Book review: Gentlemen’s Gentlemen: From Bootboys to Butlers - True Stories of Life Below Stairs

This book is an account of five men who served as page boys, lamp boys, boot boys, and even an ‘odd boy’ — a kind of multifunctional servant — to the gentlemen of the house.

Rosina Harrison

Sphere, £8.99

WITH the passing of the aristocratic way of life came the death of the ‘life in service’ — the roles of the maid, the footman, and the butler were consigned to big house television dramas for modern audiences who gape in wonder at the willing subservience adopted by one human being to another.

Making beds, serving breakfast, and even ironing creases out of newspapers were among the tasks the servant class performed for their ‘betters’, and, as this book makes clear, they did it willingly, happily basking in the status of the families they served. 

For many of the urban and rural poor, emptying chamber pots was a dream job.

The author of Gentlemen’s Gentlemen, a book first published 40 years ago, is Rosina Harrison, a former lady’s maid to the Astors, who, before she died in 1989, collected a treasure trove of memories from life below stairs. 

Her book, a readable and chatty piece of social history, is an account of five men who served as, among other things, page boys, lamp boys, boot boys, and even an ‘odd boy’ — a kind of multifunctional servant — to the gentlemen of the house.

Through a series of anecdotes, she introduces their trials and tribulations, the most astonishing of which are linked to the upper class prejudice that, if not constantly watched, the working class would reproduce like rabbits and upset the social order. 

For instance, on being assigned cleaning duties at Cliveden House, home of the Astors, Gordon Grimmet recalls that he and the chambermaids were warned never to be in bedrooms at the same time as it would excite sinful tendencies. 

In another case, hall boy George Washington lost his job after a maid, who had come to wake him for his duties, was seen coming out of his room and the lady of the house accused him of being a ‘filthy fornicator’.

Despite the low opinion in which they were held, and the endless rounds of cleaning, polishing, and gardening, male servants felt a genuine pride in serving their families. 

The same George Washington later writes of how in another job he ‘adored’ the lady of the house for her taste and beauty. What today we would consider haughtiness and snobbery, was, to many in service, a sign of good breeding in those they served. 

In one enlightening anecdote, Washington describes how the hours he spent polishing boots were worth it because: “I saw my gentleman mounted on a horse that had been as carefully groomed as himself, looking as handsome a picture as he could be made to look.”

According to Gentlemen’s Gentlemen there were upsides to a life of servility. Charles Dean, one of eight children born into poverty, ended up in service to a Russian aristocrat, Prince Oblonsky — who, incidentally, believed his wife was cursed because she had been inside Tutankhamun’s tomb — who took Dean on excursions to the United States, to St Moritz for the skiing, and to Cannes. 

It was a life few working class men could have dreamed off.

The power-relationship between master and servant wasn’t all one way. At the turn of the century London was full of recruitment agencies for household staff. 

One of them, the Mayfair Servants Agency had windows overflowing with cards advertising a huge variety of positions available.

Reliable, experienced staff were in short supply and could command good wages. 

Within a few decades salary levels went even higher as ‘the whiff of socialism’ was in the air and families grew concerned there would be a shortage of employees who ‘knew their place’.

The shortage of staff was a sign that the pride taken in a life of service was disappearing. 

Attitudes were changing, as author Rosina Harrison writes: “Domestic service was played to certain rules, but different people had different interpretations of the rules and this led to conflict.”

Gentlemen’s Gentlemen is a fascinating look at a way a life long gone.


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