Massey historian in BBC series on the real lives of servants

Wednesday 26 September 2012, 12:41PM
By Massey University

More than a million viewers are expected to watch a British documentary series on the real lives of servants beginning this week, featuring insight from a Massey historian.

The success of television shows Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs has prompted the BBC to create a three-part documentary Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.

Professor Susan Mumm, a specialist in the social, economic and religious constraints on women and domestic service in the 19th Century, was asked by the BBC to be part of the series, which begins airing in the United Kingdom on Friday September 28.

“Glossy TV programmes like Upstairs Downstairs are fun to watch, but they do a disservice to the real lives of the domestic servants they pretend to portray,” Professor Mumm says.

“Since being a servant was the largest occupation for women until after World War 1, many viewers are descended from servants, and I think it is important for people to begin to understand the lived reality of their ancestors.”

Professor Mumm, who is Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, looked at what happened when domestic service went wrong.

“Servants often got in trouble, either sexually or through the temptations of theft. Some were paid nothing, only given board and lodging. Most worked alone, in small dark houses filled with children and with employers only a little above themselves in social class.

“It isn't surprising that women in these circumstances longed for a little fun, and turned to sex for pocket money or while seeking companionship and love. Many female servants who got into trouble went to penitentiaries, which at this time were voluntarily entered by young women who needed to ‘get respectable again.”

The series is partially set in what was formerly the St Faith’s Penitentiary in Cornwall and is presented by social historian Dr Pamela Cox, who uncovers the reality of servants’ lives from the Victorian era through to the Second World War.

A century ago 1.5 million British people worked as servants, and while they are now portrayed as characters in period dramas, the real stories of Britain’s servants have largely been forgotten. Dr Cox uses specialist commentary and historical archives to understand the conditions servants lived and worked in. It reveals a complex world of suppressed passions, strict hierarchies and obsession with status and class.

The documentary is expected to draw in more than a million viewers per episode. The series is anticipated to air in New Zealand in 2013.