Friday, 3 October 2014

Situation Vacant: the Servant Problem in Edwardian England

"Mrs Hunt begs to forward the particulars of a servant"

Mrs Ellen Hunt's Servants' Agency was located at No. 86 High Street, Marylebone, London with additional premises on the Fulham Road. In 1901, when Ellen's 74 year old husband, George was described on the census as a retired printer, Ellen (two years his senior!) was still the proprietor of a 'registry office for servants'.1 Even after her permanent retirement to the coast, the London agency continued to trade under Ellen's name.2

This Edwardian employment agency form is genealogical gold dust and a rare survivor - I have never seen another one!

It was sent by Mrs Hunt's agency to Ronald Hugh Wilson Robertson (1879-1917) in March 1907 and provided the 'particulars' of Arthur J Broadfoot of 2 Craven Mews, Ealing. According to the form, Arthur was aged 36, 5 foot 7½ inches tall, 10 stone 6 lbs and married with one child. He had been in the employ of a Miss Pontifex for four years, as her groom/gardener.

If, like I did, you try looking for Arthur J Broadfoot in the census, you won't find him. For all its apparent attention to detail, the Servants' Agency failed in one vital respect: his name! Considering the notoriously high registration fees charged by registry offices to any male applicants, this was a careless mistake.3

Eventually, I discovered that Arthur J was in fact Alfred James, born one of twins, in Liverpool in 1872, the son of Joseph and Susan Broadfoot.4 Alfred moved down to London5 shortly before joining the army, aged 19 in 1891. After active service in the Anglo-Boer War, he was discharged in May 19036 and started work with Miss Pontifex soon after. His steady, live-in job enabled him to marry in December and his daughter Margaret was born the following year, in 1904.

On 27th March 1907 Ronald Robertson, wrote directly to the man he believed to be called Arthur Broadfoot, outlining his requirements, which included laundry work for Broadfoot's wife. Apart from the technical matter of whether Broadfoot could 'both ride and drive', Ronald wanted to know the age and sex of his child and whether he and his wife were 'both strictly sober'.

Alfred promptly answered all Ronald's questions, including the personal ones: his daughter was aged 2½ but 'very little trouble' and his wife was 31, 'a good cook or housemaid & would not mind doing washing'. 

In addition, Alfred asked a salary of £1 per week.

Ronald followed up on the reference, seeking reassurance that Broadfoot was 'a good man, honest & sober, willing to make himself useful'. On 10th April, Helen Pontifex of 58 Uxbridge Road, Ealing confirmed that she had never seen Alfred 'anything but sober'. Although he had always done anything she asked, she thought 'he would keep more to his work if he was under a man'. She confirmed that the wife was a good cook but she couldn't comment on her washing!

Sadly, the original invitation hasn't survived but it is obvious that Alfred went to Gloucestershire for an interview soon after Miss Pontifex's reply.

It didn't go well.

By 17th April, Alfred was requesting payment of his expenses:

travel from West Ealing to Badminton 9d
losing 1 days work 4s

total: 4s/9d

The final letter in this series was from Ronald and he far from happy:

'In reply to yours of 17th I enclose a Postal Order for 4/9, do you think it quite fair to charge 4/9 a day for two or three hours when you are out of a job? Please acknowledge it.'

***Postscript*** 10th December 2014
If you are interested in servants' employment agencies then may I recommend the new post on 'A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England' by Michelle Higgs: 'Servants' Registries: How Victorian Maids Found their Places'

1/ 1901 Census TNA Ref: RG13/959/11 p12
2/ 1911 Census TNA Ref: RG14/5336/40B
See classified advertisements in The Times including 16 June & 22nd June 1905
plus an entry in the London Post Office Directory 1910
3/ Hansard: House of Commons Debate 3rd May 1906 vol.156 c.716: Servants' Registry Office Fees
4/ GRO Births on & Baptisms, St Mary Magdalene, Liverpool on 
Lancashire Online Parish Clerk Project 
5/ 1891 Census TNA Ref: RG12/8/109 p9
6/ Service Record for Alfred James Broadfoot on TNA Ref: WO97/4418/82

© Emmy Eustace

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