Like most people in the UK, I descend from working-class people. Almost all of my ancestors worked invariably either on the land or in service. If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend you read “Life Below Stairs“, by Alison Maloney.
Being a servant in the 19th and early 20th century was usually totally alien to the glamorous, easy-going lifestyle that below-stairs workers enjoyed as depicted in modern-day television dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey. My great-grandmother Elizabeth was a domestic servant – or in other words, she was a maid. As far as I know, she never worked in a large household, and her employers would have therefore belonged to the middle-class, which became so prominent and so powerful in 19th-century England.
Elizabeth was born in 1879, toward the end of the Victorian era. She came from a family that for generations had lived in the countryside and worked on the land. In fact, there are very few precedents of females in her family who worked in service before her. This is hardly surprising, as servant numbers grew steadily until the outbreak of WWI. In 1901 over 40% of the total female population of working age were employed in service. In 1911 1.3 million people in England and Wales alone worked “below stairs”.
Elizabeth and her sister Ellen, who was only a year older than her, were very close. They both went to school together, as the 1891 census testifies, but probably left the classroom soon thereafter. The elementary Education Act of 1880 stated that children aged between 5 and 10 had to attend school, but as poor families would have needed even the youngest of children to work, this standard was not always reached. In 1893, by which time Elizabeth would have been 14 years old, a new act on elementary education raised the minimum leaving age to 11. It is therefore possible that Elizabeth was already in service at that time.
The 1901 census shows that Elizabeth worked as a general domestic servant in the house of a Mr and Mrs Oliver in the town of Leominster, in Herefordshire. Mr Oliver was fish and poultry merchant who evidently did well enough to maintain a small household, providing his wife and two small children with three servants (including Elizabeth, a groom and a nurse for the Oliver baby).
As explained in this documentary on the history of servants, presented by Dr. Pamela Cox, servants were often given a shortened and more familiar name by their employers, so as to denote their inferior rank and station within the household. It was probably Mr and Mrs Oliver who gave Elizabeth the nickname Bessie, which she used for the rest of her life. A generation later and her daughter, my own grandmother Betty, was also addressed as Bessie by her employer, the Canadian novelist Mazo de la Roche.
In 1901, my great-grandmother’s sister Ellen, nicknamed Nell, was also a servant. She actually worked and lived at nr 24, the High street, in Leominster, just a couple of doors down from where Elizabeth worked. Nell, however, was a children’s nurse (rather like a nanny), a more respectable position than being a general servant.
Nell worked in the house of a Mr Frederick Heal, a 34 year-old drape shopkeeper who hailed from the Isle of Wight. Mr Heal and his wife Fanny had two young sons aged 2 and 1 (which explains Nell’s presence in the household), but also lodged four female employees who are described in the census returns as draper’s assistants. Their names, for posterity’s sake, are Lilly Andrews (25, from Ashley, Shropshire), Pauline Beach (25, from Birmingham), Alice Passey (21, from Kidderminster) and Winifred Pipes (18, from Worcester). Apart from his family, his employees and my great-great-aunt Nell, Mr Heal shared his roof with two other female servants, Jennie Haynes, a 17 year-old cook (who I imagine would have worked very hard to feed all those people day after day) and Rhoda Haynes (Jennie’s sister, probably), who was a general domestic servant. The house they all lived in is now a travel agent’s.
Of course, Elizabeth and Ellen probably never intended to work in service all their lives, but at the time, marriage was the almost-exclusive means of escaping a life below stairs. Of them both, Elizabeth was the quickest to escape, as she somehow met my great-grandfather and duly married in 1910, leading a peaceful but hard-working life as a mother of three in the countryside up in the Malvern Hills. Nell, on the other hand, lingered in service for a few more years. In 1911 she pops once again as a nurse, only this time she is staying in the house of 50 year-old George Wilson and his wife Mary Anne in Ross-on-Wye. Ellen is not employed by the Wilsons themselves, however, since two accompanying boys, Thomas and George Wall, are listed as visitors too. It is quite possible that Ellen would have been entrusted with the boys’ care by their parents while they all visited the children’s grandparents.
It was not until 1926 that Ellen finally married a fellow Herefordshireman, and they settled near her sister Elizabeth.