The servant problem

by Simon Fowler

Until the First World War virtually every household in Richmond and Twickenham employed servants to do the cooking, cleaning and a variety of other tasks. Even relatively modest households would have had a “skivvy” to help the mistress.

Despite what Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs might show, the life of a female servant was often miserable. Housemaids and cooks were poorly paid and often dreadfully treated by their employers.

It is hard to discover very much about individual servants. Perhaps typical was Emily Chalfont who, in 1881, was a parlour maid, aged 14, in the household of a former naval captain, Henry Temple, who lived at the bottom of Kew Road in Richmond. Like many servants locally, Elizabeth grew up in the countryside. She was the daughter of George Chalfont, a farm labourer, who in 1871 had four young children under eight. Elizabeth no doubt was sent out to service as soon as she was able, in order to support the family. It is possible that she got the position with the Temples through Martha Chalfont, another servant who was staying over on census night in 1881. As Martha was eight years older than Elizabeth, she was probably an older sister.

Elizabeth’s employer was Henry Temple, a former Royal Navy officer, who lived with his wife and daughters. A naval captain on half-pay with a family was not a wealthy individual. Miss Chalfont may well have been the only servant. One can imagine the panic that Elizabeth must have felt every day. The fact that she was allowed a family member as a visitor, however, suggests that her employer may have been more generous than normal.

By the time of the next census, Elizabeth had married and was living near Maidenhead. She was lucky that she had had no dealings with the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS). The charity attempted to provide help for young girls, keeping them away from the many temptations offered in London.

Over the years, several training schools for servants were established locally. The most successful  was Princess Mary Adelaide Training School, which was in existence between 1886 and about 1918 on Richmond Green. It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly happy place. To start with, the building was burnt down in 1893 by one of the residents, something which oddly is not mentioned in the annual report for that year. We know a little about one of the residents, a young lady, aged 15, referred to as IB. She arrived there on 6 May 1902 “very shortly expecting her confinement. Isabel said that one of her foster mother’s sons was the father of her child”. The father was also aged 15. She was summarily returned to the workhouse at West Ham to give birth.

This article was originally published in Twickenham and Richmond Tribune on 5 November 2022.