The 1825 manual The Complete Servant warned its readers that the pursuit of pleasure would lead inexorably to “loss of place, disgrace, and poverty”. Yet the life of servants from Regency Britain wasn’t all routine drudgery. A new study indicates that, among the perks, opportunities for travel loomed much larger than was previously understood.
Servants’ own words, in overlooked newspaper advertisements, reveal that they weren’t only willing to accompany employers to meet the demands of a competitive jobs market. Rather, many actively sought opportunities to broaden their horizons and see the world.
For her analysis, Dr Sophie Dunn examined ads placed by 5,178 servants in The Morning Post — a daily newspaper — throughout the year 1815. Just over a third of the job-hunting announcements were placed by men and the rest by women. In total, 946 advertisers, or 18 per cent, made direct reference to travel — either expressing a wish to travel, or at least no objection to travelling or going abroad.
Dunn, an Economic and Social Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the University of Liverpool, said this overturned the commonly-held view — based partly on literary depictions — that travelling servants were a rare breed. In her paper, in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, she writes: “The fact that servants posted nearly a thousand travel-related adverts in just one newspaper in one year, significantly changes our understanding of servants’ lives domestically and abroad.”
Those willing, or eager, to travel included general servants, lady’s maids, nurses, butlers, valets, grooms, coachmen and, occasionally, cooks. For example, an ad published on April 3, 1815, states: “WANTS a Situation as LADIES MAID, or Ladies Maid and Housekeeper; understands pickling and preserving, and perfectly understands her business in both Situations. Has no objection to go abroad.”
Another, of July 28, reads: “As TRAVELLING SERVANT, an Englishman, who has been to Paris, travelled in Germany, all over Italy and Sicily, speaks Italian well, French and German enough for business; if with a Single Gentleman he will dress his dinner when necessary; lived four and a half years in his last situation.”
Around this time, affluent Britons travelled for all sorts of reasons, including business, military service, pleasure and health. They travelled within the British Isles, to continental Europe, and as far afield as India and the Caribbean, taking servants with them. Dunn said: “Many servants had to consider travel as an option in their working lives, whether they liked it or not.”
The year 1815 is best remembered for the Battle of Waterloo, on June 18, and Dunn was struck to find ads from servants who seemed to view the Napoleonic Wars as just another job opportunity. Three days after the Treaty of Alliance against Bonaparte was ratified on March 25, a “THOROUGH SERVANT” addressed “Families at home or Gentlemen going abroad”. He “flatter[ed] himself of being useful in many domestic services, even as Cook in a moment of necessity”, “nor would he object to engage with a Gentleman who may be going to join the armies on the continent”.
In her paper, Dunn writes: “The reaction time in this case — a mere three days between political action and newspaper advert — demonstrates how flexible and adaptable servants were and had to be.”
Nevertheless, if some servants were simply flexible and attuned to the market’s demands, Dunn found that making foreign travel a preference or even a prerequisite was surprisingly common. On January 4, a “respectable Young Woman, 23 years of age” sought a job as a lady’s maid and “would prefer going abroad”. The following month, a young man seeking “a Situation to go abroad as GROOM or VALET” explained that he understood French “perfectly” and wished to make himself useful in every respect.
In fact, Dunn found a number of servants boasting foreign language skills, including a “Youth near 17 [years old]” who understood Spanish, and a “young and active Man, a native of Germany”, who “speaks the different Continental languages”.
She said: “The image of the uneducated, low-skilled servant is certainly outdated — instead we have to look at servants as people who were interested and engaged and ready to pick up new skills and languages if they saw a benefit to their employment status in it.”
Even without the particular perils of warfare, life on the road was hazardous. Dunn explained: “Travel in the 18th and 19th centuries was dangerous, for both elite employers and servants, in Britain as well as abroad. The roads could be bad or dangerous, coaches could be overturned, horses could run off, boats could sink in storms or be shipwrecked. Then there was the danger of diseases, and, of course, all the discomforts we can still experience today with unfamiliar foods, dirty hotel rooms and so on.
“For servants, all of this applies and on top of that, they would get second best, especially if there was little to go around. For instance, if there was only one bed available, the servant might have slept on the floor, using their coat as a blanket. Many hotels had tables specifically for servants so they would not sit at the nice table with their employers. Servants were to get up first and to go to bed last, running errands, doing laundry, cooking, dressing their employers, or nursing them when ill.”
Given all that, what was the attraction? Dunn said there were certainly advantages for those with a sense of adventure. “Because of the lack of domestic routine, travelling servants were able to enjoy at least some parts of travel, too. The few testimonies we have — like the account of the Scot John MacDonald — show that servants enjoyed meeting new people from around the world, seeing beautiful sights, and generally appreciating the thrill of being away from the familiar.”
She added: “As rich in information as these adverts are, they can be frustrating in that servants usually did not include their reasons why they wanted to travel. Some hinted at possible reasons. For instance, they intended to be a travelling servant in order to get to a specific place for which they might not have been able to afford the journey on their own.
“But we certainly should not assume that these people were not driven by the human desire to see the world. Travelling was very expensive, so serving an elite traveller was certainly a way to see other parts of the world without having to pay for transport and accommodation. Being a travelling servant should not be romanticised, though — it was a hard life.”
Another factor was the opportunity to escape difficult situations back home. Dunn said: “I found a couple of adverts that read as rather desperate, where servants state they would prefer leaving London, or even the country, altogether — so that might indicate some serious issues in the background. Being a travelling servant came with the promise of getting out, but also the hope of not having to stay too long in any place.”
For the entrepreneurial, Dunn said travel could ultimately open avenues for other work. Some servants settled abroad, working at hotels or running their own inns.
If travelling as a servant offered opportunities to combine travel and the acquisition of career skills, Dunn said it was a far cry from today’s gap-year roles. “Some adverts certainly give the impression that this is a young person trying to use a servant’s job as an early 19th-century ‘work and travel’ programme. But the crucial difference is that most young people today will not do these jobs on boats or in ski chalets for the rest of their life. They will take the skills and use them in different industries, for university applications, and much more. The 18th- and 19th-century servants might have returned to Britain after a journey but most of them remained servants for many more years, if not a lifetime.”
While travel created opportunities, it could also end them. Dunn cites ads that show how some servants lost jobs due to their employer’s travels. This could happen where employers no longer needed the servant or where the servant was unwilling to travel — perhaps due to family commitments or fear of danger. An ad of July 28 stated: “As SERVANT, a Man, aged 30, who understands the care of horses, […] he is leaving his place on account of his Master going abroad.”
According to Dunn, the Morning Post ads reveal far more about servants than their simple appetite for exploration. “My research highlights that servants were much more active in trying to shape the hiring process and employment through these adverts than we might have considered. Far from being the stereotypically passive, lower-ranking members of society, servants engaged in self-marketing strategies and showed an active interest in travel.
“They were important in shaping the master-servant relationship, and their skills, such as foreign languages, show that servants were individuals, not easily replaceable.”