John Robinson (b. circa 1850): Time for a Proper Introduction

What is known about John Robinson can be summarised neatly into two words: experienced butler.

Mr. Carson (centre right) from Downton Abbey and his staff.

If the first image that sprung to mind when I said those words was Mr. Carson from the grounds of Downton Abbey (Played by the lovely Jim Carter), your first impressions of our own butler probably wouldn’t be far off.

His short memoir, entitled ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’, admittedly reads more like a hit piece than the conventional autobiographies you might find explored on this site. It is fragmentary, even more so than those memoirs that have lost pages to age, or the hasty scribbling of a pen and shows us only a snippet of Robinson’s existence1. However, despite the slim word count Robinson doesn’t skimp on his opinions. Taking aim at the high society of the nineteenth-century, including novelist Lady Violet Greville (more about her and our butler: here), his memoir is a remarkably eye-opening venture into the trials and tribulations of the domestic service industry.

Articles about ‘the servant problem’ (1) appeared frequently in the nineteenth-century periodical press, such as the aptly named: The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review2, where we find our memoir. It wasn’t uncommon for the upper-classes to bemoan the state of their servants to the mass of sympathising readers, most of whom had their own ‘servant problems’3. What was unusual was an article that discusses this so called problem siding firmly against the upper-classes and stranger still, it came straight from the butlers mouth.

In the brief thirteen pages offered to us, we learn remarkably little about Robinson himself. What we are told is that Robinson was a domestic servant of fourteen years service, which stretched across five different households. A little further speculation suggests that he could be middle-aged, as indicated by his observations of the ‘young servant’ (6) and his occupation as a butler – a position reserved for the most mature, practised and reliable of servants4. Of course, where detail is lacking, speculation runs rife. Who is to say our John Robinson is who he says he is? Is he even a butler at all? Or, does this memoir have a darker, more convoluted purpose than it seems?

The little information we are given about the man himself only serves to hook us in – after all, who doesn’t love a mystery? Far from the ‘poor creatures’ (2) described in the memoir, Robinson appears to flout every assumption of the average man in domestic service. He is intelligent, observant and even possesses a certain literary flare that allows him to rival the ‘glamour [of Lady Violet’s] clever pen’ (1). Couple this with his direct critique of servant short comings, which he lays squarely at the feet of those who rule over them, Robinson carves out a rather unique place for himself as he walks between these two worlds.

John Robinson may be an enigma, but his writing provides us with a plethora of real-life, gritty experience of the service industry. Through reading his memoir we are able to gather information previously uncovered by the high-class who sought to hide it and the service workers who were unable to tell their own stories.

For this, I think John Robinson is a rather intriguing individual indeed.


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. Cuming, E. Rogers, H. (2019). Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’ in the Journal of Family and Community History.

2. ‘Nineteenth-Century: A Monthly Review.’ @ Worldcat.org

3. Helmstadter, C. (2009). Shifting boundaries: religion, medicine, nursing and domestic service in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

4. Hardyment, C. (1992). Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements. London: National Trust.

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