‘Here’s the unusual stir and bother: Nessa back tomorrow, Flossie ill: am I to go hunting?’
This was from Virginia Woolf’s diary, Tuesday, 22nd November 1938. (‘hunting’ is an allusion to Mrs Hunt’s domestic employment agency)
Mrs Hunt’s Agency was originally set up in Duke Street, Manchester Square, London by Mrs Ellen Hunt (the same era as ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’) in 1857. The redoubtable Mrs Hunt offered domestic staff of all kinds to middle and upper-class families around London, including butlers, housekeepers, parlourmaids, footmen and cooks. From the start her agency operated a ‘no placement, no fee’ policy which we continue today (except for international bookings).
Society has changed markedly in the intervening 110 years, and domestic service has changed with it. A typical client from 1899 would have require twelve full time staff to run a large house. Patrons were fairly wide ranging with records from that year including a bank manager’s family managing in Bayswater with four servants: a “Cook-General” a ‘Between maid’ (or “Tweenie”) a house-parlourmaid and a children’s nurse.
Today a similar family would be likely to manage with one nanny and part-time cleaners and gardeners – if the bank is doing very well.
Back when Mrs Hunt started her agency the Ducal and Royal houses would have employed armies of staff for running the vast houses which many of them had in London. Sixty or seventy servants would have been quite usual when the family were in London for the “Season”. Now, even the royal palaces of Europe – many of which we supply – will have half that number, together with press officers, personal assistants and a few special advisors
Social change after The Great War meant that from the 1920s families began employing more female parlourmaids instead of the usual footmen who were increasingly in short supply. The Agency braved even more adversity after the Second World War when it was bombed out during the blitz, destroying many of the archives. It continued however through the changing trends of the century and by the 1950s it was a thriving business, at that time specialising in live-out staff.