Life in 18th Century Britain

Employing servants

Thousands of people worked as servants in the 18th Century, but they were employed by a much smaller group. Curator Daru Rooke from Bradford Museums and Galleries explains why:

...in the Georgian period, domestic service was Britain’s second largest employer...Great aristocratic houses such as Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire might boast an indoor staff of a hundred whilst country squires and clergymen might have as few as five men and maidservants...


In the growing towns and cities the rising middle classes showed their new-found affluence by employing menservants and dressing them in flashy liveries. Tobias Smollet noted 'now every broker and attorney maintains a couple of footmen, a coachmen and postillion'. 


In sophisticated houses the elaborate dress and manner of the servants meant that they were regularly mistaken for their masters...


New inventions such as servants’ bells [meant that servants] could be called when wanted rather than standing in attendance near important members of the family. This brought new levels of privacy for employers but set the scene for the...19th century, [with servants] kept tidily behind the green baize door.


In the more modest manor house and vicarage, duties normally reserved for a footman or butler might double up with work on the farm or in the stable and the relationship between master and servant were celebrated as faithful retainers dedicated to a family and place.


But why the appeal? Domestic services provided employees with a decent income, food and clothing, warmth and in some cases the chance to see the world. The price they paid was summed up by R. Dodsley in his poem 'Servitude' of 1728:


    'Purchas’d by annual Wages, Cloaths and Meat,
    Theirs is our Time, our Hands, our Head, our Feet:
    We think, design and act at their Command,
    And as their Pleasure varies, walk or stand.'

(Text © Daru Rooke)


Glossary:

Affluence - a great deal of  wealth
Aristocratic - linked to the most powerful and wealthy people in society
Baize - green woollen fabric used on games tables
Livery - a special uniform worn to identify servants in a household
Postillion - someone riding the front horse in a team drawing a carriage
Retainer - someone paid a fee to be available for work
Squire - a country landowner

View other relevant My Learning resources or see the teachers' notes page for discussion and activity ideas. 


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Document icon Learning article provided by: Bolling Hall Museum | 
Text © Daru Rooke

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