Family Servants, by Washington Irving
Hall, or The Humorists
Verily old servants are the vouchers of worthy housekeeping. They
are like rats in a mansion, or mites in a cheese, bespeaking the
antiquity and fatness of their abode.
In my casual anecdotes of the Hall, I may often he tempted to dwell on
circumstances of a trite and ordinary nature, from their appearing to
me illustrative of genuine national character. It seems to be the
study of the Squire to adhere, as much as possible, to what he
considers the old landmarks of English manners. His servants all
understand his ways, and for the most part have been accustomed to
them from infancy; so that, upon the whole, his household presents one
of the few tolerable specimens that can now be met with, of the
establishment of an English country gentleman of the old school.
By the by, the servants are not the least characteristic part of the
household: the housekeeper, for instance, has been born and brought up
at the Hall, and has never been twenty miles from it; yet she has a
stately air, that would not disgrace a lady that had figured at the
court of Queen Elizabeth.
I am half inclined to think that she has caught it from living so much
among the old family pictures. It may, however, be owing to a
consciousness of her importance in the sphere in which she has always
moved; for she is greatly respected in the neighbouring village, and
among the farmers' wives, and has high authority in the household,
ruling over the servants with quiet, but undisputed sway.
She is a thin old lady, with blue eyes and pointed nose and chin. Her
dress is always the same as to fashion. She wears a small,
well-starched ruff, a laced stomacher, full petticoats, and a gown
festooned and open in front, which, on particular occasions, is of
ancient silk, the legacy of some former dame of the family, or an
inheritance from her mother, who was housekeeper before her. I have a
reverence for these old garments, as I make no doubt they have figured
about these apartments in days long past, when they have set off the
charms of some peerless family beauty; and I have sometimes looked
from the old housekeeper to the neighbouring portraits, to see whether
I could not recognize her antiquated brocade in the dress of some one
of those long-waisted dames that smile on me from the walls.
Her hair, which is quite white, is frizzed out in front, and she wears
over it a small cap, nicely plaited, and brought down under the chin.
Her manners are simple and primitive, heightened a little by a proper
dignity of station.
The Hall is her world, and the history of the family the only history
she knows, excepting that which she has read in the Bible. She can
give a biography of every portrait in the picture gallery, and is a
complete family chronicle.
She is treated with great consideration by the Squire. Indeed, Master
Simon tells me that there is a traditional anecdote current among the
servants, of the Squire's having been seen kissing her in the picture
gallery, when they were both young. As, however, nothing further was
ever noticed between them, the circumstance caused no great scandal;
only she was observed to take to reading Pamela shortly afterwards,
and refused the hand of the village inn-keeper, whom she had
previously smiled on.
The old butler, who was formerly footman, and a rejected admirer of
hers, used to tell the anecdote now and then, at those little cabals
that will occasionally take place among the most orderly servants,
arising from the common propensity of the governed to talk against
administration; but he has left it off, of late years, since he has
risen into place, and shakes his head rebukingly when it is mentioned.
It is certain that the old lady will, to this day, dwell on the looks
of the Squire when he was a young man at college; and she maintains
that none of his sons can compare with their father when he was of
their age, and was dressed out in his full suit of scarlet, with his
hair craped and powdered, and his three-cornered hat.
She has an orphan niece, a pretty, soft-hearted baggage, named Phoebe
Wilkins, who has been transplanted to the Hall within a year or two,
and been nearly spoiled for any condition of life. She is a kind of
attendant and companion of the fair Julia's; and from loitering about
the young lady's apartments, reading scraps of novels, and inheriting
second-hand finery, has become something between a waiting-maid and a
slipshod fine lady.
She is considered a kind of heiress among the servants, as she will
inherit all her aunt's property; which, if report be true, must be a
round sum of good golden guineas, the accumulated wealth of two
housekeepers' savings; not to mention the hereditary wardrobe, and the
many little valuables and knick-knacks, treasured up in the
housekeepers' room. Indeed, the old housekeeper has the reputation,
among the servants and the villagers, of being passing rich; and there
is a japanned chest of drawers, and a large iron-bound coffer in her
room, which are supposed, by the house-maids, to hold treasures of
The old lady is a great friend of Master Simon, who, indeed, pays a
little court to her, as to a person high in authority; and they have
many discussions on points of family history, in which,
notwithstanding his extensive information, and pride of knowledge, he
commonly admits her superior accuracy. He seldom returns to the Hall,
after one of his visits to the other branches of the family, without
bringing Mrs. Wilkins some remembrance from the ladies of the house
where he has been staying.
Indeed, all the children of the house look up to the old lady with
habitual respect and attachment, and she seems almost to consider them
as her own, from their having grown up under her eye. The Oxonian,
however, is her favourite, probably from, being the youngest, though
he is the most mischievous, and has been apt to play tricks upon her
I cannot help mentioning one little ceremony, which, I believe, is
peculiar to the Hall. After the cloth is removed at dinner, the old
housekeeper sails into the room and stands behind the Squire's chair,
when he fills her a glass of wine with his own hands, in which she
drinks the health of the company in a truly respectful yet dignified
manner, and then retires. The Squire received the custom from his
father, and has always continued it.
There is a peculiar character about the servants of old English
families that reside principally in the country. They have a quiet,
orderly, respectful mode of doing their duties. They are always neat
in their persons, and appropriately, and if I may use the phrase,
technically dressed; they move about the house without hurry or noise;
there is nothing of the bustle of employment, or the voice of command;
nothing of that obtrusive housewifery that amounts to a torment. You
are not persecuted by the process of making you comfortable; yet every
thing is done, and is done well. The work of the house is performed as
if by magic, but it is the magic of system. Nothing is done by fits
and starts, nor at awkward seasons; the whole goes on like well-oiled
clock-work, where there is no noise nor jarring in its operations.
English servants, in general, are not treated with great indulgence,
nor rewarded by many commendations; for the English are laconic and
reserved toward their domestics; but an approving nod and a kind word
from master or mistress, goes as far here, as an excess of praise or
indulgence elsewhere. Neither do servants often exhibit any animated
marks of affection to their employers; yet, though quiet, they are
strong in their attachments; and the reciprocal regard of masters and
servants, though not ardently expressed, is powerful and lasting in
old English families.
The title of "an old family servant" carries with it a thousand kind
associations, in all parts of the world; and there is no claim upon
the home-bred charities of the heart more irresistible than that of
having been "born in the house." It is common to see gray-headed
domestics of this kind attached to an English family of the "old
school," who continue in it to the day of their death, in the
enjoyment of steady, unaffected kindness, and the performance of
faithful, unofficious duty. I think such instances of attachment speak
well for both master and servant, and the frequency of them speaks
well for national character.
These observations, however, hold good only with families of the
description I have mentioned; and with such as are somewhat retired,
and pass the greater part of their time in the country.
As to the powdered menials that throng the halls of fashionable town
residences, they equally reflect the character of the establishments
to which they belong; and I know no more complete epitomes of
dissolute heartlessness and pampered inutility.
But, the good "old family servant!"—the one who has always been
linked, in idea, with the home of our heart; who has led us to school
in the days of prattling childhood; who has been the confidant of our
boyish cares, and schemes, and enterprises; who has hailed us as we
came home at vacations, and been the promoter of all our holiday
sports; who, when we, in wandering manhood, have left the paternal
roof, and only return thither at intervals—will welcome us with a,
joy inferior only to that of our parents; who, now grown gray and
infirm with age, still totters about the house of our fathers, in fond
and faithful servitude; who claims us, in a manner, as his own; and
hastens with querulous eagerness to anticipate his fellow-domestics in
waiting upon us at table; and who, when we retire at night to the
chamber that still goes by our name, will linger about the room to
have one more kind look, and one more pleasant word about times that
are past—who does not experience towards such a being a feeling of
almost filial affection?
I have met with several instances of epitaphs on the gravestones of
such valuable domestics, recorded with the simple truth of natural
feeling. I have two before me at this moment; one copied from a
tombstone of a church-yard in Warwickshire:
"Here lieth the body of Joseph Batte, confidential servant to George
Birch, Esq., of Hamstead Hall. His grateful friend and master caused
this inscription to be written in memory of his discretion, fidelity,
diligence, and continence. He died (a bachelor) aged 84, having lived
44 years in the same family."
The other was taken from a tombstone in Eltham churchyard:
"Here lie the remains of Mr. James Tappy, who departed this life on
the 8th of September, 1818, aged 84, after a faithful service of 60
years in one family; by each individual of which he lived respected,
and died lamented by the sole survivor."
Few monuments, even of the illustrious, have given me the glow about
the heart that I felt while copying this honest epitaph in the
church-yard of Eltham. I sympathized with this "sole survivor" of a
family mourning over the grave of the faithful follower of his race,
who had been, no doubt, a living memento of times and friends that had
passed away; and in considering this record of long and devoted
service, I called to mind the touching speech of Old Adam, in "As You
Like It," when tottering after the youthful son of his ancient master:
"Master, go on, and I will follow thee
To the last gasp, with love and loyalty!"
[NOTE.—I cannot but mention a tablet which I have seen somewhere in
the chapel of Windsor Castle, put up by the late king to the memory of
a family servant, who had been a faithful attendant of his lamented
daughter, the Princess Amelia. George III. possessed much of the
strong domestic feeling of the old English country gentleman; and it
is an incident curious in monumental history, and creditable to the
human heart, a monarch erecting a monument in honour of the humble
virtues of a menial.]