The Servants

The Servants

In my talk at Burwalls analysing the Census Returns of 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901 for Leigh Woods, I commented that the community that grew up in during these years “was powered by horses and women”.  This article is about the human providers of labour to the Leigh Woods of the late Victorian era - the servants - who were, overwhelmingly, women.

We do not know how many servants were employed altogether, as many would have been ‘living-out’, walking in to their duties from Clifton, up the hill from Bower Ashton and Bedminster, or along the road from Abbots Leigh and Failand.  There were young women walking to Burwalls in all weathers from Abbots Leigh and Failand, to start work at 6am on getting the house ready for ‘the family’, right up until the Second World War; and that would have been repeated throughout Leigh Woods.

We can, however, be sure of the ‘ living-in ‘ servants from the Census Returns, and it is their presence that made Leigh Woods a predominantly female community.

                 Census          Males          Females        Total

                       1871               5                    14                19

                       1881             44                  113              157

                       1891             62                  179              241

                       1901           110                  247              357

Who were they, what did they do, and where did they come from?  The vast majority were women in their 20s, and few were still at the same address ten years later, presumably most having moved on into marriage and child-bearing.  Nearly every house had a living-in Cook, who was usually an older, unmarried or widowed woman.  Where there were young children, there was almost always a living-in Nurse or Nurse-Maid.  We find the occasional Governess, such as the 24 year old Emily Knight employed by Francis Fox at Glenside in 1871 for his two teenage daughters, and the occasional Nurse looking after an adult, such as the 61 year old Sophie Baker recorded in 1891 at Burwalls, looking after the sick Joseph Leech.  But the bulk of the women servants were Parlour Maids, House Maids and Kitchen Maids.  In some large houses, with lots of servants, there were designated Under-Nurses and Under-Maids.  When George and Henry Wills and their families were sharing Woodlands, they shared a Cook, but otherwise kept separate establishments of servants.  In house after house most residents were therefore female, accentuated of course by the practice of middle-class families sending teenage boys away to school, but not the girls.  But I have found no situation to quite compare with that of the young, 24 year old Thomas Drake, recorded as living in Eversley in 1881 with his 27 year old Butler, Fred Morgan, in the company of his sisters Alice(26), Norah (22), Laura (20) and Ella (18), and three living-in women servants aged 23, 24 and 24.

Butlers, and footmen, like all male servants, were rare.  However, as Leigh Woods began to grow, some of the grander houses began to employ living-in gardeners, and accommodation for them and, sometimes their families was built in the grounds.  Often the accommodation was shared WITH the other main categories of male servant - coachmen and grooms.  Ironically, the growth in this kind of employment, and the building of stables, coach houses and accommodation came in the period between 1891 and 1901, the last decade before the motor car began to make horse-power redundant.  There does not seem to be a simple correlation between the affluence of the house owner and the decision to own one’s own carriage(s) and horses, to employ staff and to build stables and accommodation.  Many rich families clearly were content to send servants across the Bridge to hire from the Clifton Road Stables, or to send for a horse-drawn cab from the stand by the monuments on Clifton Green.

These gardeners, coachmen and grooms were of all ages, and relatively local in their origins.  They would have been employed on the basis of personal recommendation or knowledge.  The living-in women servants were a much more diverse group.

Only about 10% of them came from parts of Somerset that were really close.  About 20% came from Bristol and urbanised Gloucestershire towards Kingswood.  Another 20% came from rural Gloucestershire and 15% came from rural Somerset.  In addition to this 65%, another 15% came from the rest of South West England (Devon and Cornwall, Dorset and Wiltshire), mostly having been born in truly rural areas.  Leigh Woods was playing its modest part in the social change prompted by economic developments in late 19th century Britain,.  As agriculture went into depression, the revived prosperity of Bristol, with its new docks at Avonmouth and its booming tobacco industry, was a magnet both to young men and young women from all over the rural South West.  It would be fascinating if we could track what happened to all those women, who they married, where they went to, but I can’t see a way of doing it.

Amongst the remaining 20% of young women there were arrivals from all over Britain:  a few from Wales, and a few from London and the industrialised Midlands, against the main trend of ‘country girls’.  Just one - a governess- from Germany, and just one - a nurse - from the West Indies.  We can only wonder about their personal histories.

In fact we know very little about these young women generally.  But they cooked, scrubbed and polished, fetched and carried, answered the front door and came whenever the family rang the bell for them, and looked after the elderly and the children.  They made the life style of late Victorian Leigh Woods possible, and indeed the need to accommodate them required the grand houses to be the size they are.  I hope this little piece about them means that for a few minutes at least, they will be remembered.


     © Derek Smith, 2004


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