You rang, m’lord?

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 400 pages

In 1901, when Edward VII decided to visit the Earl of Derby accompanied by 40 of his best friends, his host was breezily unbothered. “That makes 60 extra servants ... with the 37 who live in,” he calculated. “Nothing could be simpler.”

The royal retinue was indeed modest beside that of the solitary fifth Duke of Portland, who required 90 indoor staff for himself alone. As late as 1940, the 11th Duke of Bedford employed similar numbers, including a troupe of tall parlourmaids, for family tradition required that each was over 5ft 10in. Well, how else would they reach the top shelves of the linen cupboards?

Such tradition is the stuff of Lucy Lethbridge’s scholarly, thorough and vastly entertaining book Servants. Her style is elegant, detached and slyly witty and her canvas sprawling and immense. She begins in the days when the famously brilliant Lord Curzon, baffled as to how one opened a window unaided, picked up a log and broke the glass, and she ends with the recent and remarkable reinvention of the English butler as discreet educator of the new, sometimes Chinese, often insecure super-rich.

At the start of the 20th century, domestic service was the single largest occupation in the UK. Nearly every household employed someone, even if only a cook-general, laundress or maid-of-all-work, but the big estates boasted the most Byzantine hierarchical network. Beneath the lordly butler were people to do every little task, down to washing the loose change in their betters’ pockets (for you never knew where it had been). Sometimes a man’s only job was to walk the corridors three times a day banging the gong for meals. There were housemaids, parlourmaids, footmen, candle-men, post-sorters, steel-boys, slaters and, often, a “tiger”. This last was a little lad whose sole purpose was to dress in livery and sit on top of a carriage, as an ornament.

Though Lethbridge insists that some employers were good to their staff, there are many stories of resentment, when kitchen maids had to stir boiling eggs so as to be sure to centralise the yolks; when newspapers and bootlaces had to be ironed; when, however hard you worked, you were never thanked or even acknowledged but treated with lofty disdain. Typically, you lived in cramped, unhealthy quarters and were permitted no interest in reading, nor in culture of any kind. You could be sacked for playing a violin. The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, according to her daughter, addressed her servants “as though hailing them from a fast-moving train”.

The two great cataclysmic wars shook and eventually shattered the edifice, freeing men to fight and women to jobs in factories or on the land where, however tough the work, they had at least a measure of freedom. Depressions following the wars did lead to a grudging return to service, but gradually, inexorably, technical innovation reduced the need for staff. Women began doing their own housework, even sharing it with their husbands: in 1959, the 13th Duke of Bedford was photographed in his shirtsleeves, proudly loading a dishwasher.

Some domestic help, however, was still needed. Besides nannies and cleaning-ladies, refugees from the Nazis and, later, migrant workers from the Philippines or Brazil took up the slack, frequently encountering grumbling resentment; French or Swedish au pair girls, particularly, were perceived as an even greater threat to marital equilibrium than had been the “pert and frisky” maids of a previous age.

A coda to this richly complex and enjoyable story is the rise of nostalgic British television drama, enshrining the glory days of a lifestyle now just out of reach, almost beyond living memory. But even here, old habits die hard. When the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs began filming, the actors playing “downstairs” were allotted significantly shabbier dressing rooms than their fictional betters. It did not go down well.

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