My Grandmother Was A Servant.

Image by Guiseppe Maria Crespi - public domain
By Jabo
@jaboUK (54517)
United Kingdom
January 21, 2016 5:56pm CST
My grandmother was 13 years old when she left home to work in the local 'Big House'. She was a live-in domestic servant - a scullery maid. She had no say in the matter as there were no other options available to English 'working class' girls in those days. This was in the early 1900s, and the class system in England at that time was in full flow. It was very much a time of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', with the latter expected to cater to the needs of the former. Granny's life seems to have been one of relentless drudgery. She had to be up at 5am in order to start the laundry and light the fires, and her day ended at about 10 pm. There was a definite hierarchy amongst the servants - Granny was not only a servant to the 'gentry', but to the upper servants as well, such as the housekeeper and the butler. Eventually she progressed to being a 'tweeny'. As far as I can make out that meant someone who worked upstairs as well as down - 'between stairs'. This meant that, among other things, she had the honour of emptying chamber pots! She also had the onerous task of carrying hot water in a sort of covered pail up to the bedrooms, no mean feat for a slip of a girl as it often entailed several flights of stairs. Then when she got there she was sometimes reprimanded for the water not being hot enough. Granny was not without spirit, and on at least one occasion when 'madam' sent her back down for hotter water, she would summon up all the saliva she could and spit in the fresh water! She got pleasure from knowing that the inconsiderate lady would wash in it. It still made her chuckle when she was telling me about it years later. Granny endured this life for 5 years and then she met a soldier who was home on leave from WW1, and married him. They had two sons, my father and uncle, who both served in and survived WW2. They went on to be successful business men, my father having his own art gallery, and my uncle having a florist's shop. Quite a step up from their mother being a scullery maid, don't you agree? Image from Wikimedia Commons.
69 people like this
73 responses
@Platespinner (16782)
• Winston Salem, North Carolina
22 Jan 16
I'm curious as to how your grandmother's experience was compared with how life "below stairs" is portrayed in the Downton Abbey series. It sounds as if the time period would have been close to the time period depicted in the first season.
9 people like this
@Mike197602 (13765)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
My thoughts exactly My opinion is Julian Fellowes saw/wrote things through slightly (being nice) rose coloured glasses
4 people like this
• Winston Salem, North Carolina
22 Jan 16
@Mike197602 That's kind of my thought as well, but I do seem to remember Daisy (who was the scullery maid in the first season) having a particularly rough time of it.
4 people like this
@Mike197602 (13765)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Platespinner yes she did but it was not as bad as in real life. Also more or less everyone in Downton caught a break...that just wasn't how it was. The other thing is I don't think Downton portrayed how physically hard service jobs were back then or the bad things that happened. I'm a fan of the show and I don't think it was ever meant to fully represent reality but I think it went too far towards the nice stuff.
3 people like this
@LadyDuck (163966)
• Switzerland
22 Jan 16
It was a hard life during those times. My Granny, who was born in 1891, started to work in a silk spinning mill when she was still a kid. They wanted children with good view to start picking up the strands from the cocoon with a fine needle. She lived in Como (Italy), 5 km from where I live now here in Switzerland, she spoke the same dialect they speak here.
7 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@LadyDuck Could you do a post about your grandmother Anna? I'm sure a lot of us would love to read it.
4 people like this
@LadyDuck (163966)
• Switzerland
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK I should write a post about her, this one was the Mom of my father, I loved her so much. I would like to ask to my Mother a photo of her to show.
4 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@LadyDuck I really hope you do a post about her - go for it
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@allknowing (66720)
• India
22 Jan 16
This gap between the haves and have-nots existed during our time as well. I have no information about my ancestors working life but I was told that our great grandfather was robbed of gold coins he was carrying as there were no banks then. That is one part of the story Yes There is quite a step between us and my mother when it came to finance. All her children are doing very well - I could say all of us belomg to the higher middle class and she had to struggle to make ends meet. My father earned very little and had to feed a brood of 9 I can imagine how difficult it must have been for your grandmother to tide over those 5 years.
6 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@allknowing Your great grandfather must have been quite well-to-do if he owned some gold coins. Your mother must have found it difficult with 9 children, but I'm glad that you have all done well.
2 people like this
@allknowing (66720)
• India
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK I have absolutely no information about what was my great grand father's occupation.
2 people like this
@MALUSE (41327)
• Germany
22 Jan 16
My maternal grandparents were farmhands who worked when there was work to do. I have no idea how they survived the winters.
3 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@MALUSE There wouldn't be much work around in the winter would there?
1 person likes this
@MALUSE (41327)
• Germany
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK I don't think there was. Yet, they had 12 children. Maybe because there wasn't much else to do.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@MALUSE That could be it. They wouldn't have known anything about birth control, would they?
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@Morleyhunt (19888)
• Canada
22 Jan 16
Hard work is not without reward. Too many feel they are owed success and are unwilling to make success happen.
3 people like this
• Winston Salem, North Carolina
22 Jan 16
You don't know anybody like that do you?
2 people like this
@Morleyhunt (19888)
• Canada
22 Jan 16
@Platespinner okay, I will try to stay on the sofa and be good.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Morleyhunt There was very little reward for my grandmother - she only escaped the drudgery by getting married.
3 people like this
@garymarsh6 (14264)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
Sounds like our grandmothers were of the same time. My gran was forced to leave school at 13 despite the heads disgust who even offered her a free scholarship to go to university but it was not to be for her. Her father said University was for men not women. I think she was quite bitter about that and it was quite obvious she was quite bright. She ran away from service back home she worked for a Doctor and his barren wife who were not kind to her. She got sent back only to do it again. Found herself a husband married and moved from Yorkshire to Dover where my grandfather came from and worked hard all her life. A formidable woman but genuine, honest, kind and funny!
3 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@garymarsh6 It sounds as if you could do a post about your grandmother's life too. I'm so glad that I didn't live in those times when the only escape for girls like this was marriage.
1 person likes this
@garymarsh6 (14264)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK Yes thats true. It was quite sad for them they did have it hard didn't they Janet.
1 person likes this
@rebelann (42007)
• El Paso, Texas
22 Jan 16
Downtown Abby gives a great rendition of those times. Your granny was the lucky one to have found a husband and gotten out of that mess. What level were soldiers compared to servants at the time? I have Scottish ancestry but unfortunately I know nothing else about it. So many Americans have roots over there.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@rebelann Grandad came from the working class too, but joined the army and became a regular soldier, serving in Afghanistan and India before his regiment was recalled to fight in France in WW1. I think he was much on a par with Granny socially.
1 person likes this
@rebelann (42007)
• El Paso, Texas
22 Jan 16
Ok, I think I understand @jaboUK my family is probably of the same stuff, dad was career Army and his parents were share croppers, they didn't own the land, they just worked it and got a percentage of what they grew and sold.
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@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@rebelann I'd be interested if you would write a post about your grandparents.
3 people like this
@DianneN (79947)
• United States
22 Jan 16
This reminds me of Downton Abbey, although the upper class seems much nicer to their help. I'm glad your grandmother had a fairytale ending.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@DianneN I don't know if granny was unlucky in the family she worked for, but I never heard her say a good word about them. In fact she didn't say much about them at all.
2 people like this
@DianneN (79947)
• United States
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK They must have been a nasty rich bunch. I hope they lost their manor or castle as many others have. As I said before, your granny was fortunate to find and marry your grandpa.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@DianneN Yes, the only way out seemed to be to get married. Women weren't expected to work outside the home once they were married.
1 person likes this
@BelleStarr (39067)
• United States
22 Jan 16
I remember this too and loved it then and love it now. My great grandfather was a farm laborer so we were the have nots as well and look where we are now!! lol I think great grandpa would be very proud!! Your grandmother was a spunky one!!
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@BelleStarr We are so lucky that a lot of the barriers between the classes have come down now, in fact they are pretty well non-existent. I think our grandparents would be amazed at the way the world is today.
2 people like this
@MALUSE (41327)
• Germany
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK The class barriers in the UK are'pretty well non-existent'? That remark surprises me. Reading English literature I get a different impression. People constantly reflect and comment on class. I've *never* heard a German say that they were upper or lower middle class or whatever. The German society was shaken up and mixed after the war when refugees came from the parts which now belong to Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic. Noble families used to living on vast estates in East Prussia found themselves in basement accomodations of strangers who hated them. I've just read in the local newspaper that in 1946 40.000 refugees came to the county where I live now. Where did they all stay? I have no idea.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@MALUSE It's funny but I hear of more Americans talking about class than the English. I stand by what I say - the old class system is not adhered to today - it's more about how much money a person has. Is the literature you are reading up to date? I have friends who could rightly be thought to belong to the 'upper class', but they don't claim any privileges. By the same token - I am in no way uneasy in their presence. I have had conversations with Princess Anne and she chats quite normally.
2 people like this
@sharon6345 (131369)
• United States
22 Jan 16
it ended well for them which is very nice.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@sharon6345 It wasn't until the next generation (my father's) that things improved.
@sharon6345 (131369)
• United States
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK I know but the improvement was a blessing to all that lived then.
1 person likes this
@Tampa_girl7 (25868)
• United States
22 Jan 16
What a happy ending
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Tampa_girl7 My grandmother still had a hard life even when she was married - it was hard work running a house with no mod cons like we have today. But at least her sons made good lives for themselves.
1 person likes this
@TRBRocks420 (79606)
• Banks, Oregon
22 Jan 16
Your Grandma sounds like a good woman.
2 people like this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@TRBRocks420 Yes, she was thank you.
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@poehere (17700)
• French Polynesia
22 Jan 16
What a great story. My grandma also married a solider who came back from the war. she was born in 1900 and married my grandpa in 1918. The lives back then were so different from today. I loved listening to her stories.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@poehere I'm glad that you were able to hear your grandmother's stories - it makes the past come to life doesn't it?
@poehere (17700)
• French Polynesia
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK It sure does. I really got to know my grandma well when I went to live with her for 3 years. We were always very close after this. I loved her stories and all she told. She traveled on a motor scooter with a side car from New York to San Francisco with 2 small children under the age of 3. All they owned was in this side car including her and the kids.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@poehere That sounds like the subject for a post
@Daljinder (21770)
• India
22 Jan 16
It was interesting to get a glimpse of the life during those times. Your grandmother had it rough but she found her happy ending with a soldier. She raised two sons who achieved so much in their lives. It is truly commendable. And yes quite a step up. I chuckled reading the part where she would spit in the fresh water.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Daljinder I'm pleased that you found this interesting, Daljinder, thanks.
1 person likes this
@Daljinder (21770)
• India
23 Jan 16
@jaboUK I have always found your writings interesting and thought provoking ever since I joined this site. Actually I was impressed with your vocabulary. I read one of your post the other day and learned something new. Words like serendipity or the phrase modicum of decorum were known to me but I didn't exactly know their usage. You took care of that. So thanks for that. I also enjoy your light hearted poetry. P. S. Eager to see what you come up with next.......
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
23 Jan 16
@Daljinder That's sweet of you to say all that, thank you. Isn't serendipity a lovely word? That's one of the things I love about this site - we can learn from each other.
1 person likes this
@just4him (120559)
• Green Bay, Wisconsin
22 Jan 16
I love the part where she spit in the water Your father and uncle did well for themselves, and what about you? Where did you work?
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@just4him I wasted my education (according to some) by going to work with horses, but my parents were happy for me that I was doing something I loved.
2 people like this
@just4him (120559)
• Green Bay, Wisconsin
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK If that's what you love, and with the picture of you on a horse in the last post, then I don't think it was wasted. You did what you loved and a lot of people don't have that option.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@just4him That is very true. I earned a good living at it, but it was never 'work' to me.
1 person likes this
23 Jan 16
wow, that is quite a story! i watch downton abbey and i tell my husband that what makes it so interesting is that it takes place when the times are starting to change. the servants are realizing that they CAN do more! some try, some are set in their ways, some are afraid. of course, that is merely a show whereas your grandmother is real! so i find it quite fascinating to hear of her finding her way to something better. what a history!
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
23 Jan 16
@jillybean1222 I'm so glad that you were interested in reading about my gran, thank you. I have more tales from this era which I will probably post sometime.
1 person likes this
23 Jan 16
@jaboUK with the stories you have, you could probably publish a book or at least an article!
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
23 Jan 16
@jillybean1222 I remember the past so well, but yesterday? - not so much!
@Gillygirl (17340)
• Sutton, England
22 Jan 16
Very interesting &jabo I am reading a book which is very similar to the time period you have described :)
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
23 Jan 16
@Gillygirl Is it really you Gill? How wonderful that you have found your way here, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I look forward to reading your contributions. So glad that you found this interesting, thanks.
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@Gillygirl (17340)
• Sutton, England
23 Jan 16
@jaboUK It is me indeed Janet. Great to be on here at last, now to find my way around :0
1 person likes this
@Juliaacv (31296)
• Canada
22 Jan 16
Your father and uncle did well, but there's no shame with an honest day's work, even if you are a maid. I actually have a lot of admiration for people that do service work, I don't think that I could do it, I don't like to bite my tongue enough and I don't have the energy. Her job sounds like it made for some really rich stories to pass down.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Juliaacv The thing is Julia that people in this position DID have to bite their tongues, or they would be out of a job. No welfare state in those days to help either.
1 person likes this
@Juliaacv (31296)
• Canada
22 Jan 16
@jaboUK I would believe it, but I am sure that the servants were "better people" then those that they served. We live near a settlement that was at the end of the underground railroad, where the slaves came up from the south and crossed the border into Canada for a better life. The more that I learn about their lives the more appreciation I have for those that worked the hard "underdog" types of jobs, especially because there was no other choice.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@Juliaacv Not all the employers were bad, it was just the way things were. In any 'class' of people you are going to get good and bad. The slaves obviously had terrible lives.
1 person likes this
• China
22 Jan 16
You are a good storyteller ,your grandmother's story appeals to me .I admire her for her courage and rebellious spirit .The haves are destitute of human feeling and don't take the have-nots as people .
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
22 Jan 16
@changjiangzhibin89 I'm pleased that you liked reading about my grandmother - did you have the 'masters and servants' culture in China?
1 person likes this
• China
23 Jan 16
@jaboUK Of course ,we had it in the old society.Now we also have cleaners ,caregivers or the like ,but the families that take on them have to put them on an equal footing according to law .
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
23 Jan 16
@changjiangzhibin89 That's the way it should be.
1 person likes this
@VivaLaDani13 (20588)
• Perth, Australia
5 Feb 16
First of all, I LOVE the photo you picked for this discussion. I don't know why but I really do. And most of all, this post was AWESOME! Do you have any other stories about that time? The spitting in the water part made me think about the movie The Colour Purple because that's what Whoopi Goldbergs Character did lol Reading stories like this makes me realise how easy I have it. And also it makes me laugh thinking about the people who constantly complain about how their jobs are too tiring even when it's not a major job. They don't know what hard work is.
1 person likes this
@jaboUK (54517)
• United Kingdom
5 Feb 16
@VivaLaDani13 I found the photo on Pixabay and thought it quite appropriate. I have done a lot of stories about this era, a lot of them on Bubblews. I'll probably re-write some of them and bring them here sometime. Thanks for being interested.
1 person likes this
• Perth, Australia
5 Feb 16
@jaboUK That would be awesome if you posted more stories on here about it. I mean, no pressure lol but I know I will enjoy them. I have an interest in stories from that era or basically any time before I was born.
1 person likes this