The Invisible Servant


Convention dictated that the upper classes act as if the servants attending them did not exist. While upper servants had daily contact with their employers, lower servants were to be neither seen nor heard (except of course, at the daily family prayers). Because employers disliked seeing servants at work, much of the housework had to be done before the family or their guests came downstairs for breakfast. A strict timetable meant that both servants and family knew their places and kept to them rigidly.


To avoid unexpected encounters, servants used servants’ entrances and back corridors. Doors linked to connecting corridors were covered by screens, fake bookcases or wallpaper, so that servants could appear quietly and efficiently when called. The dining room at Emo for example, has two servants’ doors, while an underground tunnel which ran from the basement to the gardens also ensured that servants and tradesmen were not seen approaching the house.


Servants’ quarters and kitchens were located far from the main rooms of the house, in the gloomy, damp basement, and the door to the servant wing was usually lined with green baize to deaden any sounds and absorb kitchen odours. When needed upstairs, servants were summoned using the bell-pull, a complicated system of wires and chains which ran between ceiling and wall cavities and connected to a series of bells in the servants’ wing. Each bell was marked to show which room had called, and servants were expected to act immediately upon hearing the bell toll.


The Servants’ Tunnel


In his novel set at Emo Court, Fr. M. Bodkin, a Jesuit priest who lived at Emo, describes the servants’ tunnel:


“On the east side of the house there was a basement out of which an underground tunnel led to the gardens…though its first forty or fifty yards were completely covered, the roof then disappeared and the tunnel changed into a trench which grew shallower and shallower as it approached the garden…[I]ts purpose was simply to prevent the lawns and terraces of the gentry being polluted by the print of a peasant foot, or the eyes of real ladies from resting on the unpleasant sight of one of the tradespeople who supplied their needs. As the family and their guests sat upon the marble benches under the yews or walked down the paths that led to the pleasure grounds or stepped into their carriage at the front door they were blissfully unconscious of the helots who, laden with fruit and flowers, the fish and game for their table, entered their house through the arched tunnel, groping in the narrow darkness like animals in a burrow”.

                                             Fr. M. Bodkin, Borrowed Days (1942), 113-14