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19th Century Realities of Being 'In Service'

Life as a nineteenth century domestic servant was no bed of roses. In fact, many were lucky to get a decent night’s sleep at all. This week we’re taking a look back at what was expected of a lower-tier servant in a grand manor house. It’s important to note that strict hierarchies existed within the household, with employers obviously at the top of the pyramid. Below them were the top-tier servants, including lady’s maid, housekeeper and butler in the highest echelons. At the very bottom were scullery maids, laundry maids and manual laborers such as boys carrying coal scuttles. Compensation was meager at best, basically enough for a subsistence way of living with the chance to send a bit of money back home to one’s family in need to help out younger siblings. Domestic servants often came from rural backgrounds and some domestic servants even had to pay for their own uniforms. Job perks were odd: a lady’s maid would be granted her employer’s cast off dresses. Certain household rubbish, such as kitchen cooking drippings or old bottles, could be used by the cook for side-hustle money. Lower-tier female servants lived under the following rules:

Job Duties • Clean the grates and light the fires before anyone else wakes up • Boil hot water and carry upstairs for hot baths • Beat rugs with a broom • Scrub floors for hours on end, every day • Dust everyday (coal fires and smog in towns made dusting a never-ending task) Skills, Habits and Demeanor • Meek, mild, 'yes-person' • Does not hold nor share any strong opinions • Never tries to act or rise above their station • Avoids gossip • Has good teeth • Able to disappear quickly when the master of the house appears • Never makes eye contact with the employer • Appears clean and tidy • Is soft spoken • Can get by on 4-5 hours’ sleep per night, often spent in tiny room with damp walls, broken windowpanes and no running water • Refuses all followers and offers of marriage • Is content with using caustic materials without protective gear • Will conceal employer’s secret romantic liaisons, using discretion, tact and ingenuity, especially when confronted by household gossip or asked to take the witness stand in a courtroom Of course, this is an outrageous list, with much of it downright illegal if seen in a modern day human resources department. Another example: in centuries past, taller footmen were paid more simply because height was a preferable trait. Male servants often slept downstairs and females upstairs in the attic to prevent any type of amorous relationships. Reviewing the long list of duties, it appears that employers expected people to function beyond their physical and mental capabilities. In many cases, the division between classes was so great that many of the wealthy aristocracy didn’t even understand how hard their servants worked; all they saw were well-lit fires, elegant dinners and turned down beds. Behind the scenes, below stairs, was a completely different story. Employers did indeed hold great power over their domestic servants, and could truly ruin their chances of new employment with a bad ‘character’ or reference letter. While rural life could sometimes be much harsher than life as a domestic servant, neither form of existence was free from drudgery and hard work. Life spans were shorter and the amount of physical labor was staggering. Readers, never think, “Oh, my ancestor was just a domestic servant.” No. Instead, have respect for the trials and tribulations these people endured simply to put food on their tables and have a safe place to sleep at night. They did what they had to do in order to survive and their descendants should be grateful for their sacrifice. Sources:

  • Law, S.C., “Through the Keyhole, Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House”, The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2015.

  • May, T., “The Victorian Domestic Servant”, Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire, 1998.

  • Worsley, L., “If Walls Could Talk (An Intimate History of the Home)”, Bloomsbury USA, 2012.


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