The fragile dignity of the 'Lady Help'

To leaf through The Lady from the 1880s to the present day is to experience at breakneck speed a furiously changing Britain. Not just the false hairpieces and corset shapes (imagine doing your housework in a ‘Swan’s Bill’ corset, an excruciating S-shape made fashionable by Queen Alexandra, with the unfortunate side effect of flatulence). Britain’s longest running magazine was – and still is – renowned for its classified ads; especially those for domestic service and childcare.

The Lady: at the same address since 1891

The Lady: at the same address since 1891

These small ads are a fascinating social barometer. They show how the power and advantage swung gradually from the upper and upper-middle classes, with their complacent talk of servants being ‘kept’, and women doing ‘the rough’, to favour those still working in domestic service after two world wars, wooed with increasingly desperate promises of private flats, cars, swimming pools – even televisions.


‘Can any Lady recommend to me…’

The Lady, ‘A Journal for Gentlewomen’, had a very particular middle-class readership which straddled both those wealthy enough to employ help, and those in straightened circumstances reduced to offering their services. Both sides saw themselves, resolutely, as ‘Ladies’. Thus, Situations Vacant ads begin: ‘Can any Lady recommend to me…’, while Situations Wanted might read: ‘Position sought as Lady-Housekeeper, Lady-Companion, or Lady-Help…’ Genteel appearances had to be maintained at all times, if one was to cling on to one’s fragile personal dignity.

Situations wanted blah blah

‘Wanted by gentlewoman (Manchester)…’

What was a ‘Lady Help’? The trend first rose in response to the ‘servant problem’ of the High Victorian era – the increasing absence of young girls willing to go into service, when new work in shops and factories offered greater freedom and higher wages. A Lady Help was a gentlewoman who had fallen on hard times: usually widowed, often unmarried, occasionally orphaned. Swallowing her pride, she was reduced to living in another’s house as a thinly disguised common servant. She was, in all likelihood, desperate.

Hard times: the middle class lady forced into service

On her uppers: the ‘Lady Help’ was a gentlewoman reduced to living in another’s house as a thinly disguised servant

Knowing this, and reading between the lines, each advertisement tells a poignant little story.

Here are two from 1896, when every Victorian woman’s goal was to be mistress of her own home: ‘Lady (young), good social position, experienced traveller, musician, offers services as Companion, Lady-Housekeeper, or Secretary.’ And: ‘Gentlewoman requires, at once, post as Companion, Lady-Housekeeper, or any place of trust. Experienced and domesticated. Excellent references.’

Other, more ordinary servants spoke feelingly about how Lady Helps upset a hierarchy within a house. She might typically affect airs and graces, refusing to roll up her sleeves and see to any tasks herself. She might demand to eat her meals separately, and have startlingly superior quarters. She was of similar social standing to those she served, yet she was always on the back foot, eating humble pie. Was she, or wasn’t she a servant? If the Lady Help took no salary – and many didn’t – her position was yet more ambiguous. Here is a typical ad from 1909, placed by a Miss Hughes of South Woodford: ‘Lady desires position as Housekeeper or Companion. Comfortable home more essential than salary. Highest references.’

companion blah blah

Elderly widows were keen to recruit a ‘Lady Companion’ – often for no pay

The ambiguity of the role made it ripe for exploitation. The middle classes were thrifty, and one can tell much from their advertisements. Clothes were cannily recycled and sold on through The Lady’s fascinating personal columns: ‘Black and sky beauty corsets, with appliance for lengthening the waist, never worn. Cost 19s 6d; for 10s 6d.’ ‘Black parasol, jet beaded stripes; thrice used; only 10s. Bargain.’ (Both from 1889.)

They would get by on two or three servants in a family home if they could – or fewer. ‘Maid kept’ was shorthand to a Lady Help that she wouldn’t have to ‘do the rough’: the heavy cleaning. More than one Lady Help working in a house – perhaps cook, housekeeper and companion – usually meant tight-fisted employers and a hotbed of internal politics. Alarm bells might ring for this 1892 advertisement: ‘Wanted, a lady as COOK, single-handed, where four lady-helps are kept. Age over thirty. 34 Linden Gardens, Bayswater.’ Or this, from 1912: ‘Wanted, two Ladies as Housemaid and House-Parlourmaid. Sisters or friends preferred. Lady-cook and lady-nurse kept.’  ‘Sisters or friends preferred’ was shorthand for sharing a room – or a bed.

Two's company: 'Sisters Preferred' was shorthand for having to share a bed

‘Sisters preferred’ was shorthand for having to share a room – or a bed

Employing a Lady Help was often a way of getting everything done for a very low fee, by someone not in a position to refuse the offer of a comfortable home. The balance, in this pre-war era, was most definitely stacked against the Help. 1912: ‘Wanted, gentlewoman (not under 35) as Housekeeper and Useful Companion to two ladies at quiet seaside place. Must be devoted to pet dogs. Fancy cooking required.’

Then came the First World War, and everything changed. The big country houses lost their men-servants, while young maids vanished from middle class homes as everyone joined the war effort. Advertisements for ‘Lady Grooms’ and ‘Kennel Maids’ proliferated, as the upper classes turned to The Lady to staff their country houses. 1916: ‘Wanted, in country house, large gardens, home farm in hand, certificated Lady-Cook, Lady-Head Gardener, under Gardener, Kennel-Maid for bloodhounds, lady experienced in breaking horses, stable work, farm stock.’ And 1917: ‘Wanted. Lady-Groom-Gardener. Understanding poultry.’

At the same time, thousands of widowed women were forced to find alternative futures in other people’s homes. These strained, upbeat advertisements are almost unbearably poignant. 1915: ‘Officer’s widow desires post, Companion, or Lady-Housekeeper. Pianist. Good accompanist. Cheerful, amiable.’ 1918: ‘Widow lady, 38, desires post as Working-Housekeeper in small family, where she can have daughter, aged 13, with her. Help for rough work.’

Despite the ‘surplus women problem’ – 2 million remained unmarried after WWI – service was unpopular; a last resort for many. Those who’d had a taste of war work and mannish responsibilities did not want to return to domestic service, but what else could they do?

'Demobilised VAD Nurse and Ambulance Driver desires position at home or abroad or as Companion,' reads a personal ad from 1919

‘Demobilised VAD Nurse and Ambulance Driver desires position at home or abroad or as Companion,’ reads a personal ad from 1919

Mistresses seeking help were now forced to see the role from the servants’ point of view. Perks of the job began to be listed: ‘gas fires’, ‘liberal outings’ and ‘labour-saving appliances’ (these from 1920). By the 1930s employers were forced to try even harder: ‘Easy, remunerative post for a Lady Cook for Gentlefolk.’

World War II saw the tone of The Lady’s small ads change again. While editorial and advertising largely pretended that life was carrying on as normal, these ads from 1940 tell a different story. Households everywhere were being shaken up.
‘Lady-Cook-General wanted by officer’s wife, with two paying guests. Lovely country house, Sussex. Meals with Lady-Kennel-Maid.’ Or, ‘Middle aged lady, now homeless, requires post as Companion with light duties. Salary immaterial, but comfortable home, where maid kept.’ Or even, ‘Lady (German refugee) requires position of trust in gentleman’s household, where maid kept. Experienced driver. Continental cooking etc. Best English references.’

The covers might be upbeat, the features escapist – but the personal ads of The Lady often concealed personal tragedy

The covers might be upbeat, and the features escapist – but the personal ads of The Lady often concealed personal tragedy

After the war, the job-seeking columns for domestic servants shrank to one page, while the ‘Wanted’ ads placed by mistresses ran to three pages. It was the end for domestic service as the middle classes had known it. No longer was it normal to keep a housekeeper, or to have a live-in maid. Women who had never had to turn their hands to domestic duties were left high and dry. Their advertisements strike a note of faint hysteria: ‘Companion-housekeeper-cook to share comforts and work of delightful modern house, Stratford-on-Avon, 2 in family.’ ‘Excellent accommodation and generous salary and outings’ reads another from 1948; ‘Own sitting room, 2nd bathroom, electricity, bus route and stop at gate,’ goes another.

'Delightful modern house'...

‘Delightful modern house… all mod cons’ – but not a servant to be found

No longer the poor relation with the brave smile, the Lady Help now seemed to hold all the cards. By 1964 she could even be a single parent – ‘Own child not necessarily a disadvantage’ – and she would expect her own quarters: ‘Self-contained accommodation with all modern conveniences,’ which might include ‘own TV and radio.’ ‘Generous free time’ was, by now, a given. And there is something else in these 1960s small ads: ‘Applicant’s private life respected.’ These are new words.

'Own TV set'

‘Own TV set’ was a new lure by the 1960s

As is this: ‘Lady, 41, divorced with two well-behaved sons age 13 and 7. Seeks position with accommodation or live in, as cook-housekeeper. Loves cooking, gardening, decorating.’ It’s now 1977, and divorce is suddenly everywhere. Being ‘separated’ is no longer such a stigma; it might even be an asset to a potential employer. Children in tow are also, increasingly, accepted. ‘Intelligent lady with young child, requires post as housekeeper.’

One hundred years later, the small ads of The Lady still conceal private heartache, loss of dignity and sheer desperation. Those who place them are putting a brave face on life – from both sides of the servant/mistress divide. It is as well to remember that fate can be kind to a lady – but it can also turn on a sixpence.

1941 blah blah

The Lady, 1941: ‘Situations Vacant’ ads placed by women like this strike an increasingly desperate note post-war