John Robinson (b. circa: 1850): The Servant Problem – A Butler’s Solution – Writing Lives

John Robinson (b. circa: 1850): The Servant Problem – A Butler’s Solution

In the last post, we discussed the servant problem, and it’s causes. In this post we will deal with it’s potential solutions.

In his memoir, Robinson makes it clear that the issue at hand is the fault of the employer, rather than the servants themselves. He remarks that employers who ‘expect [their servants] to be free from vice’ (9) and ‘complain of inefficiency and stupidity’ (9) are often blind to the ‘temptations and debasing influences’ (9) a servant can be subject to while at work. This opinion was shunned during the 19th century, with many higher-class households all too keen to blame the nature of their servants.1 Such opinions circulated within periodicals freely and would later form the basis for a much lager discussion surrounding class and service, as we have already seen with Lady Violet’s ‘clever pen’ (1).

‘I think it will be seen that the conditions of life in domestic service are such as would tend to produce the very results we find’ (9)

Robinson, J. (1892) ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol, xxxi. January-June.

Meanwhile, as employers struggled to distinguish themselves from the working-classes they employed, Robinson was coming up with solutions to their little ‘servant problem’. What a good butler he was! Here are just a few:


The Caption Reads: Diner a la russe:
Host. “Stay, Stevens –what are you doing with the salmon? Nobody has had any of it!”
Butler: “Pray, sir, what are we to have for supper?”

Robinson spends a large portion of his memoir discussing . The issue at hand, he argues, is not the food’s quantity, but its ‘suitabil[ity]’ (5). By contrasting the ‘physiological consideration and dietetic principles’ (5) of servants in the past (5) and their modern counterparts, Robinson highlights how the ‘unchanging’ (6) diet of the servant has become a health issue. This, Robinson describes, rather eloquently, as ‘starvation in the midst of plenty’ (5) and suggests an overhaul of the servant’s table. In providing ‘well-prepared food, adapted to the work’ (9), he indicates that servants would no longer be forced to ‘gorge’, ‘steal’ or ‘starve’ (9) and therefore, be able to devote themselves to their duties.


We have already spoken of the discourse surrounding alcohol in the nineteenth century, but Robinson suggests that ‘giving beer… ought to be abolished in every house in the kingdom’ (10). While, he devotes a certain amount of explanation to the ‘mechanical habit’ (10) of drunkenness and it’s issues within service, Robinson also attempts to discuss the financial implications of ‘keeping the servants in beer’. He even goes as far as suggesting that should his amendments be taken into consideration, the ‘bill might be reduced by one-half’ (11), a suggestion that is supported by Ian Middlebrook2 and his research on the wastage of service. His attention to the finances of the upper-classes is reminiscent of a secondary topic circulating within the the nineteenth century. The topic of servant pay, unionisation and labour would emerge in the 1800’s, sparking much debate about the working-classes and their right to a decent wage3.

Respect and Responsibility

The most notable of Robinson’s suggested changes is those surrounding the treatment of the servants by their employers. He argues that service is a ‘paralysing influence’ (11), that offers no ‘opportunity for mental improvement’ (11), that leads servants to become drunk, hopeless individuals of low moral standing4. The solution offered here is ‘friendly rivalry’, ‘a little more liberty’ and ‘profitable social intercourse’ (11), much like what Lady Aberdeen had suggested in her article. However, Robinson also notes that ‘the evolution of… the servant… must [include]… a change in the attitude of the master.’ (12). Using an anecdote in which a servant is ‘treat[ed] like a dog’ (12), the last pages of the memoir do wonders in highlighting the horrible treatment of the servant-class and exposes abuses that would certainly not be tolerated in the work-place today.

While Robinson’s solutions may have been valid suggestions, his actual influence on the service industry is unknown (largely due to his anonymity) however, it would be nice to think that even one household managed to enhance the lives of its servants through his writing.

Robinson, J. (1892). ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 31. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. p203-9.

1. Tronto, J. (2010). ‘The Servant Problem and Justice in Households.’ in The European Journal of Philosophy and Public Debate. Vol, 2. Iss, 3.

2. Middlebrook, I. (2017). ‘The Victorian Novel, Service Work and the Nineteenth-Century Economy’. Nineteenth-Century Contexts. Vol. 39. Iss. 3.

3. Booker, K. (2014). Menial Screens: The Political Economy of Domestic Service in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Literature. Ohio: Ohio State University.

4. Baldwin, M. (2019). ‘Stoicism and the Servant Problem: Philosophy in Ninenteenth-Century Domestic Literature.’ ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

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