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The Victorian Character Reference

From 'The Dictionary of Daily Wants' - 1858-1859

CHARACTER OF SERVANTS. It is customary to receive testimonials of a servant's trustworthiness and ability at the time of hiring them, and also to give servants that have formerly been in a person's service what is termed a character. Upon this point it is necessary to exercise a great deal of caution and discernment, in order to avoid being cheated with testimonials that are utterly false. For instance, it is not at all uncommon for disaffected persons - either servants who have sacrificed their good name for some previous indiscretion, or others whose sole aim is to obtain an introduction into a house with an evil design - to refer to some imaginary late employer, living at a distance, for a reference. The letter making inquiries respecting the ser vantis obtained possession of, and answered by some person in communication with the supposed servant, or even by the impostor himself. The testimonials given are of course the most flattering, and the unsuspecting employer unconsciously admits a thief, or even worse, into his house. Therefore no reference should be accepted unless it is a personal one. But even in theses cases fraud is sometimes practised, and for the sake of a fee there are dishonest persons willing to vouch for the honesty and good qualities of persons of whom they know nothing. In these matters, therefore, an employer should exercise judgment and discretion, and if there is any circumstance that gives rise to suspicion in the most trifling degree, refuse to have anything more to say in the affair. With regard to the giving of characters by employers, it is established that an employer is not bound to give a servant a character; but if a character be given, it must be a true one; otherwise, if a servant is in a position to prove that he has sustained injury by a false and malicious character being given of hi&m, an action for damages will lie against the person so giving it. But if the character be given without malice and to the best of his knowledge, no action lies.

It is customary with servants who have been in a particular employment at some distance of time previously, to return to their former employer, and ask him to give them a character, the idea being to impress persons into whose service they wish to enter with the belief that they have only recently left the employer whose testimonials they produce. Now, as it is possible that a servant may behave himself very well in one situation, and grossly misconduct himself in a subsequent one, an employer giving a character under the assumption before stated, clearly becomes a party to a species of fraud, and renders himself liable to very disagreeable consequences: at the same time the servant may have conducted himself properly, but owing to his last employers having left the country or died, or from some other cause, they cannot be personally referred to. In such a dilemma, therefore, it would be unjust to withhold the testimonials asked for; and in either case the servant may be obliged, and ill consequences averted, by simply stating the date when the servant left the particular employment, leaving the inquirer to act as he may think fit, with regard to the subsequent interval. In these transactions it behoves both the master and servant to speak truthfully, and to act in good faith, so that neither party concerned may sustain wrong or injury.

The penalties attaching to false characters are, that if any person falsely personate any master or mistress in order to give a servant a character; or if any master or mistress knowingly give in writing a false character of a servant, or account of his former service; or if any servant bring a false charaetav or alter a certificate of character, the offender forfeits upon conviction 20, with 10s. costs.

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