Written in the Walls – Class Divisions in Outport Newfoundland and Labrador
“The idea which underlies all is simply this. The family constitute one community: the servants another.”
Robert Kerr, The Gentleman’s House, Or, How to Plan English Residences,
from the Parsonage to the Palace, 1871
The O’Reilly House Museum and Rosedale Manor Bed and Breakfast are two well-regarded highlights of the heritage landscape in Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador. The latter is owned by local artist Christopher Newhook and Lori Pretty, a primary schoolteacher. Meanwhile, the Placentia Area Historical Society own and operate the O’Reilly House Museum.
No one would deny these buildings, both more than a century old, reflect a dignified past. At one time, both buildings were the homes of two well-to-do families in Placentia—the Verran and O’Reilly families. However, once inside these two buildings, we soon realise how there is more to them than meets the eye.
Know Your Place
The ornate wooden features in their parlours and a grand flight of stairs rising to the top floors were not merely the trappings of the sumptuous lives led and enjoyed within these homes. They were the quiet emblems of a past strongly governed by class divisions, ones that prompted the clear separation of employers and their domestic servants. These class divisions were not only confirmed and fortified by the presence of the domestic servants and their expected deferential behaviour, they were effectively written into the walls and rooms.
The behaviour of the domestic servants was intended to diminish their presence, something that was assisted immeasurably by the physical design of the rooms, passageways, and staircases. The domestic servants could easily have gone about their daily chores in the bedrooms upstairs and not even have been noticed by the family or their visitors in the parlour below. That was the idea.
Their invisibility was no accident. It was a central goal, one that was reflected in the ideas of Robert Kerr who had given the servant-keeping world The Gentleman’s House in 1871. As the above quote expresses, the design of homes like the Verran House and the O’Reilly House was based on the doctrine of division and separation and a need to ensure the privacy of the family. It was well-meaning advice to both the so-called “middling sort,” as the middle-class was at one time known, and the upper-classes, and stemmed from a taken-for-granted understanding of a society structured by class.
The class divisions that governed the upper and middle-classes had been fixed in Britain for centuries. Over this period, the upper classes—the aristocracy and the landed gentry of Britain—had customarily employed domestic servants in order to permit a life of limitless leisure and comfort. Although, by the 19th century, a growing commercial and professional component of Britain, the “middling sort,” were determined to grasp the opportunity to assail the social ladder.
Working-class life in Victorian St Ives, Cornwall, England. (Source: Wikipedia)
Yet, membership within the ranks of the middle class was anything but secure. The idea of a middle class often defied clear definition with the notion of a “lower middle class” and an “upper middle class.”1 Given this ambiguity, families were determined to demonstrate their inclusion in the latter. According to people such as B. Seebohm Rowntree in his Poverty: A Study of Town Life in 1908, one of the primary symbols of the middle class that distinguished it from the “working class” was in fact the keeping of a domestic servant.
Class Divisions in Newfoundland
In Newfoundland,2 keeping a servant to do things like cooking and cleaning was nothing new. Already in the early 1700s, some of the female migrants in Newfoundland had found work as servants.3 Much like in Britain, for some of the less fortunate migrants, working as a domestic servant offered at least a meagre reprieve from the miseries of poverty. The population of Newfoundland was growing and with it, there were an increasing number of people such as the Verran and O’Reilly families who represented the professional class.
Henry Verran was the son of Harry Verran, a mining engineer, and Mary Josephine Verran neé Sweetman who was the only child of Roger F. Sweetman and his wife Honora Sweetman née Sinnott. Sweetman was to be the final owner of a highly successful fishing firm that had survived for four generations and had once spanned the globe. Given their place amongst the more affluent members of the community, the Verrans built their Second Empire home in 1893 along the laneway that skirts the Orcan River, a channel flowing below the heavily treed and rocky outcrops of Mount Pleasant.
Almost a decade later, in 1902, a Queen Anne Victorian style house was built a short distance away along the Orcan River for magistrate William O’Reilly and his family. Like the Verrans, William O’Reilly, the son of the previous magistrate, was securely a member of the middle class. For both families, the organisation and structure of their homes would be designed to mark their position. As expected, a domestic servant, the middle-class badge of honour, was also a part of the arrangements.
Unlike the battery of female and male servants, sometimes numbering over 100, who served in the big houses of the aristocracy and the landed gentry in Britain, many of the middle-class homes only had one female servant. In all likelihood, the domestic servant who worked for the Verrans and the one employed by the O’Reilly family was from the Placentia area. Similar to those in Britain, she would have been a general servant or as the position had come to be known, a ‘maid-of-all-work.’ Unlike the larger houses that employed more than one domestic servant to act, each as a cook, parlour maid, housemaid, and housekeeper, the maid-of-all-work did just as her title suggested—all the work. According to Mrs. Isabella Beeton in The Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, “The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration: her life is a solitary one, and in some places, her work is never done.” It must have been a hard life.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/41/48/a8689d18d643fbf0d65aafb2c367.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0042710.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36107779)
In completing the long list of daily chores that defined a typical day for the domestic servants of the Verran House and the O’Reilly House, they would have been governed by principles that established expectations regarding their behaviour. The domestic servants certainly needed to be dutiful and subservient. And if they were ever uncertain of their place, a host of accepted rules and regulations existed to help guide and mould their behaviour.
Several manuals were published to this end. Each shared a few pointers on how to be a good domestic servant. In 1859, Mary Anne Baines, who referred to herself as “A Practical Mistress of a Household” published Domestic Servants, as They Are & As They Ought To Be, A Few Friendly Hints to Employers With Some Revelations of Kitchen Life and Tricks of the Trade. In the same year, The Servants Behaviour Book, or, Hints On Manners and Dress For Maid Servants in Small Households by none other than a ‘Mrs. Motherly’ also came out. It was essential to meet the needs of the burgeoning middle class, a growing market who were searching for an ideal domestic servant.
Mrs. Motherly’s The Servant Behaviour Book.
Mrs. Motherly wasted no time in being kind, yet assertive, in outlining the type of behaviour that would aid domestic servants in their work. The topics were tied to such things as, “Of The Voice and Speaking,” “Titles of Respect” and “Always Move Gently.” For instance, Mrs. Motherly explained, “Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house except when necessary, and then as little a possible.” After all, a raised voice would disturb the privacy of the employing family by declaring the presence of the domestic servant. This was to be avoided. Likewise, Mrs. Motherly felt that, the step of a servant “…should never be heard, either on the stairs or elsewhere.” These words of advice were borne of the understanding that the domestic servants were not valued in the house as living, laughing, and feeling people. They were there to do work and that was their primary and only purpose.
Designed for Division
Given their expected submissive behaviour, the domestic servants underscored the high station of the families. Nonetheless, their behaviour did not act alone. It was the physical quality and design of the doors, rooms, and staircases that told the tale. The domestic servant held an inferior position in a house divided.
The actual design of the homes acted to further diminish the presence of the domestic servant in the family compartments of the house. One of the methods of doing so was straightforward and entailed designing a house with a network of rooms, corridors and staircases intended solely for servants. These were separate from those of the family. Any sense of the domestic servant was to be limited, thus preventing the interaction of the two communities—the family and the servant. In fact, this attitude applied to all the senses.
Not only was the potential sight of a domestic servant working in the family rooms to be minimised as much as possible. As Robert Kerr clarified in The Gentleman’s House, even “the transmission of kitchen smells to the Family Apartments shall be guarded against; not merely by the unavailing interposition of a Passage-door, but by such expedients as an elongated and perhaps circuitous route, an interposed current of outer air, and so on.” Apparently, one of the many roles of the domestic servants was to protect their “superiors from defiling contact with sordid, or disordered parts of life.”4 Clearly, kitchen smells ranked as one of those sordid elements of life.
Although the Verran House is now a bed and breakfast, it is still possible to see how the rooms and staircases were built in order to abide by the doctrine of division and separation and the attendant need to not disturb the family. One of the guest bedrooms on the ground floor in the Rosedale Manor Bed and Breakfast is located adjacent to a new kitchen that was built by the previous owners of the Rosedale. This new guest bedroom is in the same room that was once used for the original kitchen. It’s not certain whether the domestic servant lived in the residence. If so, there may have been a portion of the kitchen where she bedded down after an exhausting day. In the Verran House, as well as many other upscale homes, this was the central area for the domestic servant. Still, the bedrooms on the upper floor needed to be cleaned and tidied.
This is the central stairway at the former Verran House. Although it was closed over, the door the maid would use to access the bedrooms was at the top of the stairs (Source: Christopher Newhook).
While the home was graced with a central stairway, it was a portion of the home restricted for the use of the family. Instead, the domestic servant would have used a steep staircase, (this was later removed), that led directly from the kitchen to the upper floor landing thereby removing any need for her to use the main staircase.5 The many tasks of the domestic servant may have fulfilled a vital role in the functioning of the home. Regardless, the work needed to be accomplished in a way that was invisible to the family, all to maintain division and privacy. Despite the fact that the doorway was also removed years ago, one can imagine the servant trudging up the steep stairs, quietly opening the door onto the upper floor and then going about her business of cleaning the bedrooms and changing the bed linens.
About a decade later in 1902 and further along the lane-way from the Verran House, the O’Reilly family had moved into their new home. Much like the Verran House, it was designed to accord with the customs of division and separation, in addition to the expected relationship between the family and their domestic servant. Similar to the Verran House, the O’Reilly House was designed to not only facilitate the work of the domestic servant. Other subtle attributes and features evoked the class divisions that governed much of life at the time.
Main staircase at the O’Reilly House Museum (Source: Anita O’Keefe).
While gripping the sturdy rail, we can imagine climbing the elegant staircase from the ground floor of the O’Reilly House and upon reaching the landing on the upper floor, there are three doors, all adorned with a pearl-white doorknob. If we were to enter the one just to the left, the door reveals a narrow passageway with a room immediately to the left. This would have been the room intended for the domestic servant. It was small and separated from the main part of the house. There is a window directly opposite the door to the main house which brightens what would have otherwise been a shadowy corner of this stately home. This is part of the compartment intended for the domestic servant.
Doorknob at the O’Reilly House Museum. The difference is clearly visible, indicating it was considered an unnecessary expenditure for the maid’s quarters (Source: Christopher Newhook).
One of the most intriguing features of the O’Reilly House, one that gives an unmistakable sense of the accepted and taken-for-granted class divisions of the time was more than mundane—a doorknob. After having entered through the door leading into the compartments of the domestic servant, turning around would reveal something quite odd. Perhaps not immediately evident, it would eventually become apparent that the doorknob is not the same.
As opposed to the decorative pearl-white doorknob on the door facing the main landing, it is a plain, dark brown, workaday doorknob. However inconspicuous, this curiously different, seemingly out-of-place doorknob was very much in place. It was meant as a blatant example of the subtle and yet audible messages that buildings such as the O’Reilly House and the Verran House conveyed regarding class and social division. Ironically, two of the other rooms also had similar doorknobs. These were likely intended for the children and much like the domestic servants, it was a symbol of the divisions that existed, in this case, between children and adults during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Narrow staircase leading from the kitchen to the maid’s quarters
at O’Reilly House (Source: Anita O’Keefe).
Adding voice to the unspoken message of division, a narrow staircase with a low ceiling that would challenge even those of average height to not bump their heads led down to the kitchen on the ground floor. The idea behind the design was to allow the domestic servant, who would have spent much of her time in the kitchen, to be able to reach her bedroom without entering the main part of the house which was designated for the family. The rear staircase and door also allowed the domestic servant access to the upper floor bedrooms that required cleaning and tidying. Beyond the distant and faint sound of her footsteps overhead, her presence would have been imperceptible to family members in the parlour or dining room on the ground floor.
Designed to Diminish
The domestic servants working for the Verran and O’Reilly families may very well have been treated with kindness. There is no way to know. Regardless, they were still part of a world in which the structure and design of the houses where they worked symbolised their humble class in comparison to their employers. It was imperative for these class distinctions to be clearly evident to anyone who crossed the threshold of these two homes, not to mention to the domestic servants themselves. All of these elements—the behaviour of the domestic servants and the physical design of the homes—worked in concert to confirm the place of these two families amongst the haloed middle-class.
Every time the domestic servant in the O’Reilly house polished the pearl-white doorknob at the top of the landing, she could not help but be reminded of her place of seeming inferiority. Likewise, whenever the domestic servant at the Verran House opened the door onto the top landing to quietly clean and tidy the bedrooms, she must not have failed to feel the implied slight to her position in the house.
Time For a Change
Nonetheless, times were bound to change and by the 1940s, fewer women would be electing to take up work as a domestic servant. Wartime, despite its attendant horrors, carried some benefits, as United States military bases such as in Argentia would come to offer far better paying and a less excessive workload for women and men alike. No doubt, improvements in education also ensured that those who may have opted for work as a domestic servant could set their sights higher.
Despite these eventual developments, already by 1921, the census showed how there were no servants listed as living with either the O’Reillys or the Verrans. Why this was the case is unknown. Perhaps the domestic servants had decided to no longer be the sought-after mark of prestige for others. It was high time to do so for themselves.
Baines, Mary Anne. Domestic servants, as they are & as they ought to be: a few friendly hints to employers. With some revelations of kitchen life and tricks of trade. North Street, Brighton: Curtis & Son, 1859.
Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1866
Botting, Ingrid. “Getting a Grand Falls Job:” Migration, Labour Markets, and Paid Domestic Work in the Pulp and Paper Mill Town of Grand Falls, Newfoundland, 1905-1939” Ph.D. diss. Memorial University, St. John’s, NL, 2000.
Cullum, Linda. “Below Stairs: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century St. John’s” In Creating This Place – Women, Family, and Class in St. John’s, 1900-1950, edited by Linda Cullum and Marilyn Porter, 89-113. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.
Davidoff, Leonore. Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995.
Delap, Lucy. Knowing Their Place – Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Dussart, Fae C. “The Master Servant Relationship in 19th Century England & India” Ph.D. diss. University College London, London, England 2005.
Forestell, Nancy M. “Women’s Paid Labour in St. John’s Between the Two World Wars” Master of Arts, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL, 1987.
Handcock, W. Gordon. Soe longe as there comes noe women : origins of English settlement in Newfoundland. Milton, Ont. : Global Heritage Press 2003.
Higgs, Edward. “Domestic Servants and Households in Victorian England.” Social History, 8, no. 2, (1983): 201-210
Horn, Pamela 1995 The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. (Stroud; Sutton Publishing Limited)
Horn, Pamela. Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2001.
Johnson, Matthew. Housing Culture. London: UCI Press Limited, 1993.
Kealey, Linda. “Outport ‘Girls in Service’: Newfoundland in the 1920s and 1930s.” Acadiensis XLIII, no. 2, (Summer/Autumn 2014): 79-98
Kerr, Robert. The gentleman’s house; or, How to plan English residences, from the parsonage to the palace. London, J. Murray, 1871.
Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants – A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Morris, William 1977 “The Role of the Domestic” #77-142
Motherly, Mrs. The servant’s behaviour book, or, Hints on manners and dress for maid servants in small households . London: Bell and Daldy, 1859.
Newfoundland. Colonial Secretary’s Office Census of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1921. St. John’s, N.L.: [s.n.], 1923
Rowntree, B. Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London, Macmillan and Co.; New York, Macmillan Co., 1902.
Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities – Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Class. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2010.
Credit for servant image — By WPA – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b49400.
1Tange, Andrea Kaston Architectural Identities –Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Class, 27
2I’m using this name as it was the name of the territory during this period. We had to wait a few decades before “Labrador” could take up its rightful place.
3Handcock, George Soe Longe As There Comes Noe Women, 92
4Davidoff, Leonore Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995), 24
5Email to Linda Grimm, the former owner of Rosedale Manor Bed & Breakfast. 29 May, 2006.