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She Stoops to Conquer - 18th Century Servants and Masters

Georgian life above and below stairs

My Learning has created a resource in response to the National Theatre's production of Oliver Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer. We want to show that you can use museum objects for KS3/4 cross-curricular work to complement and enhance different art forms - in this case theatre. The play written over 200 years ago and sometimes also called Mistakes of the Night, is a comedy based on practical jokes, blind dates, miscommunication and mistaken identities. It raises questions about class and snobbery and ridicules manners and social customs.

One of the themes of the play is about the different 'upstairs and downstairs' life of those who employed or were the employees. Daru Rooke, a curator with Bradford's Museums and Galleries used his knowledge about life in 18th century Britain to write the programmes notes (below in blue) for the National Theatre. We've chosen four objects from Bolling Hall Museum where Daru is a 'curator', to complement his text. These can be seen on the page Servants behind the green baize door.

One in ten households today employ domestic help but in the Georgian period, domestic service was Britain’s second largest employer. Service was a thing of contrasts. Great aristocratic houses such a 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 to take care of their domestic and farming needs.

In the growing towns and cities the rising middle classes showed their new-found affluence by employing menservants and dressing them in flashy liveries. As 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 and tasks were strictly regulated, often resulting in menial tasks (such as cleaning up dog sick or picking up a spoon) being overlooked.

New inventions such as servants’ bells were also changing the lot of domestic staff. Now they 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 isolated domestics of the 19th century, 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.

© Daru Rooke

Discussion Ideas:

  • Look at the clothes worn by Francis and Caroline Lindley. What is it about them that suggests they are the 'masters'? How is the style of that time different from today?
  • What is it about the way Francis and Caroline are standing and posing that suggests to the viewer they are important?
  • Who today can you think of who show their wealth by their posing and their clothes?
  • The appeal in Georgian times of being a servant was food, warmth and security. Do you think that still applies today and to whom?
  • Think about what you know about people doing domestic work these days. What kind of work is it more likely to be? For example: cleaning silver, gardening or caring for children? Who is likely to be employed?
  • Can you think of any reasons why employing domestic help today can be controversial?

Activity ideas:

  • Look at the duties of a butler and a housemaid in 1881 and write about what they might have been 100 years earlier. Look at what has changed. Are there things that wouldn't have been invented in 1781? How have clothes changed? Have standards of cleanliness changed?
  • Imagine you are a teenager in the 1750's and working as a servant in a big house. Write a 'graphic novel' about the job you have and what you think about your 'master'. Is he fair to you? Does he think more of his clothes than the welfare of his servants? Did life have its funny sides? Think back to the text  above - the elaborate dress and manner of the servants meant that they were regularly mistaken for their masters. This is example of a 'graphic novel' and this video about life 150 years later will give you some clues.
  • Find out more about Oliver Goldsmith and his play She Stoops to Conquer from the links at the bottom of the page. Write a short summary of what you think the play is about. 

One of the most important people from this period was William Wilberforce

Other She Stoops to Conquer resources relating the play to 18th century life :

Manners and Modes

Love and Marriage

Rich and Poor
Town and Country

Document icon Learning article provided by: Bolling Hall Museum | 

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Text written by Daru Rooke, Senior Manager with Bradford's Museums and Galleries for the National Theatre's production of She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith © Daru Rooke
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