John Robinson (b. circa 1850): A Class Below the Rest – Writing Lives

John Robinson (b. circa 1850): A Class Below the Rest

Classism in the nineteenth century was just as much a polarising issue as it is in our modern age, and employers knew how to use it to their advantage then as much as they do now.

With class dictating various important aspects of a person’s life including their education and job opportunities, employers turned to the working classes to serve all their domestic needs. These individuals were considered to be lesser than those of a higher social status and therefore, more suited to a position of servitude1, Robinson alludes to this, remarking that the modern working class was almost equal to the ‘flunkydom… [of] Athens or Rome’ (2). By classifying the working-class as beneath the others in society, employers were justified in acquiring these individuals by the hoard to run their houses, where they would be paid remarkably little wage for long hours performing the most basic of every day tasks deemed too menial for the men and women of the house. This was the ideology that supported the service industry and allowed it to function, but you bet our butler had more to say about it.

‘I have known this person escape censure at the expense of a servant who, standing by, was gentleman enough to withhold his story (which was convincing), in order that the creature should escape.’

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.

It is this ideology that Robinson seeks to dissect. Classism not only allowed employers to hire those considered beneath them, but granted them an ability to treat these individuals as little more than dogs. The example we are offered by Robinson is of a lady who ‘scapegoate[d]’ (12) her servants for various social faux-pas and ‘rarely… allowed an opportunity for getting a servant into trouble pass’ (12). This, Robinson argues, is the general ‘attitude of [the] master (12)’. Our butler remains preoccupied with the idea of servant mistreatment throughout his memoir and goes as far as to suggest that such treatment can rob a servant of his moral respect. His opinions are not without corroboration. David Halle’s writing on the working-class man, describes how respect, morality and integrity formed the basis for working-man’s identity. This often meant that these men where more likely to adopt a ‘getting on with it2 mentality that increased the likelihood of them putting up with the degradation associated with the service industry. Here we can start to see how the cycle of exploitation, trapping the working-classes within these low paid, demeaning jobs is perpetuated and held in place by the various social structures of the nineteenth century.

While to some degree Robinson’s writing agrees with Halle’s findings, our butler once again lays the blame at the feet of the employer. With servant’s subject to poor treatment on a consistent basis, he explains how a servant may eventually ‘come to think of himself as his master thinks’ (9), which only serves to further his moral degradation. It is this, he blames for the servant problem – featured in our last post. However, rather than turn his writing to a more revolutionary end, he chooses instead to encourage a sense of ‘fellow[ship]’ (8) between the classes. Pushing for an alleviation of the servant’s circumstances, he indicates that understanding between the working and higher classes would provide mutually beneficial results, with the higher-classes able to employ a higher standard of servant and the working-class able to better themselves and prosper in a stimulating environment.

Robinson’s opposition to this entrenched ideology would have been remarkable not only for his time, but for his class. The notable socio-political undertones featured throughout his memoir would have certainly caused waves, even in the more liberal of periodicals like the Nineteenth Century Monthly Review, and could have been the reason for his scant personal detail and supposed pseudonym.

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. O Rose, S. (1992). Limited Livelihood Gender and Class in Nineteenth Century England. Berkley: University of California Press.

2. Halle, David. (1984). America’s Working Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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