The Servant’s Memoir: Remembering Life in the Victorian Country House

Ellen O’Brien is a second year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, in Perth, Australia. Her research focuses on the representation of marginalised voices, particularly of the servants, in English country house literature from the late Victorian period up to the Second World War. Servants’ memoirs have proven an invaluable historical source for her research.

The country house drama, always popular, has reached new heights in recent years with the success of Downton Abbey. A central, and favourite feature of this genre is the servant narrative. In the wake of Downton, servants’ memoirs have been reprinted and marketed as a ‘must-read for fans of Downton,’[1] and a multitude of ‘life for servants in the country house’ guides have made their way onto best-seller lists. Quite clearly, the experiences of servants still resonate with the modern reader.

'William Lancely,' from William Lancely, From Hall-Boy to House-Steward, dustcover.

‘William Lancely,’ from William Lancely, From Hall-Boy to House-Steward, dustcover.

Enter, the Servant’s Memoir. Although frequently written between the wars, (some as late as the 50s and 60s) these recollections often span the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and are a direct result of Gladstone’s education reforms in the 1870s. Servant’s memoirs only began to make an appearance after the first batch of children, educated under the new system, retired from their long and varied careers in service, and turned their hand to autobiography. There are a few who preceded this movement: William Lancely, who wrote one of the earlier memoirs, just missed out on the Elementary Education Act, and ‘was educated under an old-fashioned schoolmaster, before the year 1870, when it was considered that if a boy could read, write and cast accounts fairly accurately, he wanted no more.’[2] William did want more, and educated himself in the houses of his employers.

Enormously influential, servants’ memoirs have informed popular social histories about life in the great house at the turn of the century. Social historians like Lucy Lethbridge, Tessa Boase, Catherine Bailey and Pamela Sambrook, Jeremy Musson and Jill Franklin draw on these memoirs to recreate the upstairs-downstairs world of the country house. My personal favourite is The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase (2014), in which she avoids the conventional career trajectory of the housekeeper, and describes five cases where human error or unhappy circumstances sent things pear-shaped.

"Cliveden, where Rosina Harrison worked for Lady Nancy Astor."

“Cliveden, where Rosina Harrison worked for Lady Nancy Astor.”

The cannon of memoirs is small enough that students of the country house can be familiar with them all: their authors line my desk like an advisory board –William Lancely, Eric Horne, and Ernest King, Rosina Harrison and Jean Rennie, Mollie Moran, John James, Charles Cooper, Frederick Gorst– quite often they knew more about the houses than the people who employed them. They offer insight into country houses and the people who lived there (both in the attics and the masters’ bedrooms), giving a voice to a class that was largely silent, appearing in literature only when convenient for upper-class authors.

The irrepressible Eric Horne, who published his memoir ‘What the Butler Winked At’ in 1923, witnessed the height of the country house under Queen Victoria and Edward VII, and its decline after the war. It is difficult to decide whether Horne was a revolutionary or not: he was fiercely loyal to his favourite employers, and once worked for a year with no pay. But in the changing climate of the 1920s, he described the lord of yesteryear as a ‘little tin god on his estate in the country.’[3] Even more than institutionalised unfairness, he hated the ‘the newly rich, who filled their pockets while Tommy was fighting,’[4] and who he considered to have ruined the profession of service. Above all, he appreciated plain dealing and was a fair judge of men. He was once employed by ‘a gent I will call Sir Henry Cayenne, for he was as hot as they make them, though a gentleman and a good sportsman at bottom. He could not open his mouth without swearing.’[5] Although he genuinely liked some of his employers, he felt that a new age was coming, when the old order would have to fight for their rights. In one of his more revolutionary moods, he wrote an allegorical passage about…

Eric Horne, What the Butler Winked At‘…a certain Duke [who] stood on a hill looking at his vast estate: as far as he could see was his property. Later on he came across a stranger on his land, and asked him if he knew he was trespassing on his land. “Your land,” said the stranger; “how do you make it out to be your land?” The Duke said, “I inherited it from my father, and have every right to it.” “And pray, where did you father get it?” “He got it from his ancestors, who fought for it.” “Then,” said the stranger, “it’s about time it was fought for again. Come on!”’[6]

Had Horne been born later, I rather suspect he would have been a card-carrying socialist fronting a picket line. As it was, he was torn between a desire for equality, and a yearning for the ‘good old days’ of service, when the gentry were a glittering, sportsmanlike bunch, and an honour to serve.

Charles Cooper, who overcame illiteracy as an adult, spent his childhood in and around Kensington Palace in the 1870s, and went out to work at the age of ten. His memoir is unusual, in that it is scattered with literary quotations, was written while still in service, and is dedicated to his employer. He seemed to think that his birth somehow determined his career in service. ‘I feel it would perhaps be better understood,’ he wrote, ‘if I began by making some reference to my ancestors to show from what stock I sprang; it will then be seen that I was born into service.’[7] Perhaps because he was not yet retired, Charles was very cautious about giving offense, and his memoir is saturated with an awareness class. In his preface, he claims that  ‘the little knowledge I possess is so infinitesimal, and I see no fear now, in presenting this story to my friends, of causing annoyance to any of the characters of high or low degrees mentioned herein.’[8] There is a chance that Charles may have encountered another memoirist, John James, at Kensington, where they both lived and worked at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles would have been a few years older.

"Mollie's best friend, Flo Wadlow."

“Mollie’s best friend, Flo Wadlow.”

Should servant’s memoirs be considered part of the country house literary tradition? They certainly complement it, and offer a genuine perspective not typically included in contemporary works of fiction. They sit, perhaps, between the country house novel and the drily informative household account or wage book. Written thirty, forty or even fifty years after the fact, they blend memory with storytelling, and are coloured by personal experience or politics. Mollie Moran and Flo Wadlow’s memoirs are unique: they worked together between the wars, leaving service to marry during WWII. Although they remained friends until Flo’s death in 2013, and discussed their days in service, their memoirs are vastly different. One shared incident stands out: their boss hosted his niece for her presentation at court, and as Flo wrote, ‘we were allowed to go up to the drawing room and see this girl in all her finery.’ Flo’s only further comment was, ‘what she must have felt like I don’t know– us girls looking at her, and examining her dress. She didn’t seem to mind.’[9] Mollie, on the other hand, builds suspense, recounting the mysterious order to attend the drawing room, normally strictly out of bounds. Then, ‘like a couple of rabbits caught in the headlights,’ the girls were confronted with ‘a pretty young girl with dark hair who stood demurely on the Turkish rug. She was dressed head to toe in a long white silky dress, and long white satin gloves covered her slender arms. A single diamond glinted from her neck, which was as long and creamy white as a swan’s. On her face was a look so inscrutable it was impossible to guess at how she was feeling.’ Mollie keenly felt the social disparity:

‘We were only a couple of yards apart, but we were from totally opposite ends of the social spectrum She was off to curtsey to King George V at Buckingham Palace before attending the prestigious Queen Charlotte Ball. I was about to back downstairs to peel a mountain of spuds. And yet I knew the gesture wasn’t meant as a malevolent one by Mr Stocks. It wouldn’t even have crossed his mind for a minute that it would look like he was rubbing our noses in it. In his mind he obviously that he was being most considerate by allowing us young girls the “treat” of seeing his niece.[10]

And so, we have two vastly different versions of the same story. Flo tells it in two sentences, Mollie, over four pages, revealing the subjectivity of the memoir narrative.

The servant’s memoir is a direct avenue into the Victorian and Edwardian country house. Highly personal, they preserve the voice of a select few, and in doing this; give a voice to all of those who experienced life in service in the English country house.


[1] Flo Wadlow, Over a Hot Stove, dust jacket.

[2] William Lancely, From Hall-Boy to House-Steward, p. 5

[3] Eric Horne, What the Butler Winked At, 2

[4] Ibid, 1

[5] Ibid, 128

[6] Ibid, 261

[7] Charles Cooper, Town and Country or Forty Years in Private Service, 2

[8] Ibid, xiii

[9] Flo Wadlow, 67

[10] Mollie Moran, Minding the Manor, 183-185


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