On Servants and Service

Right-wing veteran Tory, Christopher Chope, has become the object of scornful derision because, in an unguarded moment, he referred to to those waitresses and waiters employed in the House of Commons (heavily subsidised) restaurant not as ‘waiters and waitresses’, nor indeed as ‘catering staff’, but rather – most revealingly and against the ‘etiquette’ of the day – simply as ‘servants’. He was, it seems, applauding the fact that there were three employees available to attend to the needs and wants of each and every person who ‘sat down’. The opposition, we are told, hooting with laughter, pounced gleefully on this gift of a gaffe. They, of course, do not have ‘servants’: they know better; rather, they have ‘staff’, ‘hired help’, housekeepers and nannies, or, more prosaically, ‘a woman that does’.

What has struck me most about this incident and the way it has been reported is the way has been the awareness on both sides of the House that the language of servitude is embarrassing. After all, we are supposed to believe, aren’t we, that we are all middle class now? Do we believe it, though? I don’t. And I don’t think they do either.

The truth, I suspect, is that, whether Conservative or Li-Dem or, indeed, (shamefully) Labour, most of our illustrious parliamentarians would look down their noses at me quite as much as their forefathers would have done my grandmother, Matilda Jane Ottley, later Tallett, was was, in fact, a ‘servant’ and, by all accounts, a very fine one, too.

My grandmother began her life in service as a humble kitchen maid. When, eventually, she left it, many years later, she was a happily married woman, mother to her first child, Henry, my father, and a more than competent cook. Later in her life she would do many things – run a fruit and vegetable shop and work both as a cleaner and in munitions – but it was the dozen or so years spent in service in London of which she was most proud.

Yes, my grandmother was proud of her work and she talked to me often about it. She worked ‘below stairs’ in many fine and well-respected households including that of Lord Ellis who refused to use her proper name. (He called her not Matilda but ‘Pada’, though for what reason she never knew.) It was Lord Ellis, however, who tested her honesty by leaving two bright silver half-crowns in the hallway for her to find, afterwards casually mentioning that he had ‘lost’ a small sum of money. Had she happened to find any money or did she know where it might be found?

My grandmother, always respectful, dipped him a curtesy.

‘If you mean, my lord, the five shillings you meant to catch me out with, then the money is just where you left it.’

Lord Ellis, apparently, coloured a little but did not press the point. What my grandmother did not tell him, which he later discovered, was that the coins were now glued fast to the linoleum. The butler told her later that it was only with some difficulty that they prised free with the aid of a knife.

‘He never ever mentioned it,’ she said, smiling as she told me the story, but, in all the years i worked there, he never tried to catch me out again.’

 

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