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Yes Ma’am! the Sacrifice of Britain’s Domestic Servants

Their lives have been romanticised in period dramas ‚but becoming one of ‘the help’ was often not a happy choice. Tessa Dunlop finds out how the lives of live-in servants evolved in the first half of the 20th century
The days of permanent service didn’t suddenly end with the arrival of the 20th century – it took a long time for change to come about
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In 1901, one-third of British women were in domestic service, but less than 20 years later there were predictions of a ‘servant problem’. During World War I, women had driven buses, threshed in fields and ripped their hands in munitions factories; they’d proved their economic worth and for some it was a first taste of freedom. Why on Earth would they want to return, en masse, to the ignominy of domestic service?

When the men went to fight in WWI, women took on their jobs making munitions and more

The Establishment duly panicked that the era of the faithful Victorian maid was over, with press and Parliament anguishing over the prospect of flappers refusing to resume their biddable positions out of sight in private households.

In 1918, women over the age of 30 had won the right to vote. In theory, their world was changing, and the first buds of consumer Britain looked promising. The prospect of clerical work or serving in a high-street shop was so much more alluring (and better paid) than the scrubbing and scrutiny that came with domestic servitude. Two government commissions probed the issue, the Daily Mail bemoaned working-class women’s “restless desire for independence which is a legacy of war”, and broadcaster and writer J B Priestley wrote that servants were as “obsolete as the horse”.

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About BBC History Revealed

Long before the seven wonders of the ancient world were even dreamt of, work had begun on Salisbury Plain to construct a monument out of stones. Why was Stonehenge built, who built it, and for what purpose? We explore the very latest theories behind England's oldest mystery. Plus: The brief reign of Tudor king Edward VI, the sacrifices of domestic servants, the D-Day trial that was a complete disaster, a full gallery of newly colourised pictures of the past, and more.