Was there legal redress for the servants of Victorian households? Although there was genuine concern for the conditions in which many of the servants operated, most claimed it was impossible to make laws to protect domestic servants. Those that were passed were heavily settled in favor of the master and mistress of the house rather than the staff. For example, if a servant was dismissed and her wages withheld illegally, a magistrate could not settle the matter for there was no legal statutes to protect the servant. Occasionally, a master or mistress would be summoned to explain why the servant’s wages were withheld, but if he or she did not respond, there was no legal recourse.
Servants could be released for any number of arbitrary reasons. Employers were not responsible for medical care, even if the servant became ill or was injured because of the household conditions. Neither was an employer required to supply the servant was a character, or reference, which permitted the mistress to hold that knowledge over the servant’s head in all disputes for a servant without a character reference would not be able to secure another position. Servants, as a whole, had few rights and little hope for a future.
From M. Collet’s Report on the Money Wages of Indoor Domestic Servants [1899, Volume XCII, page 15], we learn, “The young ‘slavery,’ working in a lodging house or a coffee shop or with ‘rough-mannered’ employers had to ‘work harder and under more unfavorable conditions perhaps than any other class of the community…. As soon as she reaches an age when she wants more than a very small sum in wages, she is dismissed and replaced by another young girl…. This class of girl in a very few years disappears from the ranks of domestic servants, and in doing so, in generally in a worse position than the factory girl in the same grade.”
Even mature women who devoted their lives to the welfare of the family in which she operated found that they earned little more than the maid-of-all-work. They might receive a grateful remark upon their leaving, and perhaps as much as a month’s wages. They could look forward to some charity providing them a token for their service. For example, the Female Servants’ Home Society presented the servant a Bible for two years of service, a testimonial and a suitable book for five years continuous service, a silver medal for nine, and a gold medal for fifteen years. [T. Henry Baylis, The Rights, Duties, and Relations of Domestic Servants, their Masters and Mistresses, Sampson Low, 1837, page 39.] Generally there was little awaiting an elderly servant beyond the almshouse or the workhouse. “Service is no inheritance” was a maxim often heard from Victorian servants.
Outside of London, on St. Thomas’s Day, which is four days before Christmas, some charities provided little gifts of goods or money to selected servants. In 1663, the James Frethern’s Charity was founded ‘for the benefit of a maid servant who has continued six years as a hired servant in Burford, Oxfordshire.’ In Wargrave, Berkshire, the Rev. Walter Sellon’s Charity was founded in 1793 to provide 8 guineas ‘for the benefit of poor persons resident in the parish who are engaged in domestic service.’ The Margaret Dew Charity (1816) was for the ‘general benefit of Godly and deserving poor and decayed Housekeepers of Bramton Abbots parish’ in Herfordshire.
According to Frank E. Huggett’s Life Below Stairs (page 115), “Servants’ charities and institutions of all kinds were severely handicapped by a chronic shortage of funds in Victorian times. Mistresses were reluctant to give servants money either in the form of well-earned wages or in charitable donations. In 1861, only £6,250 was subscribed to the twenty-one servant charities in the capital; Bible and missionary societies, on the other hand, received no less than £332,679. The Victorians had an inflexible, and often unfeeling, sense of priorities.”
This series always makes me wonder about my paternal grandmother who started out life as a domestic servant in Essex, in the 1870’s. Probably glad she met my grandfather, and had 8 children , 7 of which survived into old age. Probably a damned sight easier having and rearing a brood like that, than remaining in service.
The more I research in these areas, the more I am convinced that anyone who got out of the system was lucky.