A servant's life in Fletton
The two industries which were most influential in attracting male migrants to Fletton were the railways and the brickyards. For females the most influential employment was domestic service. This remained the case until the early 1900s when Farrows Canning factory and Symingtons corset factory opened and began to compete for the female workers. The appeal of working in these new factories, with improved working conditions, challenged the traditional employment of domestic service.
Domestic service as an occupational category is difficult to define as the definition changed over time. It was once a term that would mean any person in the household under the head’s authority. This definition changed during the Victorian era to mean those employed by the household such as domestic or groom and by the end of the era there were even more specific titles such as parlour maid, cook and ladies maid. (1)
When looking at Crickowell, a market town in Wales, R. Gant observed, that ‘Domestic servants formed an essential part of nineteenth century society’. (2) In fact, L. Schwarz calculated, that when considering the broadest definition of domestic service, in 1851 servants accounted nationally for 7.1% of the total labour force rising to 8.8% in 1871 before falling to 7% in 1891. The comparative female percentages being 12.6%, 15.5% and 12.8%.(3) Although not directly comparable to Fletton, in Gant’s Crickowell study, the percentage of females employed in domestic service for these years was higher than the national figures at 21.3% in 1851, 20.3% in 1871 and 23.3% in 1891. (4) A more similar situation to Fletton was the railway town of Crewe. In her study of Crewe, D. Drummond found that in 1881 30.9% of females were employed in domestic service. (5)
By comparison the percentage of females engaged in domestic service in Fletton was phenomenal. Of all employed female migrants in 1851-1861, that is those females who had arrived in Fletton since the last census was taken, 55.8% were employed in domestic service. For those who had lived in Fletton since before the last census was taken, the stayers, this was 44.8%. By 1901-1911 the numbers of females in domestic service were in decline, especially for stayers at only 14.2%, as other opportunities beckoned. However, it still remained an attractive prospect for female migrants at 35.5%.
Fletton was a developing area and consequently an attractive destination to those seeking a position in domestic service. The ability to employ a domestic servant was seen, by some, to be an indicator of wealth and imply a higher social scale. However, M. Drake has commented that this was not necessarily the case as a family with an income of £100 could afford a servant. (6) Even the wives of masons and carpenters could afford to pay a ‘sixpence to clean knives’. (7) This meant that employing a domestic servant could be within reach of office clerks, government employees and skilled manual workers. Fletton born Frederick Wright, whose father was a baker and shopkeeper on High Street, recalls fondly in his memoir, Tales of My Childhood, ‘the servant’ his family employed would gather them all together ’round a roaring fire’ and tell ‘us tales’. (8)
Predictably, in Fletton, the age at which the majority of females were in service was between 15 and 29, as marriage usually brought to an end life in service. There was an increase in the numbers of females being engaged in domestic service between 40 and 54. Perhaps this increase, in later life, co-incided with either widowhood and the necessity to earn a wage, or children becoming self-reliant and allowing the mother to return to employment.
With so many females employed in domestic service, and consequently so many women finding themselves in charge of a domestic servant for the first time it is not surprising that there were many books produced on the subject. Three such publications are Cassell’s Household Guide, The Young Ladies Treasure Book, and of course Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. (9) The Young Ladies Treasure Book offers the mistress of the house invaluable advice regarding all manner of domestic duties to help her ensure that the servant does not negate her duties. These include, amongst many others, instructions on sweeping ‘the stairs down’ which include ‘begin with the top step, and brush it carefully and thoroughly, holding the pan so it may receive all the dust.’ The advice concludes that ‘There are many minor matters of which the young housewife should have sufficient knowledge to direct, and, if necessary, teach, those in her service.’
By creating biographical narratives, we can compare the lives of three young girls employed in domestic service in Fletton, Fanny Brewin, Mary Pooler and Nympha Johnson. Although they lived very close together their lives were very different.
Fanny, at only 14, was employed by John Ashpool, a brickyard foreman, and in the household at Ash Lea, Fletton Avenue, were his wife Susannah, son Arthur, an insurance salesman, and three unmarried male boarders, a bricklayer, carpenter and brickyard labourer. (10) With a family of six to look after, including men engaged in manual occupations, Fanny’s daily routine was an arduous one, rising early to light fires and prepare the house and retiring late after all the chores were completed.
Fanny was born in Thorney in 1887. When she was young her father, John, was an agricultural labourer which meant that migration for work was common and in 1891 the family were living in Holme, Huntingdonshire. Employment on the land is notoriously precarious and it was perhaps in search of job security that by 1901 John had moved to Stanground to work in the brickyards as a labourer. John remained in Stanground living in South Street. Fanny married George Henry Booty on 1st February 1916 at the Wesleyan Chapel in Farcet, Huntingdonshire, see photo. They had two children before Fanny died in 1932 at just 45.
Mary lived next door at Annan Dale, and was employed by Thomas and Margaret Miles, school master and mistress. (11) With a household of two to provide for Mary’s duties may have been less demanding and in 1901 she had the luxury of her sister Ellen visiting.
Mary was born in Crowland in 1877. In 1881 her father Phillip is recorded as being a ‘higgler’ an itinerant trader dealing in butter, cheese, poultry, eggs and fish. Seeking a more secure occupation, by 1891 Phillip had moved his family to Henson Street in Peterborough and was employed in a boiler shop. As Peterborough was a centre for the railways Phillip was most likely employed by either one of the numerous railway companies or wagon manufacturers that were based in Peterborough. By 1901 Mary had made the move to Fletton. She must have been very settled in her employment as she was still working for Thomas and Margaret in 1911 but had now gained the title of housekeeper.
Nympha was one of two, 17 year old domestic servants employed by the Reverend Charles Dowman at the Fletton Rectory. (12) Nympha is recorded as a cook and Lily Holmes is recorded as a housemaid and domestic. With three adults and a five year old to care for, in a house consisting of 17 rooms, their lives were busy ones.
Nympha was born in Peterborough in 1894 and her father, William, was a builder’s clerk. By 1911 Nympha had entered service in Charles Dowman’s household. It does not appear that Nympha stayed in Fletton for very long as banns were read for her forthcoming marriage, to Sydney Walter Stamper, at Belper church, in Derbyshire between the 1st and 15th December 1914. Sydney was a cabinet maker and in 1911 he too was living in Fletton at 19 Oundle Road. Their first born, Horace, was born in 1916 in Huntingdonshire
Life in service was not an easy one. It would be nice to think that there was perhaps a camaraderie amongst these young domestic servants, all away from home for the first time having similar life experiences.
I would like to thank Dinae Newson for allowing me to use this photograph.
1. M. Ebery and B. Preston, Domestic service in late Victorian and Edwardian England, 1871-1914 (Reading, 1976), pp.1-13.
2. R. Gant, 'Domestic service in a small market town, Crickowell, 1851-1901', Local Population Studies, 84, (2010), p.16.
3. L. Schwarz, 'English servants and their employers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries', Economic History Review, 52, (1999), p.236.
4. Gant, ‘Domestic service in a small market town’, p. 22.
5. Drummond, Crewe, Appendix 1 Table 11.
6. M. Drake, 'Domestic Servants', in J. Golby (ed.), Studying family and community history: Nineteenth
and twentieth century. Communities and families (OU, 1994a), p. 47.
7. Ebery and Preston, Domestic Service, p. 2.
8. F. C. W. Wright, ‘Tales of my Childhood’, Huntingdonshire Family History Society (March 2005), p. 27.
Wright wrote his recollections in his 95th year. Those relevant to Fletton were published in the Huntingdonshire Family History Journal between July 2004 and March 2006. P. 21.
9. https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Cassell_s_household_guide/akoCAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=parlour+maid&pg=PA268&pr (Accessed 19/7/2021)
10. RG13/1460/50, RG12/1225/56, RG13/4060/8, RG14/8666, British Army WWI Service Records, 1914-1920,
11. RG13/1460/50, RG11/1593/22, RG12/1227/72, RG14,8669.
12. RG14/8669, RG13/1462/117, Derbyshire Record Office; Matlock, Derbyshire, England; Diocese: Diocese of Derby; Reference Number: d2136/A/PI/3/1