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article imageReview: 'Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs' Special

By Alexander Baron     Sep 30, 2012 in Lifestyle
This is the first in a short series of programmes that traces the lives and lifestyles of domestic servants in a Britain that has long since gone.
The programme is presented by a rather unusual kind of Essex girl. Pamela Cox is stunningly attractive and extremely erudite (a positively fatal combination). As well as Dean of the Graduate School in the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, she has a personal interest in this subject: two of her great-grandmothers were domestic servants.
In this first programme she visits country estates that employed dozens of servants both indoors and outdoors - the seats of the aristocracy, and smaller town houses in which the middle class and later the lower middle class employed far fewer, sometimes only one servant, the maid of all work, whose life would seem unbearable today. Not that other servants fared much better, working long hours, day in day out.
Dr Cox examines the hierarchies of the great households where not only were servants kept segregated from their masters and mistresses but where they had their own hierarchies, the butler being at the top.
At one time there were around a million and a half servants in Britain; nowadays, no one has servants, only staff, and for all the talk of the rich growing richer and the poor growing poorer, this is a society in which no man has to doff his cap to a master, and where much of the time we can rub shoulders with both our betters and our inferiors on equal terms. Is this due to enlightenment and social change, or merely to the invention of the vacuum cleaner, the automatic dishwasher and other marvels of modern technology that have made many service jobs easier or even obsolete?
There are two questions posed by this programme, which its erudite presenter may or may not have considered. One is that for all the whining we hear about and by oppressed minorities today, and about white privilege, would anyone of any station living in modern Britain change places with a house servant from the Victorian era? And just as importantly, do especially those politicians who talk about supporting hard working families and extolling the virtues of full employment truly believe that hard work or work at all is an end in itself?
The first programme, Knowing Your Place, can currently be found on iplayer, for those who can receive it, otherwise look out for it on YouTube.
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