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The lives of country house servants in their own words

Keeping Their Place: Domestic Service in the Country House, 1700-1920 - Pamela Sambrook

Before the invention of labor-saving home appliances, live-in domestic servants were an indispensable component of the country house. Over a million Britons were employed as domestics in the mid-nineteenth century, and the greatest houses required staffs of over a hundred servants to perform the myriad number of functions necessary for their smooth operation. Yet in spite of their ubiquity, most of them remain to us as unseen and unheard from as they were often expected to be in performance of their duties. Pamela Sambrook's achievement is to turn these servants into real people by using their writings to convey what life was like for those "downstairs."

To that end, Sambrook combed through published and unpublished collections of letters, diaries, memoirs, and other works for illustrative passages. Covering country house life from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, the selections capture the patterns and experiences of the servants' everyday lives. She presents them thematically by grouping them into sections that examine different aspects of their lives, from their recruitment and work to their recreations and old age. Each chapter begins with a short overview summarizing these experiences, which provides a useful context when reading the passages that follow. But it is the words of the servants themselves which are at the heart of the book, giving voices to these long-silent figures.

 

Through this method, Sambrook succeeds in transforming the servants into real people. Some of her selections are funny, others are tragic, but all of them help the reader to understand the lives they and their colleagues led. With an excellent bibliography of her sources as a guide to further reading, this is an good starting point for anyone seeking to learn about the lives of domestic servants in the country houses.