Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “victorian england”

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.


Four Victorian families

Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of 18 and remained the English regent until 1901 when she died, the longest reigning English monarch to date. The 1800s in England have come to be known as the Victorian Era, a time of tremendous change in which the British Empire was the greatest power in the world. It was an exciting century in which fortunes were made and empires both individual and national were built. It was a time of great optimism and great achievement, but it was also a time of poverty and suffering for many people. England may have been a paradise for the wealthy but for the poor life was a continuous struggle for survival. Even the rich were not immune to pain and suffering in a world where medical possibilities for the relief of disease and the prevention of early death were extremely limited.

For the majority of the poor there was little hope of rising above their circumstances and migration was an attractive option if they could afford it. Thousands left England every year for the new worlds of America, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The statistics indicate that between 1840 and 1860 somewhere between 4 and 5 million people left Britain, and the great majority of those who left were poor. In America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand there was the lure of gold and the dream of riches tempted many.

The Holford name is English, but as I have written before, it was not originally so; it was changed from Holdorf at the end of the First World War. John Holdorf, who arrived in Australia in 1856, was born Johann Holtorf, in the Duchy of Holstein, in present day northern Germany. John Holdorf (1828-1898), the first Australian of the Holford line, married another German migrant, Caroline Fischer. However, in the line that leads to me in any case all the subsequent Holdorfs and Holfords married British women. Charles Holdorf (1869-1954) married Florence Stacey, who though Australian born was the daughter of an English migrant. Charles Holford (1899-1977), who was the next in line and my grandfather, married Winifred Ross, whose father had come as a child to Australia from England. Ian Holford (b.1933), my dad, married Gwen Simmonds, my mum, whose father was also an English migrant, though Mum was born in Australia. As for me (b.1961), I am married to a Swede, and one of my brothers is married to an English girl. We Holfords may have a strong streak of German, but grafted in are English and Scottish, and a little further away the Irish, but they are another story.

In the mid nineteenth century when our German ancestors left Europe, there were four families in England whose descendants would be grafted into our tree. The first was the Stacey family. William Stacey was born in Bedford, north of London, in 1831. He married Caroline Hedge and they had two sons, George and William. Caroline died at a relatively young age and the boys were left motherless. When he was 16 George left England forever and settled in Australia, while his younger brother William remained with his father in England. George later married Mary Atkinson, an Australian born girl from Berrima, New South Wales and they settled in Goulburn. Their first child, Florence, married Charles Holdorf. George’s father, William, still in England, remarried and moved to London. He was a shoemaker, so he presumably did not live in poverty, but his life was unlikely to have been easy. He never saw his first son, George, again. What prompted George to leave at such an early age is uncertain. Another story waiting to be uncovered.

The second of the Victorian families was named Ross. James Ross was born in 1827 in Scotland. He married Mary Marston and they moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool where they started a family. One son was named William and he was a child when the family migrated to Australia. As a young man he married Alice Hickson and together they had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Winifred. She married Charles Holford, my grandfather.

The third family was that of George Lilley and his wife who I believe was called Mary. George was born in 1839 in Surrey, south of London. He was a farm worker. They had a son, George Frederick David, born around 1876. The younger George changed his name from Lilley to Simmonds, and married Mabel Butler. They had five children, the first of which was my grandfather, my mother’s family. He would migrate to Australia after the First World War, in 1923. His daughter Gwen would marry my father.

The fourth family, and the one I have the most information on, was the Butlers of Bristol. Mabel, as I mentioned, married George Simmonds. Her father, Ephraim, was born near Nottingham in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. He was one of a large family and his oldest brother, William, became rich and famous through his tar distillery in Bristol. That story has been partly told, but since I have more information on this family there will be more stories to follow. Ephraim followed his brother to Bristol and became a shopkeeper, selling umbrellas I believe. He married a Bristol girl called Jane Coombs and they had three daughters, the youngest of which was Mabel. However, only the first two were born in England because Ephraim and Jane decided to migrate to South Africa in the late 1860s. Jane died tragically in childbirth with Mabel, who never knew her mother. Her father, a few years later decided to return to England with his three daughters, but also died tragically on the voyage home. The three girls were orphans and were taken in by the family. Mabel’s story has also been partly told elsewhere in this blog, but there are still lots of gaps to fill in, more stories to tell.

Four Victorian families are therefore a part of our family history: the Staceys, the Rosses, the Lilleys and the Butlers. The first three were poor, the last was rich. Probably the reason I have most information on the Butlers is precisely this: their wealth. Wealthy people have always tended to leave more traces of themselves than the poor. However, the branch of the Butler family from which I am descended fell on hard times and ended up poor, with the seemingly inevitable result: emigration to Australia. The fortunes of these families were very different and each illustrates a different aspect of what it meant to be English in the nineteenth century, in the Victorian era. I hope to be able to tell more of their stories in the entries to follow.

Growing up in Victorian England

Gloucestershire, Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge from the North

Clifton Bridge, Bristol

My great grandmother, Mabel Butler, and her sister Sarah were orphans. Sarah was 11 years older than Mabel. They lost their parents in unclear circumstances when Sarah was about 14 and Mabel was 3. Their parents, Ephraim and Jane Butler, lived in Bristol when they married in 1863 and Sarah was born 2 years later. Mabel was born in South Africa in 1876, but the circumstances of her birth are also uncertain.

In 1881 Mabel was 5 and Sarah 16. Mabel lived with an adult cousin, William Butler, and his family, in St George, Bristol (see the previous blog, The Butlers of Summerhill House), while Sarah lived about 50km away in Gloucester with an aunt and uncle, William and Louisa Hemmings and their son, William who like Sarah was 16 that year. Oddly, Mabel also lived with a cousin named William who was of the same age – William Butler, the first son of William and Esther.

As mentioned in the previous blog, Mabel as a five year old lived in a fairly well-to-do home. Her adopted family, the Butlers, had a successful family business in the manufacture of chemicals, chiefly tar. The Hemmings family were probably not as prosperous, but the fact that the census lists a domestic servant (Martha Monk, age 24) as part of the household, and that they had the means to take in not just Sarah who was 16 but also another cousin, Roberta Russell, who was 13 in 1881, suggests that they were reasonably well off. William Hemmings was a potato merchant and farmer according to the record, and both Sarah and her cousin William were assistants in the business, Their address, 79 Northgate Street, Gloucester, is however in town, so if William was a farmer he must have had property in the country too. I wonder how much contact Sarah had with her little sister in Bristol?

Sometime between 1881 and 1891 Sarah met and married Albert May, and moved back to Bristol. In 1891 she was 26, living with Albert at Staple Hill, Mangotsfield, which is in current day Bristol about 5km northeast of St George, where Mabel had lived with her relatives as a younger girl. But by 1891 Mabel, now 15, had moved in with Sarah and Albert, who had no children at that stage. Albert was a traveling salesman and Sarah is listed as a draper, a cloth merchant. Mabel worked as an assistant for her older sister.

Mabel then, despite her mysterious and rather exotic origins in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, grew up largely in Bristol in Victorian England in the 1880s and 90s. Bristol must have been an exciting place to live then, a thriving and growing industrial city. The engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was perhaps one of its most famous inhabitants, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864, the year before Sarah was born, stands today as a monument to his many achievements. Bristol was the home of Methodism after John Wesley had founded the first Methodist Chapel there in the 1700s, and during the 1800s this movement bore fruit with the growing middle class beginning to engage in charitable works: George Müller, for example, founded his orphanage in 1836.

Thomas Hardy was a well known novelist of the time: Tess of the D’Urbervilles came out in that census year of 1891, to a mixed reception. In fact, the Oxford Companion to English Literature says “the publication of the novel created a violent sensation” being seen by many reviewers as “immoral, pessimistic and extremely disagreeable.” I don’t imagine that Mabel read it, not at the age of 15 anyway, but perhaps Sarah was tempted to see just what all the fuss was about.

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