John Robinson (b. circa 1850): A Butler’s View of Men-Service – Memoir Transcript

A Butler’s View of Men-Service
John Robinson


Published in: The Nineteeth Century Review Vo. XXXI. January-June, 1892.

Preamble: Articles on ‘the servant problem’ appeared frequently in the daily and periodical press from the 1840’s onwards and became legion by the end of the century. Almost always written by employers, earlier comments were generally critical of servants’ inefficiencies, ignorance, dishonestly and excessive wage demands, but as the scarcity, especially of men servants, became acute, more constructive policies aimed at rationalising the burdens of service and rising the intellectual and moral level of servant life came to be advocated. The subject was well reviewed in a symposium on ‘The Domestic Servant Difficulty’ in ‘The Lady’s Realm’, June 1987.

The following article is unusual in being written by a butler of fourteen years experience, who was clearly an intelligent and well-informed man. Though fully admitting the shortcomings of his colleagues, he places the blame squarely on the attitude and irresponsibility of their employers.


To judge from the number of magazine articles which have of late appeared, touching more or less upon the subject, an unwonted interest is being taken in the domestic servant. To judge from the subject-matter of some of these articles the fact that this unwonted interest exists is not surprising.

In the February number of the National Review Lady Violet Greville narrates the result of her observations upon certain characteristics of the English man-servant. Lady Violet manages to put quite a kindly complexion on the man-servant’s foibles, but unfortunately, if the glamour thrown by her ladyship’s clever pen be taken away, he is found to appear in a much less amiable light. But, before proceeding to read between the lines, it may be pointed out that it is through such distorted media as are afforded by Lady Violet’s article that employers (when they have thought of them apart form their work at all) have been wont to regard their servants. These are low, mean and degraded, but if there be maintained towards them a repressive attitude of haughty destain, society will be persevered from contamination. Their faults must be borne with, for are they not indispensable ‘to that delicate art of living’? This, it may be remarked, looks like the Belgravian version of an important tenant of the social policy of the ancients in which flunkydom bears the same relation to the denizens of Vanity Fair that slavery did to the elite of Athens or Rome.

Signs, however, are not wanting that this superficial attitude is not universal, but that some regard servants with a more human and appreciative eye. In the March number of the Review Lady Aberdeen records an attempt to do something toward raising the moral and intellectual standard of the servant life. For her efforts in this direction Lady Aberdeen deserves the sincerest thanks of all intelligent servants. It appears to me, however, that her ladyship had not, in her experiment, struck at the root of the upas-tree. She seeks to apply the remedy before she has ascertained the nature and extent of the wound. The real state of affairs is much more forcibly implied in Lady Violet Greville’s episodes of servant life than expressed in Lady Aberdeen’s more explicit statement. These episodes, which are by no means caricatures, reveal an amazing amount of ignorance and meanness and general depravity is abundantly supported from other sources. Plaints are continually being made in the daily papers about the difficulty of getting good servants. The registry offices tell how few names there are without some blemish; and employers are fain to accept the inevitable and be content with a very humble mediocrity of character and attainments in their servants. Finally, the contempt with which the servant is regarded by his employer and by the world at large affords a fairly adequate criterion of his real worth.

It has seemed to me that this inferiority of the modern servant is not, as Lady Aberdeen suggests, due merely to the deterrent conditions which tend to eliminate the better class of men and women, but that certain enervating conditions exist which have a debasing effect on those who actually choose service as a calling. I also believe the latter set of conditions to be much more operative than the former. To indicate some of these conditions and their effects with special reference to the man-servant will be the object of this paper.

I will begin by accepting the general verdict, and at once admitting that the average man-servant is a very poor creature indeed. Aim he has none beyond that of gaining a sordid livelihood. His daily life is a mean and shallow affair. Carpe diem is his motto. In his spare time he will play for hours at a childish game of push-penny. ‘Ha’penny nap’ ranks with him as an accomplishment, whist means too much mental effort. His wages gravitate to a convenient ‘pub’ in the shape of drinks and bets on the current big race. He rarely makes any individual effort at self-improvement, consequently he never combines for that end. His ambition never soars belong the proprietorship of an inn or lodging-house.

Yet this phenomenon finds its place about the vanguard of nineteenth-century civilisation! How infinitely superior was the manly and self-respecting lacquey or major-domo of one hundred years ago to the servile and obsequious servant of modern days! This wretched creature may be seen touching his hat or forelock with every word he utters, conscious of his inferiority to a master morally low. Spectacle like this (and they are frequent) nark a degree of degeneracy alike in master and man; for the love of such homage, from such a source, is certainly incompatible with that magnanimity which in theory at least is one of the prime characteristics of a gentleman.

The scene just described is, moreover, typical of the relationship which subsists between the servant, as a class, and society, in the fashionable sense of the word. The employer has hitherto been accustomed to look on the servant and his peccadilloes as something quite outside of himself. He will be surprised to hear that there is an organic connection between the life of the servant leads and that led by himself. To be behind the scenes the terms of this relationship are not difficult to make out. Thus when a man enters service he sacrifices all freedom. Any preconceived notions he may have of living his life in a particular way must e thrown to the winds. He becomes the creatures of his surroundings, which are determined by the people with home he lives.

Accordingly, what a splendid training in gluttony and peculation usually afforded the young servant when first he enters service! Probably he is heavily handicapped form the first, since he not seldom enters service on the same principle as that on which his employers’ boys enter the Church, namely, as being fit for nothing better; consequently he starts with some moral or intellectual shortcoming. Thus inadequately equipped he passes at once from comparative privation to the midst of luxury. If there be, as often is the case, any morbid cravings begotten of the penury of his early life, here is his opportunity. Without any restraint other than that which an embryo conscience affords, he finds himself amongst dainties that would tickle the fancy of a sybarite. Questions as the meum and tuum, qualms as to the manliness of such indulgence are set aside as squeamish fancies, and the youth is soon well on the way towards making a confirmed thief and sensualist. Many I know will smile incredulously at this picture and declare it to be overdrawn; it describes, nevertheless, what personal observation leads me to believe takes place in the case of a large percentage of young servants. There is a great lack of efficient supervision. Those in charge are often too indolent, frequently they are gourmands themselves, and so encourage rather than repress this guilty indulgence.
There is another circumstance which greatly tends to encourage enervating practice of this kind. It is commonly supposed that at their legitimate table servants live better than those on a similar plane of well-being out of service. This is in a sense true, but in the case of most households more false than true. The condition of the servant – that section at least which lives in the servants’ hall – may often be describes as a condition of starvation in the midst of plenty. Food there is usually enough to spare, but is it a suitable kind of food, and how is it prepared? In bygone days the large joint of beef, no doubt, formed the fitting fare for the burly retainers, whose duties kept them fro the most part in the open air. The bumper of strong ale wrought but little harm on the man who rode to hunt or fray. The conditions of the servant’s life have long since altered, but not so the manner of living, that is, so far as his food is concerned. Physiological considerations and dietetic principles have both in substance and preparation completely revolutionised the table of the matter, while the servant’s fare remains unchanged. The work of many men-servants is lighter than that of shopmen, and yet they are fed like navvies. What the effects of this system are, the statistics of the London hospitals will show.

The preparation of the food sent to the servants’ hall is often grossly inadequate. The energies of the head of the kitchen department are usually absorbed by the upstairs dinner, or if not, by below-stairs social obligations. It is a principle with most cooks that they are not engaged to cook for servants; consequently the servants’ hall is left to the tender mercies of the kitchenmaid, who usually does most of the cooking of the house while the responsible person receives visitors in the ‘room’. The result of all this is that a huge joint is sent to the servants’ table. This appears cold again and again at a succession of suppers and dinners, till some one, nauseated at its continual reappearance, chops it up and assigns the greater part to the swill-tub. This is followed by another joint, which goes the same round and shares the same fate. Any variety beyond that of a very occasional sweet is out of the question. The physiological effects of such a dietry on those capable of assimilating it I need not point out. That those whose digestive powers are not equal to this coarse abundance must either starve or make rogues of themselves is equally obvious.

But if the coarse fare of the Middle Ages is out of place in our present-day life, there yet remains an institution still more fraught with danger. I allude to the household beer. How this pernicious practice is perpetuated passes my comprehension. The effects of ill feeding are not at first sight obvious, the effects of alcohol are clamant. One would think the strewed employer feared the servant should emerge to true manhood, and sought to enervate and keep him malleable by this means. Hundreds of men get their first start in the drunkard’s career from this hateful practice. If the youth escapes falling a victim to his gastronomic propensities he is often caught here. The claims of good fellowship, the anxiety to be thought a man, the stimulus he finds drink gives him when called upon to make a spurt, all combine to foster a habit. He is soon fit to join the ranks of the ‘swill-tubs’, who measure their daily consumption by the gallon. And this class we know to form no inconsiderable number of English men-servants.

Suppose, however, that a servant escapes the snares which beset him at the outset of his career. Suppose strength of character or quality of temperament enables him to steer clear of the debilitating traps laid for him, what are his chances of developing a strong and intelligent manhood? His opportunities for self-improvement are usually very small. The hours he may call his own are fitful and rare. His duties may be light, but if he wishes to prove himself a good servant he must always be on the alert. Under such circumstances fruitful application is out of the question. If he persists he must take time from his sleep, which he can often ill afford. If, again, he seeks for some society in which he may find help towards better thing, he finds himself, as we have seen, surrounded by sensualists in a more or less advances state of degradation. If he looks abroad he finds himself shunned. He is a servant, and as the kindly world measures the individual by the type, it will have none of him. Help he has none, and he passes through life cursing the circumstances that placed him in domestic service. The higher qualities in a servant are decidedly at a discount. To methodically perform certain stereotyped duties in a stereotyped manner is in service the highest virtue. Whether the agent is drink or is sober, has a soul or has not, is seldom taken into account. Any departure form certain conventional rules is sternly repressed, and yet, if an emergency finds him unprepared to take the initiative, he is sworn at for his incapacity,

There is still another way in which the better class of servant is hampered in his struggle for manhood. The fact that outsiders look down on servants as belonging to an inferior and degraded class has already been alluded to. In this they only take the cue from the servants’ employers who never fail to make it known, both at home and abroad, how much they despise those fellow-creatures whose misfortune it is to have to perform for them certain duties described as menial. If this attitude of supercilious scorn is in some degree justifiable, it is at least inconsistent, for it is most often adopted by those whose title to contempt in the abstract is much clearer then that of their servants. However, this practice of emphasising superior merit by perpetually reminding the servant of his inferiority exists, and it is extremely trying to the more deserving servant. Duties which in the nature of things he would, and which he could very efficiently perform, are passed over him as beyond his abilities or as affording a test his integrity cannot stand. If in any difficulty he ventures to make a suggestion, he at once evokes a more or less distinct reminder of his position. A careful conning of his weekly book and a critical surveillance of the monthly bills convince him that he is not trusted. If he is a butler he has the wine out out for him in driblets, and in every way his unfitness for any real responsibility is emphasised. This, of course, is not felt by the average servant who recognises it as his due, and, like the dog for his thrashing, he is obsequiously grateful. It is, however, extremely galling to a good man to find his master refuse him the confidence which he readily accords to his clerk. Treatment of the kind described unfortunately does not end with outraged feelings. There is nothing more readily makes a rouge of a man than systematic distrust. If a butler is given out six bottles of wine, he can by careful manipulation have one for himself. If his stores are measured out by him in handfuls, he can easily represent that he uses more than he does. If the man does not at once sink to these practices under such a regime, it is generally only a matter of time. The treatment he experiences saps his self-respect, and by-and-by he comes to think of himself as his master thinks. He argues that he is not trusted, therefore there can be no breach of confidence in taking all he can get. He does not care a straw for the wine or the stores, but he learns to take a pleasure in showing that his would-be clever master can be ‘done’.

I think it will be seen that the conditions for life in domestic service are such as would tend to produce the very results we find. And yet the complaints we hear about servants are based on the assumptions that the servants themselves are entirely responsible for their shortcomings. Employers see their servants surrounded with temptations and debasing influences to an extent unknown in other walks of life, and expect them to be free from vice. They require them to perform certain duties which involve the loss of freedom and opportunity for moral and intellectual improvement, and then complain of inefficiency and stupidity. They treat their servants as immoral, they unnecessarily limit their exercise of responsibility, they frown on any spontaneous action which does not fall in with their own caprice, and then look for the development of high moral character.

If employers really wish for improvement amongst their servants, it lies for the most part with themselves to effect the change. They must first of all put a stop to that wasteful and noxious licence which I have the best reason to believe goes on in at least six houses of every ten. At the same time they must see that their servants are provided with well-prepared food, adapted to the work they have to perform. As matters stand, the servant must either gorge himself with half-cooked meat, or steal what he can from the upstairs table, or starve. This kind of thing ought not to be. Those who keep servants ought to see that the conditions of life are healthful, both physically and morally. The practise of giving beer, too, ought to be abolished in every house in the kingdom. If employers once realised the amount of disgusting animalism this habit perpetuated they would stop it at once. They cannot, however, of themselves readily find out the real state of affairs, and many who do find out do not trouble. The domestic servants’ duties make so little demand upon the faculties that when once a mechanical habit has been formed they are as well done by a man in a besotted condition as when sober.

No doubt changes like those proposed would involve trouble, but why should not trouble be taken? The laissez-faire policy is far too prevalent in dealings with servants when the discharge of duties is not in question. Society is too much taken up with its balls and millinery, its dinners and matchmaking, ever to think of its duties towards dependants. The care of servants is too often relegated to a butler or housekeeper more debauched than those over whom they have charge. They posses neither the strength of character nor the tact required to rule others, for they have never learned to rule themselves. They manage by such extraneous aids as summing the title of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ and retiring to the sacred precincts of the ‘room’ to procure a little show of respect, which most often veils the heartfelt contempt of their subordinates. Responsibilities so serious should be attended to first hand, or, if they must be discharged vicariously, it should be seen that really competent personas were set to each task.

There is another aspect under which the changes suggested would be more likely to commend themselves to the employers of servants. I have no hesitation in saying that there are hundreds of houses in the country where, if the superfluity of animal food was to be taken away contemporaneously with the introduction of rational management, the butcher’s bill might be reduced by one-half. The amount spent on beer, which at present is money worse than wasted would mean considerable saving. This, to a struggling country squire, would be no small matter. In this connection I may say that three out of the five houses in which I have lived during the last fourteen years there was a regular system of disposing of the stale lump of meat that were sent to the servants’ table. While deploring the circumstances which led to it, it was impossible to help sympathising with the servants in this proceeding, in which they seemed only to be following the natural instinct of self-preservation.

It will, however, be little use to remove the obstacles which lie in the way of the servants’s material well-being unless there be given him at the same time some opportunity for mental improvement. The servant is, as a rule, far less well-informed than any class in the same plane of life. His inability to talk on any subject, unless perhaps horse-racing or the latest music-hall attraction, is well known. This is primarily due to the low kind of life he if forced to lead, and in a less degree to the want of opportunity for self-improvement and social intercourse. The paralysing influence of the servants’ environment has prevented his calling very loudly for more freedom. It does not, however, follow that because he does not ask for it it should not be given him. Employers of labour believe that the stimulus and friendly rivalry afforded by clubs and social meetings tend to increase the efficiency of the hands, and accordingly they voluntarily promote, and even support, such institutions. Something of the kind, on the lines indicated of Lady Aberdeen, ought to be encourages. If, moreover, a little more liberty and opportunity for profitable social intercourse were to be granted, one of the drawbacks which prevent a better class from going to service would be taken away. Thus agencies would be set to work by which, both form within and without, the standard of character and efficiency would be raised; a result which could not fail to be welcome to the employer.

With the evolution of a better class of servant, however, there must be a change in attitude of the master. He does not scruple nowadays to act towards a man of high moral character as though he were a rouge or a thief. He forgets that the servant whom he treats like a dog may have nerves as highly strung, and may feel as acutely as the guest whom he must treat with courtesy. The amount of refined cruelty that is perpetrated upon the servants by employers and their families cannot be told. There are some persons described as ladies and gentleman who deliberately make use of their superior knowledge for the purpose of giving pain to those of their servants whom a flaw in their character or some shortcoming has placed at the mercy of their diabolical arts. I have in my minds eye a lady (?) who conducted prayer meetings for women in her house, who habitually addressed the servants of the household as though they were brute beasts. When she allowed an opportunity for getting a servant in trouble pass (which she rarely did), she always appraised the culprit of her forbearance. I have know this person escape censure at the expense of a servant who, standing by, was gentleman enough to withhold his story (which was convincing), in order that the creature should escape. I mention this case in particular, because the lady always appeared to me in the light of a psychological problem, insomuch as she was considered an angel by the women among whom she worked. Possibly the building up of a reputation for sanctity upon the basis of fallen human nature involved a strain which could only be relieved by at times letting the Old Adam have his way. Anyhow, it was bad for the scapegoat.

No doubt the enervation of the servant by the causes mentioned in the earlier parts of this paper has done much to expose him to harsh treatment. It is, however, unjustifiable, and it has been shown to be disastrous to the servant of better character. It is the distrust, the nagging and worry of domestic service, which perhaps more than anything else drives men to get away from it as soon as they can. And it is indeed hard that, after giving up the best years of his life to service, he should be driven to invest his savings in some business for which he has had absolutely no training, and in which in 50 per cent of cases he is doomed to failure. Surely domestic service might be made so that a man could end his days in it with some approach to comfort: Intrinsically there is nothing in service of which a man need be ashamed. There is nothing derogatory to a man’s dignity or self-respect in the discharge of its humblest duties. But the thorn lies in the fact that a man, for peace sake, is reduced to a kind of degrading sycophancy; or, to use a phrase common among servants, ‘he cannot call his soul his own.’

Let the conditions of domestic service be improved, and with improved conditions let the standard for the performance of duties be raised. Put service more on a level with a trade; let better service be required; but let the servant be treated as a man. In this way the existing corruption would be abolished, and the abuses servants now complain of be a thing of the past. The place of so many ciphers would be taken by men, a state of things which would inevitably revert to the well-being of society at large.


Primary Source:
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.

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