Sambrook, Pamela. The Country House Servant.

Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

While this is generally a very interesting and informative volume, the reader who picks it up based on the title alone may become annoyed. Sambrook notes in the Introduction that because of the size of the subject, she has limited herself to those three categories of servants who were mostly concerned with cleaning the country house and its contents — the footman, the housemaid, and especially the laundrymaid.

The kitchen staff, grooms, valets, and so on, she says, deserve their own studies. Which is fair enough, I suppose — but I really wish she had seen fit to include this limitation in the book’s title, which implies a much broader study. Moreover, well more than half the book is given over to the laundry, its personnel and equipment, and the various technological innovations introduced during the 19th century in the interest of cleaning the country house’s clothing and linens. The author seems to have a particular fascination with the box-mangle — which is not at all the same as a wringer, assumptions in modern novels notwithstanding. All this may reflect the fact that Sambrook was curator of Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, for nearly twenty years, from which she takes many of her examples, and which boasts one of the most complete surviving country-house laundry blocks.

I did enjoy the sections on the footman and the housemaid, however. The footman may have had a longstanding reputation as an arrogant, self-important, ornamental flunkey, but the lengthy quotations and descriptions of work which Sambrook gathers from memoirs and diaries make it clear he had a very diverse collection of responsibilities, both inside and outside the house. In fact, this division of oversight between the steward and the groom only complicated his life. A great deal is also included about the footman’s daily routine of cleaning and personal service, with its many variations depending on the size of the establishment in which he was employed. The housemaid — who was not the same as a parlormaid — was almost the invisible side of service, but she also regularly performed the greatest amount of work for the most hours in the day. Again, her exhausting daily routine is presented in great detail. It’s interesting to note that, contrary to dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, in which the whole staff appears to have hung around for decades, there actually was considerable turnover, a new employer every eighteen months being common for most servants, up to and including the butler. That was how an ambitious footman or maid learned his or her trade, through variety of experience. There are numerous photos, many of which I’ve never seen before — but I haven’t studied the country house laundry system in any detail, either. Within its limited focus, this is an excellent piece of work by a knowledgeable author.

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Published in: on 23 February 2012 at 10:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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