is not recorded. However, Gertrude describes the cook as “an uncommon worthless, cheating, strange creature.”
Things go quiet until November, when a new maid comes. Gertrude is now using an agency, Fielding’s, to obtain staff, instead of relying on friends and other contacts. She also, as we shall see, experimented with taking a maid from the Overseers of the Poor. Neither turned out well. By January of the following year, 1755, she has discharged two maids, one for being pregnant and the other, the charity girl, after having discovered that she had been a child prostitute and treated for a venereal disease at the expense of the parish.
In May, she replaced all three maids and vowed she would never take another servant from Fielding’s. One of the maids had problems with her sweetheart; another was described as “a Taffy [Welsh woman], and one of the most silly, ignorant ones that ever came from her country”,;and the third was simply dismissed with no reason given. She also dismissed the footman and took another, who only lasted until July, being described as “idle and careless, but good-natured and respectful to me.” At the same time, she dismissed two of the maids, describing one as “a great strumpet, even in my house with John Beckett [the footman]. A new footman came, John Barlow. He later caused so much trouble that I have devoted a separate post to his circumstances. All went quiet again until November when another maid was sacked for being “good-natured, but stupid.”
1756 opened quietly enough. Then, in February, Gertrude records receiving an anonymous letter about one of the maids and the cook, claiming that they had “abundance of company whenever I was out.” I presume this means (paying?) male company, for the letter apparently also accused the maid of having “a cousin, who often lay in my house and carried out lapfulls of something.” This was followed by the departure of another maid (“a deaf, stupid, lazy, prating, good for nothing.”). All was now quiet until the affair of John Barlow, the footman mentioned above, and the subject of a later posting. It’s interesting that, by this time, Gertrude is offering an increase in wages to those whom she hires, provided they stay at least a year. She also begins to note that their wages now include “no tea”, presumably because the cost and the excise duty make it too expensive.
Although the diary continues through 1757, there are few references to the servants. In fact, the whole nature of the entries changes, leaving out day-to-day comments on household matters in favour of fewer, but much longer, entries describing international and national events. I will, however, pick out one entry from March, 1757, concerning Sarah Howard, since it gives a somewhat kinder picture of Gertrude than has been possible from the early entries. Here it is in full:
“Sarah Howard went. I let her rub on till she gave me warning to go, the day her year was up. She could be very smooth and do her work very well, but the great thing I kept her for was her extraordinary tenderness to all dumb creatures, which I never knew or believed could be in so bad a person as she really was in all other respects. I knew my poor dogs and cats had a great protector in her; that she would not upon any provocation (as almost all servants will) not only not hurt them herself, but would let nobody else [do so]. This was a very great thing with me, whose love to them puts it so much in my servants’ power to make me miserable. There was more that was uncommon in her; she was, though a good deal past her bloom and very fat, not only very handsome, but had one of the sweetest, most composed, serene countenances I ever saw. By her looks, one would think her an angel. She was a Londoner.”
Savile, Gertrude, et al. Secret Comment: The Diaries of Gertrude Savile, 1721-1757. Devon: Kingsbridge History Society; [Nottingham]: Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, 1997.