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A black-and-white photograph of a maid tidying a dresser.

Life in domestic service in the 1930s

Domestic service was one of 1930s Britain's biggest employers, but the sector was changing rapidly

Were your family upstairs or down? Find out in the 1939 Register

Life as a domestic servant in the 1930s had improved significantly when compared tothe hardships and vagaries suffered by those in the same profession just a generation before. Working conditions, employees’ rights and movements toward greater social equality meant that being a servant, maid or nanny was safer and more well paid than ever.

A black-and-white photograph of a maid cleaning a plate.
Servants. March 1938 Image: (c) Mirrorpix

In the 1930s, around a quarter of all employed women were in domestic service, whether in stately homes or more modest houses in the suburbs. Unlike the master/servant relationship of the Victorian era, most employers didn’t expect subservience from their staff. The fact that the sector had become more appealing meant that a new breed of servant existed, one much closer in social class to the employer than previously. This created an unusual dynamic in many homes, the more equal footing meaning that in some cases, servants and their employees dined together.

In the 1930s, around a quarter of all employed women were in domestic service

The technological advancements of the period also improved the servant’s lot. Vacuum cleaners, electric and gas ovens, electric irons and other mod cons took a lot of the labour out of the job, meaning that in many cases fewer servants were required. 

When war erupted and men were sent to the front, a number of women left domestic service to work in the factories, producing the materials Britain needed to take the fight to the Axis. Not only did Britain need these women, many found that they could earn a lot more in their new jobs in manufacturing.

A black-and-white photograph of a butler teaching trainee butlers. The butler points to a blackboard showing the correct way to carve lamb. The trainee butlers stand attentively, with notebooks in hand.
Trainee butlers take notes as their teacher points to a blackboard diagram, explaining the correct way to carve lamb. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Owing to the demands of war, households were faced with a shortage of servants for the first time. For those unwilling to take on the increasingly common role of housewife, relief came in the form of Jewish refugees granted domestic work visas after fleeing Nazi Germany. These girls often came from homes where they had servants themselves, and employers were not always patient with their lack of experience.

Owing to the demands of war, households were faced with a shortage of servants.

Despite many women taking on the role of housewife after the war - thus reducing their need for servants - domestic service was still a common occupation throughout the war and exists to this day. After the war years, servants were more commonly known by less pejorative titles such as “home help” or “charlady”.

Main image: A maid standing by a dresser mirror polishing the silver, March 1938. Image:(c) Mirrorpix

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