John Robinson (b. circa: 1850): The Servant Problem – The Issue at Hand

It’s the late 1800’s and there is a new issue on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The magazines are awash with it, the high-class ladies gather in corners and discuss it in hoarse whispers. Below stairs too, it is mumbled about and scorned with rolled eyes. What was this newest plague, you ask? To which Robinson replies: The servant problem.

The servant problem was the main focus of Robinson’s memoir, but to fully understand his nuances on the topic, we must first delve into the issue itself.

What was the Servant Problem?

The servant problem refers to the general complaint about ‘the difficulty of getting good servants’ (3). It is noted that ‘the registry offices tell how few names there are without some blemish’ (3) and that ’employers are fain to accept the inevitable and be content with a very humble mediocrity of character and attainment in their servants’ (3). This issue comes to form the backbone of a whole host of the service industries problems. Often it was the temperament of the working class blamed for the lacklustre service suffered by employers1.

A cartoon entitled: ‘The Servant Problem’
Circa 1919 in Punch.

Writings on the servant problem would occupy the periodical press for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even Robinson passes comment on ‘the number of magazine articles which have of late appeared’ (2) discussing the topic. The circulation of such articles largely assisted the cementing of various negative opinions towards the working-class2 with each article working to shape and mould the sensibility, taste and morality of its readers, most of which would have been like minded higher-class individuals. The perpetuation of such opinions worsened the so called ‘servant problem’ as the service industry fell under a micro-scope that sort to reveal even it’s most innocent of transgressions3.

‘The fact that this unwonted interest exists is not surprising.’

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

While the opinions of the employers circulated freely within the era’s periodicals, the thoughts of the servants themselves largely went unheard. For this reason Robinson’s memoir becomes increasingly more interesting as we are finally allowed to peak behind the proverbial curtain and hear the views of the condemned.

A cartoon entitled: ‘Resolution’. Circa 1931. Publication unknown.

What may be surprising to discover, is that Robinson actually agrees. He ‘begin[s] by accepting the general verdict, and at once admit[s] that the average man-servant is a very poor creature indeed.’ (3). According to Robinson, the folly of the man-servant lies firmly within four distinct parameters: vanity, lacking-motivation or drive, gluttony and sensualism. He accuses the average-man servant of ‘touching his hat or forelock with every word’ (4), becoming a ‘swill-tub’ and ‘confirmed thief and sensualist’ (5). It it on the grounds of this behaviour being ‘sordid’ (3) and unfitting of a ‘proper house-hold servant’ (3) that he is forced to accept the general issue with man-servants. However, the crux of the issue for Robinson is not the ill-temperament of the servants themselves, but the failings of the employers who refuse their servants ‘moral and intellectual improvement [while] complain[ing] of inefficiency and stupidity’ (9).

Far from abandoning the topic there, Robinson doubles down on his opinions as he begins to un-pick the larger issues surrounding the servant problem. It is then, unlike many of the articles that had been written before, Robinson offers a solution.


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. Papayanis, N. (1993). ‘The Coachman of Nineteenth Century Paris: Service Workers and Class Consciousness. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. p34.

2. Middlebrook, I. (2017). ‘The Victorian Novel, Service Work and the Nineteenth-Century Economy’. Nineteenth-Century Contexts. Vol. 39. Iss. 3. p 244-246.

3. Baldwin, M. (2019). ‘Stoicism and the Servant Problem: Philosophy in Ninenteenth-Century Domestic Literature.’ ProQuest Dissertations Publishing

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