Forgotten tales

stories of my family

James Ross: a servant in Victorian England, 1851

The Victorian age was one of great wealth and great poverty. The poor served the wealthy. It is slightly disturbing to read about the nature of society at that time, especially when it is seen through modern eyes. Bill Bryson describes this world in his typical entertaining style:

It was unquestionably a strange world. Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm’s reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it. (At Home, Bill Bryson, p.102)

Some of the bigger houses had dozens of servants, Bryson mentions that “a large country house typically had forty indoor staff. The bachelor Earl of Lonsdale lived alone but had forty nine people to look after him… Outdoor staff swelled the ranks further… At Elvedeen, the Guiness family estate in Suffolk, the household employed sixteen gamekeepers, twenty-eight warreners (for culling rabbits) and two dozen miscellaneous hands – seventy seven people in all – just to make sure they and their guests always had plenty of flustered birds to blow to smithereens.”

Bryson, in his book draws freely on a well known publication of the Victorian age, The Book of Household Management (1861), by Mrs Isabella Beeton. He comments that

often the hardest work was in smaller households, where one servant might have to do the work of two or three elsewhere. Mrs Beeton, predictably, had a great deal to say about how many servants one should have depending on financial position and breeding. Someone of noble birth, she decreed, would require at least twenty five servants. A person earning £1000 a year needed five – a cook, two housemaids, a nursemaid and a footman. The minimum for a middle class, professional household was three: parlourmaid, housemaid and cook. Even someone on as little as £150 a year was deemed wealthy enough to employ a maid-of-all-work… Mrs Beeton herself had four servants. (At Home, p.108)

There were huge numbers of servants in Victorian England. Bryson observes

By 1851, one third of all the young women in London – those aged from about fifteen to twenty-five – were servants… The total number of servants in London, male and female, was greater than the total populations of all but the six largest English cities. It was very much a female world. Females in service in 1851 outnumbered males by ten to one. (At Home, p.96)

James Ross, my grandmother’s grandfather, was one of the male servants, though the house where he found a position was not in London, but in a town called Great Malvern in the west of England. Servants almost always came from the lower classes of society. James was an immigrant from the Scottish highlands. Born in 1827, he, like many others, left his native land sometime between 1841 and 1851, and moved south to England, in search of a better life. He was one of a large family in a small rural community on Dornoch Firth in Ross and Cromarty, on the eastern side of Scotland north of Inverness. It is likely that there was simply not enough work to sustain him, as well as all his siblings. His father was a blacksmith, and the family business was not enough for all the boys in the family. He had two older brothers, Donald and John, as well as five younger brothers. At least one of these, John, who was a year older than James, became a blacksmith.

James decided to seek his fortune in the south. It may have been economic necessity that pushed him away from his native land, but I suspect there was an element of the adventurer in him too. He dreamt of distant places, and his first step away from home on his life’s journey was to England. Whether he ever returned to Scotland is hard to know. Servants in the 1840s and 50s had few if any holidays. Even by the Edwardian period in the early 1900s most servants had only half a day off a week, and one full day a month. James would have had few opportunities to go home to visit his family.

According to the 1851 census James at the age of 24 was a servant at Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern, employed by a Mrs Ann Warwick, a forty five year old widow and “proprietor of houses.” This house should not be confused with the famous stately home by the same name in Derbyshire, a popular destination nowadays for tourists looking for an experience of a real English stately home, and familiar to many who have never been there because of the films in which it has featured, one of which, Pride and Prejudice (2005) depicts all the glories of the aristocracy at the beginning of the 1800s, which was before the Victorian era in England. A picture of the Chatsworth House in Great Malvern in which James Ross lived and worked can easily be found by a quick internet search, and it reveals a far less imposing structure, a plain house of four storeys and an attic, nowadays apparently divided into flats, and looking decidedly ragged around the edges.

Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern

Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern

As dog eared as it appears today, it would appear that Chatsworth House in the middle of the nineteenth century was somewhat more respectable, typical of a “person earning £1000 a year” (by Mrs Beeton’s description), since the census indicates five servants, James Ross, Mary Furmage and three others: two housemaids, Hannah Pearce (25) and Sarah Ballinger (16) and the cook, Elizabeth Howells (39). Mary Furmage was presumably the housekeeper, while James, the only male in the house, must have been butler and footman in one person. Mary was also a native of Ross and Cromarty in Scotland. A quick look into her ancestry indicates that her mother’s maiden name was Ross, making me wonder if she may have been a cousin of James. She was some six years older than James, and may well have been working at Chatsworth before James. Perhaps it was through a family connection with Mary that James gained his position in the household.

Extract from 1851 England census for Malvern

Extract from 1851 England census for Malvern

Male servants in Victorian households performed a variety of duties. The senior male servant was the butler, but there were also valets, houseboys and footmen. “Footmen did most of the public jobs in the household – answered the door, served at table, delivered messages.” In country houses the outdoor staff were usually male too. James, being the only male servant, probably did many different jobs, but perhaps he would be best described as a footman. His life was probably not particularly easy. Bryson in his book quotes the novelist George Moore, who “wrote from experience in his memoir, Confessions of a Young Man, the lot of a servant was to spend seventeen hours a day *drudging in and out of the kitchen, running upstairs with coals and breakfasts and cans of hot water, or down on your knees before a grate… The lodgers sometimes threw you a kind word, but never one that recognised you as one of our kin; only the pity that might be extended to a dog.”

Exactly what was the nature of Mrs Warwick’s business is hard to discern. What was a “proprietor of houses?” I wonder. The census indicates that as well as the Ann Warwick and her staff there were six visitors present in the house on the day of counting. Mr and Mrs Jeffcock were a middle aged couple from the north, presumably Yorkshire. Mr Jeffcock was a magistrate and alderman and proprietor of coal mines. Like Mrs Warwick herself, they were members of the growing middle class. Three others who were visiting the house on the day of the census were apparently sisters – Elizabeth, Wilhelmina and Johanna Mathison, aged between 58 and 42, appear also to have been Scottish, although in their case from Sutherland Shire, just to the north of Ross. The sixth visitor in the house that day was Louise Starkey, aged 32, from Worcestershire. Perhaps all of these “visitors” were people who had come to Malvern for one reason or another and were looking for somewhere to live. Perhaps a proprietor of houses was the equivalent of a modern estate agent, and Mrs Warwick was helping them to find a new or a temporary home.

In the front garden of Chatsworth House there is a pool which is fed by spring waters from the Malvern Hills. There is a description of the pool and the house on a website entitled Springs, Spouts, Fountains and Holy Wells of the Malvern Hills:

This water feature dates from the mid-nineteenth century when Chatsworth House was built circa 1848 on the Grange Estate. By 1855 the house is recorded as being owned by Ann Warwick. There was a plentiful supply of spring water in the vicinity to feed the pool and it remains in water to this day. Like its neighbours Fonthill, Tintern House and The Establishment, it had a domestic supply of spring water from the Mason Tank. This was a large water tank that the landowning Mason family had built some years earlier, where the Baptist Church is now. Water in the tank was always in short supply in the summer, so a garden feature like this must have had a supply directly from the hills.


We know from the census that the wealthy widow, Ann Warwick, already lived in, and presumably owned, Chatsworth House in 1851. The house was therefore just three years old by then, and it is possible that James had been there since it was built. Whether Mrs Warwick herself had the house built, or whether it was her husband before he died, is hard to say. To the modern mind it seems odd that a single woman could need a domestic staff of five people, but as Bryson points out in his book, the number of servants seems to have been more a reflection of the owner’s social status and annual income, than of the need for servants. Ann Warwick was clearly a woman of moderate wealth and presumably some influence, and her house and its servants were an indicator of this.

There are two other houses in Abbey Road which are similar to Chatsworth in architectural style – one called Salisbury House (previously Fonthill) and the other Tintern House. They appear to have been built around the same time. Some of the other Abbey Road houses are a good bit more attractive and impressive than Chatsworth House. There is a description of them on another website, with a page devoted to “a stroll down Abbey Road”. It is a pleasant road in a pleasant part of England.

Malvern in the 1850s was a rapidly expanding health spa, known for the healthy properties of the water from springs in the Malvern Hills. The following description comes from Wikipedia:

Malvern expanded rapidly as a residential spa. Several large hotels and many of the large villas in Malvern date from its heyday. Many smaller hotels and guest houses were built between about 1842 and 1875. By 1855 there were already 95 hotels and boarding houses and by 1865 over a quarter of the town’s 800 houses were boarding and lodging houses. Most were in Great Malvern, the town centre, while others were in the surrounding settlements of Malvern Wells, Malvern Link, North Malvern and West Malvern.

Perhaps this gives a clue as to Ann Warwick’s profession as “proprietor of houses.” Clearly there was a huge demand for accommodation in Malvern in the mid 1800s and in the days before telephone and internet new arrivals needed an agent to help them find somewhere to stay. Hence the presence, presumably, of so many “visitors” on the day of the census in 1851, the 30th of March. Perhaps the house had rooms where people could stay until their lodging was available, or while they were looking around. James Ross, as the only male member of staff, would have had his work cut out for him, as would the cook, the housekeeper and the housemaids. But how he ended up in Malvern after a childhood in the Scottish Highlands is still a mystery.

He did not stay long in Malvern. Somewhere and somehow he met Mary Marston, a girl some years younger than him. They married and moved to Wales, close to where Mary had grown up and where her parents and brothers were still living. I have wondered whether Mary had entered service too at Chatsworth House. Her father was a carpenter and it seems unlikely that they were wealthy enough to come to Malvern to take the waters. James and Mary’s first child was born in Wales in 1855, so James must have left his job at Malvern in 1853 or 54. He subsequently trained as a carpenter, becoming a joiner and journeyman. It seems likely that he learnt the trade from his father-in-law. It must surely have been a better life than that of a servant in Victorian Malvern.

It is an odd coincidence that James Ross, who ended up in Australia, lived for some years in a town famous for the healing power of its water. In the far north of Germany, in Schleswig-Holstein, a young man named Johan Holtorf was planning at the same time (the 1850s) to migrate to Australia. Johan lived in the Bad Bramstedt area, also known for the healing power of its waters, and the site of a number of health spas. Johan’s grandson, Charles Holford would marry James’ granddaughter, Winifred Ross in Sydney many years later. Charles and Winifred were my grandparents.

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2 thoughts on “James Ross: a servant in Victorian England, 1851

  1. Very interesting. About 60 years later, CS Lewis was to attend school in Malvern, and later in life, as Wikipedia notes, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are among the authors that have frequented Malvern. Legend states that, after drinking in a Malvern pub one winter evening, they were walking home when it started to snow. They saw a lamp post shining out through the snow and Lewis turned to his friends and said “that would make a very nice opening line to a book”.

  2. Thanks Pete. I saw a reference to CS Lewis in Malvern but hadn’t heard the “legend” about the lamp post in the snow. I love these little stories and connections…

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