Domestic Servants and the Law (UK 1930s)

Found -- an old diary that was sold at D. H. Evans department stores--  Ladies' Year Book and Diary for 1932. It had no diary entries and the blotter was unused. There were just a few pencilled notes of domestic use ('tinned meat and fish will keep for 5 years') to add to the many printed practical notes at the front - including this piece mostly on the law relating to servants. At this time this would have been of some use to middle class households as servants were still common. How the servant would go about enforcing the law is not dealt with…did they have a copy at Downton?

Domestic Servants

The terms of employment of domestic and other servants are dependent on their contract of service. 

Unless an agreement has been made to the contrary, domestic servants are engaged on a monthly contract, requiring one month's notice on either side, or a month's wages in lieu of notice. An agreement made at an interview is as binding and enforceable as one made in writing. The only time written evidence is required is where the employment is to continue for more than a year and both employer and employee intend that neither shall give notice to terminate the arrangement within a time.

When a servant has been engaged and refuses to come, or an employer changes her mind about a servant she has engaged, neither is obliged to carry out her contract, but the employer would in many cases be entitled to compensation, and the unwanted servant to a month's wages.

As a rule a servant is justified in asking for proper notice, but in certain circumstances she can be dismissed without this. When a servant is wilfully disobedient, or neglects to obey reasonable orders, is incompetent to render the services for which she was engaged, unlawfully keeps away from her work, is dishonest, or persistently drunk, no notice is required.

Refusal to carry out duties outside the scope of a servant's employment is not sufficient cause for summary dismissal.

A servant wrongfully dismissed has the right of taking an action for damages. She is justified in leaving without notice if her employer does not provide proper food, or treats her badly in any way. In such cases the servant would be justified in claiming damages, usually a month's wages.

The death of an employer terminates the contract with the servant. The employment can for any reason be ended with a month's notice, unless otherwise agreed, or by the payment of a month's wages in lieu of notice. Notice need not be given on the day of the month on which wages are usually paid, but may be given on any day to expire a month from that date.

If a servant leave without sufficient reason she is entitled to wages only for the last completed month of service, and she can claim no wages in respect to any part of the month during which she wrongfully leaves.

No employer is bound to give a charter to a servant, but if such is given it must be a truthful one. If the employer really believes the character given to be true, it is a privileged communication. But if a false character is wilfully given, the person giving it is liable to an action for slander or libel. If on the other hand an employed gives a good character where it is not derived and a third person is let down by it, the employer will be liable to compensate the injured person for any damages entailed.

An employer is not justified in dismissing a servant for temporary illness without notice. Neither is an employer compelled to provide medical attendance or medicine, but if she send for her own doctor she is liable for the doctor's fees, and may not deduct them or the cost of any medicine from the servant's wages.

Under the Workmen's Compensation Act, a master must compensate a servant for accidents occurring in or arising out of his employment. For the payment of a small annual premium Insurance Companies insure against this liability. It is necessary to be acquainted with the conditions of the policy, so that proper steps can be taken immediately in the case of an accident. An accident should be reported to the employer at once, and the insurance company noticed without delay. In the event of an insured person being engaged by two or more employers in the same week, it is open to the employees to come to an agreement to pay the contributions in turn. If no such agreement has been made the responsibility rests with the first employer in the week.

2 thoughts on “Domestic Servants and the Law (UK 1930s)

  1. Anonymous

    1932 was certainly late in the game for the age of household servants. My grandfather was a butler from 1917 until 1962 in houses of varying degrees of grandness and had endless stories about the drama that went on among the rotating hordes of footmen, housekeepers, maids, etc. He never had a negative word to say about his employers, as stingy or eccentric as they probably were, but he had much to say about the misbehaviour of staff under his watch. According to him, everything went to hell in a hand basket during and after the war when life "in service" became less appealing than ever. Due to the great shortage of staff, much was forgiven, from near ineptitude to moderate drunkenness, especially among positions that were vital to the basic running of a great house such as a housekeeper, cook, or gardener. In the 1930's, footmen were virtually extinct, even in the 100-room house he managed at the time, unless paid exorbitant sums. Maids of all stripes gave him the most trouble and he remained perplexed until the day he died that so many of them gave up regular pay, room, and board during such difficult financial times for a multitude of reasons, usually mild criticism over their job performance. Even the few remaining country houses that operated on a relatively grand scale in the 1930's and 1940's often had to take on staff devoid of any experience and who bristled at class distinction. He recalled one maid, who on her first day, managed to stain an Aubusson with red wine, break a pair of Meissen vases while dusting, and fall asleep in her employer's bed during an unauthorised break. She stormed out when my grandfather and the equally exasperated housekeeper pointed out her errors. As far as a "wrongfully dismissed servant taking action for damages"…Well, the employer almost always had the upper hand because a good reference was vital to securing any future job upon leaving, but it was quite common for a disgruntled servant to leave with something of value, usually small enough to fit in a small piece of luggage, to serve as "damages."
    Every time I hear someone on the Antiques Roadshow say that a piece of silver or a Ming vase was given to their great-aunt for her loyal service as a maid I smile and remember many an ending to one of my grandfather's stories: "After she stormed out, we discovered that the silver cruet set/Elizabethan spoon/Cartier travel clock left with her!"
    He would have found Downton Abbey about as realistic as a Disney film about mermaids. I wish he had written a book.

  2. Anonymous

    "Every time I hear someone on the Antiques Roadshow say that a piece of silver or a Ming vase was given to their great-aunt for her loyal service as a maid"

    I always find that immensely amusing – I wonder if the 'owners' actually believe these households summarily stripped themselves of possessions acting as a gift-shop for departing employees?!

    The other staple backstory is the gift that was given in recognition of a kindness to "an old neighbour we used to help"…the 'help' presumably being of the 'themselves' persuasion, and to anything they could squirrel out of the poor soul's house.


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