John Robinson (b. circa: 1850): A Day in the Life

Robinson doesn’t have a very high opinion of servant life. In fact, his discussion of life under-stairs can be broken down into two distinct categories: work and free time.

Free Time

So, what does a servant do with the free time he is allowed? Drink, is the answer we are given. ‘Childish game[s] of push-penny‘ (3) and ‘gravitat[ing] to a convenient ‘pub” (3) to ‘drink’ (3) and place ‘bets on the current big race’ (3-4) are the most common pass-times observed by Robinson. This, he argues, is the general ‘habit’ (7) formed by the servants of the nineteenth century. Although, perfectly in character for our butler, he remains remarkably vague, completely failing to mention if he too could be found in the pub playing childish games.

Robinson’s observation of the excess drinking habits of the working-class in the service industry isn’t an uncommon one. Many nineteenth century writers became pre-occupied with the drinking habits of the lower classes, blaming alcohol consumption for a variety of problematic behaviours including: theft, thuggery, violence and laziness1. Francis Power-Cobb is particularly vocal in her work ‘Wife Torture in England’2 about the alcoholism of the poor. She, like Robinson, lays the blame for this habit squarely at the feet of society and the higher-classes that consistently force those beneath them into lives of servitude. This, Power-Cobb argued left little time for ‘self improvement’ (19) and so, lead to the seeking out of certain habits meant to alleviate the drudgery of working-class life. The effect of this is the ‘habit’ (7) is observed by Robinson. After all, as he writes: ‘the servant can not help ”become[ing a] creature of his surroundings’ (4).

‘Daily life is a mean and shallow affair’

Robinson, J. (1892) ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol, xxxi. January-June.

Work

Of course, the life of a servant wasn’t exactly known for it’s heaps of free time3. Robinson admits as much as he delves into his working habits. ‘The hours [I] may call [my] own are fitful and rare… duties may be light, but if [I] wish to prove [myself] a good servant [I] must always be on the alert’ (7). This paints for us a very clear image of the daily struggle of service. Forced to walk a tight-rope as he attempts to deliver the highest of services, Robinson describes his duties as a butler often meaning he ‘must take time from his sleep, which he can ill afford’ (7), all for no reward, or favour. Life as a servant, Robinson claims is nothing more than ‘to methodically perform certain stereotyped duties in a stereotyped manner’ (7) and for this, it hardly matters if ‘the agent is drunk or is sober, has a soul or has not’ (8).

Taking Robinson’s experience into account, it is hardly unexpected to think large portions of the service industry where spending their few hours off a week indulging in one of life’s many ‘debilitating traps’ (7). And who could blame them? Robinson doesn’t. Instead, Robinson tirelessly attempts to highlight the ‘debasing effect on those who actually choose service as a calling’ (3) and advocates for the amelioration of these circumstances, or for employers to face the penalty of: ‘the servant problem’.


Sources:
Primary
:
Robinson, J. (1892). ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 31. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. p203-9.

Secondary:
1. Wollstonecroft, M. (1994). A Vindication of the Rights of Women. London: Oxford University Press.

2. Power-Cobb, F. (1878). Wife Torture in England. London: Contemporary Review.

3. Barnach, E.H. Wooten, M.E. (2012). ‘Suited for Service: Racialized Rationalisations for the Ideal Domestic Servant from the Nineteenth to the Early Twentieth Centry.’ Social Science History. Vol, 36. Iss, 2. p169-189.

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