"THERE are no servants to be had!"
The cry begins with the mistresses, it is taken up by the registry offices, it is repeated in the Press. Yet in London alone we have a great army of servants, who spend their lives waiting upon a still larger army of their fellow men and upon each other. The great wheel of life in London is for ever turning, and the hands which turn it are those of the servants.

There are always servants for the rich. Money will buy service, if it will not buy faithfulness; it will buy plausibility, if it cannot secure honesty. In the humbler household, where the servant is truly one of the family, character becomes a matter of the utmost importance; and amid this great army the friendly, faithful domestic is still to be found. Servant London is an integral part of all London life, and the class which employs no servants most often supplies them. So huge is the panorama now unfolded, that only a few of its scenes can be given, only a few of its figures can be sketched in.

When the great city wakes, the servants wake with it. Peep through the grey and curtainless windows of Westminster Hospital. In the servants' quarters the drowsy ward-maids and kitchen staff are dressing. It is only half-past five, and a raw winter morning; yet within an hour the great building will be cleaned down from top to bottom, and the long procession of meals will have begun. No chattering over work, no exchange of amenities at the area steps; housemaid, ward maid, kitchen-maid, cook — all are subject to rigid discipline.

Eastward the sun is rising, and the river glows a fitful red; eastward still, past the Tower, where the officials' households are waking and the soldier servants begin east, and further east to the furthest edge of the city, where Greater London is now wide awake. Follow the river till you reach a desolate region lying below high-water mark, not very far from the Victoria Docks — a region where still the pools on the waste land are salt when the tide is high, and where thousands of grey-faced houses, built squat upon the reeking earth, lean towards each other for mutual support.
This is the servantless land.

These endless rows of expressionless grey houses, with their specious air of comfort and gentility, their bay window and antimacassar-covered table, are tenanted by two, it may even be by three, families housed in the four rooms. These are the people who "do for themselves." And here many of our servants get such guidance in housework as serves them for a training. Here are born and bred the sisters of the little "Marchioness," true "slaveys" in all but spirit, who recount the last battle with the "missus" with that dramatic instinct which never fails the child of the street. "And I give 'er as good as 'er give me, I did; and well she knows I won't stand 'er lip!"

Louisarann is fortunate; she left school in the seventh standard (says her mother proudly), and now the "Mabys Ladies" (Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants) have been able to find her "a place"— £8 a year all found, and no washin'." Lucky girl! Alice Mary, her sister, left school as ignorant as she entered it, but she too has found work. She has gone as "general" to the public-house round the corner — father bein' an old customer, and the 'Pig and Whistle' mos' respectable." She minds the " biby " during the day, and perhaps takes a turn at "mindin' the bar" during the evenings.

Let us follow Louisarann to her first place. A lodging-house is "genteel," but life there is not very amusing. It is about six when, on a winter morning, a small object, she creeps out of her dingy pallet bed at the back of the under-ground kitchen which is her home. A grated window shows the filthy pavement, the yellow fog, and the boots of the passers-by.

Hastily gathering her meagre wardrobe from the bed where she has piled it for warmth, she dresses herself, gives her face a shuddering smudge of ice-cold water, and draws on a pair of old gloves given to her by "one of the gents upstairs," to keep the soot out of her broken chilblains while she cleans her flues. Poor Louisarann is neither quick nor skilful, and she gets blacker and blacker as she works.

She has only time to wipe off a few of the worst smuts before she is carrying hot water up to the top of the house. Down she clatters, and snatching her brushes climbs up again to do the grates in the three sitting-rooms; then up and down she toils, carrying coal and removing ashes. Her mistress, half awake and proportionately cross, comes into the now warm kitchen to make herself a cup of tea and get the breakfast for husband and household. Upstairs Louisarann removes the dirty glasses and cigarette ends, gives a hasty "sweep up," and then, amid the appetising smell of frizzling bacon, toils again up and down stairs, staggering under the heavy breakfast trays. While all the hungry souls but herself are breakfasting, she cleans the rows of boots. She likes to do things well when she has a chance, and she gives an extra "shine" to the "drorin'-room gent's." He is a "real swell, and mos' considerut, the dinin'-room bein' a commercial gent," good-natured, but stingy as to tips. The gents are all right, "but it's the top floor widdy and me as falls out!"

To be rung up three pair of stairs just to be sent all the way down and up again for "an extry knife, as though hanyone couldn't wipe the bacon fat off on a bit o' bread, is one of the widdy's narsty ways." But the girl has pluck; she refrains from "langwidge," when "missus" is worse than usual, being determined to stay long enough to get a character. Louisarann has to snatch her breakfast — as she does all her meals — standing.

Behind all is the great consolation — the day out! To-day she makes her way through the thick and filthy fog to a great house in Berkeley Square, where her cousin Jane is housemaid, "second of four." Carefully the "slavey" feels her way down the area steps, and is admitted.

Jane is a little ashamed of her cousin's shabby appearance, so she takes Louisarann upstairs and "tidies her up a bit." The "slavey" looks round the neat room, and thinks of her bed in the back kitchen, and then and there makes up her mind to "better herself, for she wouldn't stay no longer, not if she was rose every month, she wouldn't." And Jane, sympathising, offers to step round with her to the registry office, if she can get off by-and-by, and speak for her. As they go downstairs, the "slavey" sees a young lady sitting by a fire in a pretty room, sewing, while a housemaid "takes up the bits." Jane gives an expressive shrug, but as the lady looks up say's sweetly, "Good morning, mademoiselle." Jane wants to buy her next best dress from her ladyship's maid, who has all the "wardrobe," and who knows how to put on the price if one is not over civil. All day long the panorama of life below stairs unfolds itself before Louisarann's astonished gaze; and she reads with awe the printed rules regulatmg the work of the huge household. During dinner the butler takes the head, the cook the foot of the table; men sit one side, women the other. As the meat is cleared away, the butler and cook, lady's maid and valet, rise and sweep from the servants' hall. They have gone to the housekeeper's room for dessert and their after-dinner chat. The distinction between "room" servants and "hall" servants is rigidly maintained.

Customs in the big houses vary considerably, and in some great state is observed. Then the upper servants, among whom the groom of the chambers is numbered, do not take their meals with the "hall" servants. They are served in the steward's room, and supper at nine o'clock is really dinner in miniature. Each course which appears upstairs is repeated below for the "room" servants, even to the "second" ices, prepared by the still-room maids, and dessert of every kind. A glass of claret replaces the homely beer — occasionally something costlier than claret. The ladies are in demi-toilette, with evening blouses, and not seldom with gloves and fan; on great occasions the lady's maid appears in full dress, with ornaments and even jewels, a complete copy of her ladyship. Precedence is strictly observed, and the servants sit according to their masters' rank. The valets and ladies' maids staying in the house join the party in the steward's room. When there are a number coming and going, the presiding butler and housekeeper do not trouble about the individual names, but use those of the master for convenience. Thus the inquiry may be heard, "What can I pass your ladyship? " "Duke, what will you take?"

Where do these servants all come from — who supplies them? There are formal and informal registry offices. One coachman carries the news of Jones leaving to another; there are inquiries at the china shop, or the mistress "just mentions it" to her butcher, a most respectable man, who has served her since her marriage. There are also Servants' Homes, to each of which a registry is attached, and which may be termed, in fact, if not in name, Protection Societies, as the officials fight the servants' battles for them, recovering wages due and giving them that "character" without which they can never get a respectable situation. The difficulties of securing true characters are enormous — about one-half the mistresses are employed in obtaining servants' characters from the other half — and when obtained they are not always to be relied upon, for a mistress "does not like to have unpleasantness." The law of master and servant also is sufficiently rigid, and prevents a mistress from recording suspicions which she is not able to prove.

Certain registry offices (especially the larger ones in the West End) have a black list, which is always kept carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in the writing of begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants' characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient. What can there be to prevent the accomplice from impersonating the complaisant mistress who is losing a "treasure"? The Associated Guild of Registries does much to separate the sheep from the goats, but it cannot prevent the risk to servants who answer specious advertisements There are "situations," with "good wages for suitable young women," which are not "places" within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed.

A much-dressed lady is deep in conversation with the head of the registry office. She is the wife of a rich tradesman at Clapham. She keeps a cook-general, house- parlourmaid, and nurse. They are all very trim and neat, and the house- parlourmaid wears the latest thing in cap streamers. The nurse's white dress in summer and her grey uniform in winter mark her separation from the common nurse in coloured clothes. These servants have good places, and they know it, although the rule of "No followers allowed" is strictly adhered to. They serve their mistress fairly, though they do not care about her. The children are the bond between them; and "cook" is always sure of a kiss if she asks for one, for the children — as yet — are no respecters of persons. Next door to them lives Selina, grim and grey, who serves her old-maid mistress with a faithfulness proof against all temptations, but who rules her with a combination of obstinate humility and rampant remonstrances. Yet her mistress, who sometimes sheds a tear in secret because "Selina is so cross," would not change her for all the streamer-bedecked parlourmaids in the world.

Across the road a young housemaid sings as she does her work. She has joined the Girls' Friendly Society, and a portrait of her "G.F.S. lady" is on the mantelpiece in her pretty attic bedroom looking over the Common. On Sundays she gets out to service regularly. She lifts her dress high to show the starched white petticoat beneath it, and as she carries her new prayer-book in the other hand she feels sure that soon there will be a desirable young man only too ready to walk out with her, and then she would not change places with anyone in the world.

Let us now enter one of the fashionable squares on a summer afternoon. Servant life is manifest on every hand. In the garden nurses are sitting under the trees; from the doors the children and nursery maids are driving off to the park, with the schoolroom footman on the box. A newsboy comes leisurely across the square, making it ring with his cry, "Hall the winners!" He knows his customers. The door of a great house opens. A powdered footman stands on the steps and signals to the boy; his face is anxious as he takes the paper. He is gone in a moment, and the house is impassive and undisturbed once more. A little later the butler comes out, and makes his way along Piccadilly towards Charing Cross. He drops in, say, at the Hotel Cecil for a moment, and hears news of the latest interesting arrival. He has several friends there, one a chef in the servants' kitchen, which provides for the wants of the staff of 500 persons; another a waiter in the banqueting-room. The latter is one of the hotel fire brigade, and the butler stays to witness a drill and practice. His master is a naval officer, so he next visits a friend, a waiter at the Army and Navy Club, who gives him the latest gossip; for in the recreation room set apart for the club servants the day's news is discussed with vigour over a game of billiards.

In connection with St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, is a Servants' Club which offers a variety of attractions. The Chesterfield Union, a benefit society for gentlemen's servants, meets on the ground-floor. Above are a couple of billiard tables and one for bagatelle, while in the basement are a skittle alley and a fine ping-pong table. The top floor contains a reading and dining room, where a chop and tea may be obtained at one end, and light literature at the other; here, too, smoking concerts are organised by the members.

A coachmen's club is to be found in the immediate neighbourhood of Berkeley Square, and the Duke of Westminster gave land for the Grosvenor Club in Buckingham Palace Road; but here, though there are a number of members who are servants, men engaged in other occupations are also admitted.

Hyde Park is the real recreation ground of West-End servants. Before the dew is off the grass the grooms are exercising the horses. Here is a grey-haired man, grown old in the service of "the family," now proudly superintending the baby horsemanship of the young heir on his diminutive pony. Behind him flies a young girl at full canter, her long hair streaming in the wind, as the groom thunders along after his delightful little mistress. As the sun grows hotter the "generals" bring their bibies" to sprawl and sleep on the grass. The neat maid returning from a hairdressing lesson in Bond Street has an interesting chat with a gentleman's gentleman who has just turned his master out in first-class style, and is himself as near a copy of him as possible. In the late afternoon the magnificent coachman surveys with stolid pride his equally magnificent horses, as they sweep round into the Drive — "my horses," which even "her ladyship" cannot have out at will. As dusk falls sweethearts crowd the shady alleys of the Park or wile away an hour upon the Serpentine; and more than one of the cyclists enjoying the cool of the evening is a domestic servant.

"What!" exclaimed a visitor to her friend, "another new bicycle, and such a beauty?" as she looked at two machines side by side in the narrow hall. "Oh, no! That is not mine; that is cook's — she says she can't keep in condition unless she has her ride every day." Living London ([19--?])
Vol. II - Section II
Author: George Robert Sims, (1847-1922)
Servant London
Article by: By N. Murrell Marris