“Deference or drudgery? The census, community, and Berkshire servant life”, by Peter Jolly for Local and Community History Month

County outline, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

Undertaking a demographic study of Berkshire domestic service has opened my eyes to how distinctive and varied were communities within the historic county at the turn of the twentieth century.

Given the impossibility of analysing all 15,000 county female servants, I examined specific communities from Sunningdale in the east to Lambourn in the west: from Wallingford on the Thames to Finchampstead on the Hampshire border. I found two-and-a-half times as many of Wallingford’s servants lived in as single domestics than the proportion in Finchampstead. Twenty-eight per cent of single persons in Lambourn who maintained servants were female, compared with 82% in Wokingham Borough.  Staff complements in Sunningdale houses with servants on average were double those in Lambourn, whose percentage of teenage servants was more than twice that of Sunningdale.

Decennial censuses, protected by the hundred-year rule preserving the privacy of the form we have all just completed electronically for 2021, provide neither full chronological timelines nor evidence of personal experience, but permit us to delve behind statistics to glean intriguing insights into contemporary society.

Take Eastbury, a village of some 300 souls within Lambourn civil parish, a couple of miles downstream from Lambourn itself in the eponymous valley, its properties clustered on both sides side of the chalk stream.  Although it had its own grocer, post-officer, various craftsmen, three inns, a village school, parish church and chapel, Lambourn itself, to which it was linked by valley road and since 1898 by the Lambourn Valley railway, was close enough to offer wider service and employment facilities. Eastbury reveals a striking example of the importance of local knowledge, as Frederick Quartermain, who notoriously lived for part of the year in an old tree trunk in the village is nonetheless included in the  census count. Fifty-three village menfolk directly worked in agriculture: a racing stables offered further male employment.

Eastbury, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

There were nine female domestics in the village, of whom two were still living with their birth families, neither stereotypical young servant girls  as yet to leave home. Respectively 33 and 54, living with widowed mothers, perhaps the need to offer care and support at home inhibited taking residential posts.  At 31, the mean age of Eastbury’s servants was far above Lambourn as a whole.  Amongst servants only 38-year-old Louisa Clark had been married. But her servant designation by census officials is questionable. ‘Housekeeper’ for an agricultural labourer widower and his two children, she brought her own two offspring with her and they shared three rooms.  We might suppose he needed child-care, and she a roof over her head to escape the workhouse.  Of the eight unmarried domestics, none came from urban families: seven were daughters of agricultural workers, the other the youngest child of a master carpenter. Three domestics grew up in the village or East Garston a mile distant, and none was born over forty miles away.

Ellen Belcher, employed as housemaid by a local J.P and farmer typified the unmarried female domestic. The daughter of an agricultural labourer, (subsequently a shepherd), she was born in Wallingford, and at the age of fourteen was out in service to a widow in the town. By 1901 she was a single servant to a photographer, his wife and child in Henley-on-Thames, before  her appearance in Eastbury in 1911 as a single servant. As the 1921 census remains under wraps at the time of writing this blog, we next find Ellen in 1939, in her early sixties and still a domestic servant, living in the home of her much younger brother in Cholsey, only a mile or so from her birthplace.  

As well as Ellen’s employer, two more farmers engaged residential servants. Two of the other households maintaining servants were headed by ladies without declared occupations (though one was a farmer); the third was by the vicar. All these homes contained just the one residential domestic. The pattern of village female employment was completed by two cooks, two women running or helping run public houses, another a lodging-house-keeper, all between their mid-thirties and mid-fifties, bookended by a married school cleaner in her early thirties and the village bootmaker, a widow in her mid-sixties.  Although eight single women under the age of 25 were without employment, two were daughters of ladies themselves keeping servants, leisured classes who socially would not be expected to work, and two more daughters of publicans who may have given indirect assistance to family businesses.

Fascinating facts lie within every census enumerator’s book and household schedule complementing trade directories and newspapers as rich evidential sources for the local historian.  

Following a career in the law, Peter Jolly is now a PhD Research Student using decennial censuses to investigate aspects of domestic service in Berkshire.

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