The glut of period dramas on TV and in film recently – from Downton Abbey to the Great Gatsby – has highlighted the role of housekeeping duties and housekeepers in British and US society.
Here at Irving Scott we’d like to point out that the role of what was termed a ‘domestic servant’ has changed somewhat radically in the last century or so (as we’re sure you can imagine).
Housekeepers in London today take on a number of different tasks, many of which would have been unheard of in Victorian times, such as driving the kids to school, nipping out to get the laptop fixed and making sure the dog gets his hourly constitutional.
How the roles for housekeeping have changed
There’s often a butler and a governess around today but certainly no Hallboy or ‘Tweeny’ to get under the housekeeper’s feet. In case you didn’t know, the Hallboy’s chief responsibility was to light all the candles and lamps in the household and polish everyone’s boots (including the staff) before they woke up. The unfortunate Tweenie was even more unlucky. Her role was to get rid of the slops and she was required to be around for this ‘unpredictable’ chore from 5am to 10pm, seven days a week.
The one aspect Victorian domestic workers and today’s housekeepers, butlers, governesses, valets, chauffeurs, secretaries and cooks etc have in common is that they are employed to ultimately look after – and care for – the needs of the one family ie their employers.
There are more domestic staff in London today than you may think
Although it’s rare for households in the UK to have domestic staff these days, it’s not unusual. Not that is, if you refer to the latest Labour Force Survey report from the Office for National Statistics (2012) which recorded 65,000 individuals as domestic workers in households (whether live-in or outside the household).
Compare this to the beginning of the 20th century when there were around 1.5 million individuals employed in households up and down the country as domestic staff. Despite an increasingly affluent British society and the formation of a new middle class, the number of domestic servants actually reduced over the next two decades due in part to the opening of factories where workers were given weekends and evenings to enjoy as their own leisure time.
A bigger cut in the number of household staff was felt following WW1 where women had been employed in work normally undertaken by men who were off fighting. Once given a taste of work outside the home, many didn’t return.
Of course many women today are back working in their home, carrying out freelance work or managing their own business. This is where a housekeeper becomes not a luxury but a necessity and where household management can prove to be a task best dealt by someone else.