The status of servants varied from very low to being highly respected members of society. For young women and many young men of the lower classes domestic service was the main employment available. It was the first job after school and as most of the posts were ‘live in’ was an important stage in their lives, the time to leave their parental home. For many it was a transition stage which ended with marriage.
Some servants worked and behaved so well that they were regarded almost as members of the family and prospered enough to gain status in the community. Such a one was William Holland’s Bettey who was on such friendly terms and improved circumstances since being their servant that she sent a valuable present, a watch to his little son William on 4 June 1800.
On 2 February 1800 he mentions that Sarah Tutton brought her husband £2-300, a considerable sum. Their status was of former servants who were now friends of the family and Tutton returned to help the family when four of the children fell ill with scarlet fever and other people kept well away from the house. This devotion was never to be forgotten.
Another former servant had prospered and become a chandler.
Servants were normally engaged by the year. Prospective employers and employees went to the fairs at Michaelmas to meet and enter into engagements for the following year. This day 29 September was a quarter day, the beginning of the year in the courts and in the universities. Often the contract did not last the full year and the employer found it difficult to find a good replacement in mid season. Holland’s cook Edith slept with her lover while the family were away on a visit and was dismissed on 10 October 1803. Eight days later they had found and taken on a new servant The choice would have been less good as the competent ones had recently made annual contracts. Claver Morris checked on a servant with her previous employer before offering her a job on 1 January 1726. He observed the custom of ‘good handsel’ giving presents of silver spoons to servants leaving to be married.
Towards the end of the year slack servants worked harder and asked their master if he would engage them for a further year. William Holland on being thus approached gave an ironic response:
“He asked me if he was to go on for another year. I answered that I feared that the work would be too hard for him and bring him down too much. He smiled and said he could do the work well enough. You can so if you so please, returned I.”
The work a servant was asked to do varied from light tasks such as taking a letter to the post office to hard agricultural labour. The danger of servants being lazy was often uppermost in the employer’s mind. On 25 January 1802 Holland wrote:
‘Went and overlooked the Clerk in the Paddock and made Morris work a little in the garden. The ladies walked out and I moved a little way with William, returned and found that Morris had sneaked in from the garden. Made him come out again.”
One cannot but feel sympathy for Morris wishing to be indoors on a January day.
It was not surprising that complaints were made about the lack of hygiene of servants. Houses were cold and their washing facilities probably poor. Even the very rich had jugs of hot water and basins in their bedrooms and occasional hip baths, the servants probably had cold water from the pump. Holland wrote on 12 August 1802:
” … My wife spoke to Ann about her extreme dirt and she was saucy, she is to go, however the matter is made up for the present.”
She left on 27 August at the end of her year.
Many including Holland blamed the French Revolution for the recent insubordination of servants. The Revolutionary Wars caused an upheaval in Society as did the 2nd. World War. The class of Servants which still existed at the beginning of that War were virtually eliminated in the post war world of 1946. Since then only the very rich can afford to employ English servants. Middle class families use household appliances supplemented in some cases by “au pairs” from Europe.
The great Dr Samuel Johnson had an unusual relationship with his servant. Francis Barber (?1745-1801) was his servant for many years.
He was a black man, illiterate when he came to Johnson, described by Boswell as his faithful servant. Johnson was a loving master who arranged for Frank, as he was known, to go to school and made him his residuary legatee.
In 1759 Francis Barber left Dr. Johnson to enter the navy. He evidently was ignorant of the hardships of this way of life. Johnson kindly interested himself to procure his release. Tobias Smollett wrote to John Wilkes on 16 March 1759
“I am again your petitioner on behalf of the great Cham of literature Samuel Johnson. His black servant whose name is Francis Barber, has been pressed on board the Stag frigate, Captain Angel, and our lexicographer is in great distress. He says the boy is a sickly lad, of a delicate frame, and particularly subject to a malady in his throat, which renders him very unfit for his Majesty’s service.”
In 1768 Boswell wrote:
“His sincere regard for Francis Barber, his faithful negro servant, made him desirous of his further improvement, that he now placed him at a school in Bishop’s Stortford, in Hertfordshire. This humane attention does Johnson’s heart much honour. Out of many letters which Mr Barber received from his master, he has preserved three, which he kindly gave me, and which I shall insert according to their dates.”
I have been very much out of order. I am glad to hear that you are well, and design to come to see you. I would have you stay at Mrs Clapp’s for the present, till I can determine what we shall do. Be a good boy.
My compliments to Mrs Clapp and to Mr Fowler. I am Yours affectionately,
May 28, 1768.
I am at last sat down to write to you, and should very much blame myself for having neglected you so long, if I did not impute that and many other failings to want of health. I hope not to be so long silent again. I am very well satisfied with your progress, if you can really perform the exercises which you are set: and I hope Mr Ellis does not suffer you to impose on him, or on yourself.
Make my compliments to Mr Ellis, and to Mrs Clapp, and Mr Smith.
Let me know what English books you read for your entertainment. You can never be wise unless you love reading.
Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you; for if, when I examine you, I find you have not lost your time, you shall want no encouragement from
London Sept.25 1770
I hope you mind your business. I design that you shall stay with Mrs Clapp these holidays. If you are invited out you may go, if Mr Ellis gives leave. I have ordered you some cloaths, which you will receive, I believe, next week. My compliments to Mrs Clapp and to Mr Ellis, and Mr Smith, &c. I am Your affectionate
Sam. Johnson December 7,1770.
Johnson’s regard for his servants extended beyond their minds and bodily needs to a great sensibility for their moral welfare. Mr Levett, a poor physician, who was permitted to live in the garret of Johnson’s house showed Boswell Johnson’s library which was also in the garret. The place seemed suitable for meditation.
“Johnson told me that he went up thither without mentioning it to his servant, when he wanted to study, secure from interruption; for he would not allow his servant to say he was not at home when he really was.
“A servant’s strict regard for truth, (said he) must be weakened by such a practice. A philosopher may know that it is merely a form of denial; but few servants are such nice distinguishers. If I accustom a servant to tell a lye for me, have I not reason to apprehend that he will tell many lies for himself?”
On 16 August 1774 Johnson wrote from Denbighshire to Mr Levett:
“….. Tell Frank I hope he remembers my advice. When his money is out, let him have more.” From Paris on October 22,1775 to Mr Levett he ends “and give my love to Francis.” Boswell refers to Mr Barber again:
“On Wednesday, March 18,1 arrived in London, and was informed by good Mr Francis that his master was better …..
“On the 22nd of January I wrote to him on several topicks, and mentioned that as he had been so good as to permit me to have the proof sheets of his ‘Lives of the Poets’, I had written to his servant Francis, to take care of them for me.”
Among other duties Francis carried messages. On 3 June 1784 Boswell and Johnson took the Oxford post -coach:
“Frank had been sent by his master the day before to take places for us … Frank came in the heavy coach, in readiness to attend him.”
He left £100 to his female servant Mrs White, the rest of the aforesaid sum of money and property, I leave.in trust to the use of Francis Barber, my man-servant, a negro .. ”
The bequest was estimated to be worth nearly £1500. Mr Barber, by the recommendation of his master, retired to Lichfield, where he might pass the rest of his days in comfort.
The two main causes of complaint against servants were laziness and sexual laxity. These were the problems described by Claver Morris.