A return to Victorian servitude in St Albans

We’ve recently been watching Servants: The true story of life below stairs on BBC2. It’s a good documentary series, and one that perhaps you would have expected to see shunted on to BBC4 as it’s presented by an academic, doesn’t contain endless (and needless) reenactment and gives the viewer some credit for having a bit of intelligence.

Hearing that housemaids formed a trade union in the early years of the 20th century to demand a more reasonable working week was interesting, especially as their idea of more reasonable was a 12 hour day. Mind you, since they were working up to 17 hours a day, with only Sunday afternoons off for church, they had to be realistic. And all for £13 a year.

It’s interesting to note that around the time of the People’s Budget by the then Chancellor, Lloyd George, in 1909 that the number of people in domestic service had started to decrease. The Great War helped no end by decimating the ranks of servants of course but there were some interesting anomalies in the campaigning to get servants treated better. For instance, the Suffragette movement had many in service following them but since it was more or less run by the well off middle classes, who themselves liked to have servants, they spoke out little on the matter.

Interesting you may say, but this is of historic note only, what’s it got to do with us? Well, it’s all down to wifey really. As you may (or may not) know, wifey is now am Ofsted registered childminder*. Wifey charges the going rate, which is £6p/h per child. If the child is in the EYFS there is a lot of paperwork that needs doing, so the rate is pretty reasonable for where we live. Since she is listed in several directories, wifey often gets enquiries and one of the enquiries she had last week was very very odd. Someone was looking for a “childminder” to look after 3 children, do the housework,  the laundry and the ironing. Obviously this would be an onsite job, which would have immediately ruled it out, if the rate being offered hadn’t already done so.

How much? £8p/h. In total.

Ignoring the massive disparity in what a childminder could expect to be paid, the actual nature of the service request was so odd, that wifey asked some childminder friends about it. Apparently domestic service is alive and well and happening all the time in St Albans! Of course they don’t advertise as wanting a domestic, a maid or general servant; they dress it up as a nanny, au pair or such but looking at the tasks being required of such a position, there is an awful lot of overlap** with these roles and that of a servant. I’m sure given the attitude of some of these people, the way their servants are treated is probably no better than the way the Victorians treated their servants too. You only have to look at the abuse the checkout staff get in Waitrose or the local chippy to see that.

The thing is, if it’s only a wage of £8 being paid, then we’re not looking at the ludicrously wealthy city boys doing this, we’re looking at well off middle class people who have £1,300 or so to spend on updating the paradigm of Upstairs Downstairs.

having said that, there is definitely a difference between having some help around the house, a nanny or whatever and this apparent servitude; I’m really not having a moan at anyone one who works full time and needs help around the place. After all, we’ve spent ages trying to find a cleaner with an hourly rate that’s affordable to us but haven’t been able to. To my mind, there’s a point though when all the tasks are merged into one that you stop using service providers and start employing a servant. The job being 40 hours a week probably helps- you can’t have more than one client if you’re working at someones premises for that kind of time for example.

I’d love to know what your views on this are; am I getting my pants in a twist over nothing, or is this a further indicator of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer? Answers on a postcard…

*We crunched the sums, and for her to have any job other than childminding, she would have to earn £50,000 a year just to cover the associated childcare costs at the moment, which given the state of the museum and heritage sector, isn’t really going to happen. The second in command position at a well known and respected local museum was recently advertised at £22,000 for a 40 hour week.
**i.e. completely the same