WAGES IN HISTORY – A BUTLER’S PAY AND TOP HAT CARE

Almost any historical report could be improved by a bit of costs comparison, it seems to me, and I picked up on the extracts below with the vague idea of starting a file on the subject.

First quotes are from a Telegraph review by Kate Summerscale, in 2005, of Victorian London: the Life of a City 1840-1870, by Liza Picard …

‘In his Manual of Domestic Economy (1867), William Bernhard Tegetmeier, pigeon and poultry editor of The Field, appraised the expenses of a London carpenter. The carpenter, with his wife and three children, lived on £1 12s a week – about £70 in our terms. He spent 5s 6d on the rent of two rooms, 2s 6d on clothes, 4s 3d on meat (this bought 8½lb), 1s 9d on butter (that is, 1½lb), 2s 4d on beer, 4d on schooling, 1s 6d on tools and 2d on periodicals.

‘The carpenter’s meat bill was “large”, observed Tegetmeier, his beer bill “unnecessarily large”, and the amount he spent on butter ridiculous. “If the people of this country could be prevailed upon to use oatmeal for breakfast, as the Scotch and north country folks do, there would be no such items in a working man’s expenditure as Butter, 1s 9d.”

‘Having quoted Tegetmeier, Liza Picard takes issue with him: “But surely there would be an item for sugar, or even treacle,” she objects. “Only native-born Scots can face unsweetened porridge for breakfast.” She and Tegetmeier are two of a kind – inquisitive, pragmatic and very finicky.

Victorian London, the last in Picard’s quartet of books about the social history of the city, has much in common with a 19th-century domestic manual. It is packed with practical detail on matters of fact and etiquette, the information leavened with pert asides. It earns its authority by drawing on dozens of primary sources.

‘What could you eat in London if you were poor, Picard asks, and had no stove? Breakfast might be taken at a street stall – a couple of slices of bread and butter, perhaps, with a cup of gin and hot milk, or of coffee blended with chicory and baked carrot. For lunch and dinner, street vendors sold eels, oysters, shrimps, watercress, as well as hot meat puddings, pea soup and sheep’s trotters.’

 

Jad Adams, reviewing same book, 21.9.2005, wrote  …

‘Cowcumbers” (cucumbers) were popular until it was rumoured that they were infested with cholera. In fact, it was watercress, cultivated in streams thick with sewage, that was the carrier. Tegetmeier had a tip for the hungry: “If you are very poor,” he wrote, “spend nearly all your money on bread.”

‘Picard wonders how a 19th-century woman might clean a silk dress. The answer was to sponge it first with ox gall or soap, and then with gin or, ideally, whisky.  Should one dry washing on a line? In a suburban house that cost between £40 and £50 a year, The Magazine of Domestic Economy advised in 1844, it was fine to hang out the washing. “But to hang out clothes in the garden of a house of £70 to £80 rent would be a profanation,” it warned; the household “would be set down as low and vulgar and shunned accordingly”.

‘How did a gentleman make sure his top hat didn’t get shabby? He stroked it to restore the nap, and if it was caught in the rain dried it gently with a silk cloth. “It needs as much care as a small pet,” says Picard. From 1850 he could also protect it with an umbrella, newly patented and available for hire at stalls throughout the city.

‘What hours would a middle-class man expect to work? In a respectable job, he should reach the office at 10am and leave at 4pm. As a post-office clerk in the 1840s, Anthony Trollope spent more than two of these six hours over lunch and a game of écarté. He was paid about £2 a week for his trouble – not much more than Tegetmeier’s carpenter, but the carpenter would have put in a 12-hour day.

‘Where could you buy a cockatoo? Sailors in the East End sold them at 50s or so. A coach? Every third building in Long Acre, Covent Garden, housed a coachmaker. A live turtle for dinner? The landlord of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street, in the City, kept a supply in a tank in his cellar.

‘Picard’s asides can be silly – the carriages of the rich are “the stretch limos of the day”, she tells us. And her treatment of the big, familiar Victorian subjects – the building of the railways and the sewage system, prison reform, the royal marriage, Anglo-Catholicism, and so on – is often cursory and flat. But she is wonderfully curious about the commonplace.

‘When the French scholar Hippolyte Taine visited the dazzling new London railway stations in the mid-19th century, he was amused by the scenes before him: the “travelling English people provided with so many kinds of field and perspective glasses, umbrellas and iron-tipped sticks, capes, woollens, waterproofs and greatcoats, with so many necessaries, utensils, books and newspapers, that in their place I should have stayed at home”. Liza Picard shares Victorian Londoners’ enthusiasm for their bits and bobs. Her book works best when she ignores the bigger picture and closes in on the sticks, capes, umbrellas and perspective glasses.’

 

Also notedin Gdn  – and of new interest thanks to Downton Abbey – from Return Passage, memoirs of Violet Markham, 1953, reprinted 2006 …

‘Very significant is the record of the servants’ wages. From 1873 to 1888 we were a family of seven with a staff which varied between seven and eight persons. There is surprisingly little variation in the totals spent at Tapton, which, broadly speaking, fluctuated between £2,500 and £3,000 per annum. Our standard of life was that of a prosperous family, but there was no waste and no extravagance.

‘Between 1878 and 1891 education for the family of five cost £4,541.

‘Apart from the 1868 figures, when the cost of six servants, including cook and nurse, was £87 for the year, the changes are slight. In 1908 the total paid for seven servants was £186.

‘The butler, paid £50 per annum in 1878, had advanced by stages to £55 in 1910. Elizabeth, the cook, paid £35 in 1878, was a special person who had lived with my grandmother, and doubtless her wages for that reason were higher than otherwise they would have been at the period. In 1908 Spooner, the cook, is still paid £35; and it is in 1910 that the figure advances to £41.

‘For seven years after my Mother’s death in 1912 I was mistress of Tapton. Looking at my accounts, I can see how costs have soared. The First World War shattered the old system: the Second swept its remnants into limbo and left the owners of large houses (who had been waited on all their lives) to do their own work and to cook their own food.

‘A hated and unpopular form of employment has vanished for ever in its old form, and today few things in the national economy are more important than to re-establish it on a different but acceptable basis.

‘It is idle and unfair to judge one generation by the standard of its successor. The point of criticism today is not the duties but the lack of leisure.

‘The maids were expected to do household mending from 3 p.m. till 6.30 p.m. with a break for tea. The time-table, however, bears out the oft-heard complaint that a housemaid’s job is never done. The maids were on hand from 6 30 a.m. to 9 45 p.m. The lack of leisure during the day was conspicuous. It must be remembered, however, that the corresponding hours in shops and factories were equally long.’

 

One starting point for more on all this would be http://historyofwages.blogspot.co.uk/

 

**

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