"Work Like the Engine that Works by Steam!": The Life of a Servant in a Large House

The life which a servant led during the Victorian period was a very difficult one, filled with endless toil from 5am until bedtime. Despite this, it tended to be easier in a larger house, where there were plenty of servants to do all that needed to be done, as opposed to in a middle class home where there might be one teenage girl responsible for looking after the children, cooking all the meals, and doing most of the cleaning.

Pay was nothing short of meager for all but the highest-level servants, but the job came with room and board and many living expenses. A servant could expect practically no time off: by the end of the century, it had become common to give a servant a few hours off every week, but that was not even true in all households. The most important perks of a job in service, however, was that it was a steady job. A servant who did her job properly and knew her place had no need to worry about the roof over her head, where her next meal would come from, or her future.

Of course, there was no end to the indignities a servant could suffer. It was quite common for a lady of the house to change the name of a servant, if she thought her given name too pretentious, to something more suitable for a servant, like Mary or Jane. One mistress decided that to make it easier for her to remember the names of her servants, her head cook would always be called Charlotte, her head housemaid Emily, and so onů regardless of what their real names might be. (Dawes, pg. 36)

Servants were expected to do their employers' every whim. Sometimes this meant things as ludicrous as sewing the newspaper together in order to keep it neat. (Dawes, pg. 98) More often than not, however, it was the boring tedium of always being on call in case the mistress wanted a cup of tea at any hour of the day or night. Servants worked horrible hours: virtually all woke at about 5am, and stayed awake until their masters had gone to bed. Ironically, many of these same masters were among those who were horrified at the notion of women and children working fourteen hours a day in a factory, completely failing to notice that the women and children in their own households worked as many as eighteen or twenty hours a day.

Despite the menial drudgery and oftentimes horrible conditions that virtually all servants faced, much lip service was given to the idea that servants were much better off than they would be otherwise. This is easy to shrug off in our enlightened times, but when one considers the infamous conditions of the other job available to women during this period, as a worker in a factory, maybe that idea holds some credence. Many quotes from servants of the day seem to agree that life as a servant wasn't so bad. One housemaid said that she earned "a solid foundation of all sorts of knowledge that you could draw on in married life to the advantage of your whole family" and reminisced about having "the run of a fine library for three months of the year." (Dawes, pg. 83)

In addition to this, a job as a servant offered a huge amount of room for advancement. In very few jobs at this time could a person start out in the lowest possible position, and realistically hope to one day hold the highest rank. But housekeepers and butlers were not born that way: they all worked their way through the ranks to their high-powered positions. It was possibly for this reason that the hierarchy in the Servant's Hall was so incredibly strict.

Mrs. Beeton published her 1112 page tome, Book of Household Management in 1861. In it, she outlined the complete hierarchy of the servants, from butler to wet nurse. (Dawes, pg. 11) The most general division of this hierarchy was between the "Upper Ten" and the "Lower Five." The numbers in question bore no particular significance to the actual number of staff at the house.

The Upper Ten included the steward, the housekeeper, the head housemaid, the butler, the wine butler, the under-butler, the groom of chambers, the valet, the ladies maids, and anyone else who the master and mistress had constant contact with. The Lower Five consisted of everyone else. They would dine separately, socialize separately, and wear entirely different clothes, the Upper Ten generally allowed to follow fashion.

It is possible that servants took their hierarchy more seriously than their masters upstairs did. When asked by an American "the reason of things that have nothing to do with reasons," why the servants have this particular hierarchy, the Dowager Duchess of Tintagel, in Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers, says "What would happen next, as I said to her, in a house where the housekeeper did take her meals with the upper servants?" The Marchioness of Bath writes about the servants at Longleat that: "A strange ritual took place over the midday meal in the servant's hall. The under servants first trooped in and remained standing in their places until the upper servants had filed in order of domestic status. After the first course the upper servants left in the following manner: When the joint, carved by the house steward, had been eaten and second helpings offered, it was ceremoniously removed by the steward's room footman, who carried it out with great pomp, followed by the upper servants, who then retired to the steward's room for the remainder of their meal; while the housemaids and sewing-maids scurried off with platefuls of pudding to eat in their own sitting-rooms." (Balsan, pg. 61)

The lady of the house was responsible for all of the servants, with the exception of her husband's valet, and perhaps the butler. She was responsible not only for hiring, but for ensuring that each member of her household maintained a certain level of dignity and acted in a way which would not bring shame on her rank. Queen Victoria insisted that all of her servants attend church with her, and this became quite the vogue for all households during the Victorian period. The entire household of a large estate could bee seen walking to church on Sundays: first the family, then, slightly behind, the servants. The servants would generally have a uniform intended specifically for church to clearly demarcate them from the family, and were forced to sit in separate pews at the back of the church. (Dawes, pg. 105)

Of course, keeping track of a large number of adults, with which one has very little contact, was not really a completely realistic expectation, no matter how fervently that expectation was held. Lady Curzon, nee Mary Leiter of Washington D.C., despaired of ever being able to control her staff the way she was obviously expected to. She wrote her mother saying "English Servants are FIENDS. They seem to plot among themselves.... I should like to hang a few and burn the rest at the stake." (MacColl, pg. 199) Of course, despite being in charge of the moral life of her servants, she was not in charge of their daily lives in the least. That was where the hierarchy took over.

It is not an overstatement to say that every servant left behind in either the country or the city breathed a sigh of relief when the house was boarded up and the family left. The skeleton staff, although expected to do a thorough cleaning of every corner of the house before the family returned, was up largely to its own devices. Perhaps the best part was the additional salary: since food was no longer provided, they were paid a small stipend with which to feed themselves. It became quite popular for servants who had employers at the house to entertain servants from houses where the owners had left. Thus, the board wages could be saved for something else! (Dawes, pg. 133)