Our modern perception of the hired help in Jane Austen’s day is that this group lived rather static lives. The servant class was quite fluid, however, and many people worked in their positions for no more than 2-3 years at a time. Good workers were in top demand and on the lookout for higher pay and better employment, while those who were inefficient could be hired and fired on the same day. The situation was more stable in large rural households, but even in these establishments junior servants tended to leave after a year or so.
With enclosures of common lands preventing the rural poor from supplementing their diets with homegrown food as was once the custom, children quickly became an economic burden. As soon as they were old enough children were expected to add to a family’s income. As many as sixty percent of young men and women worked or found labor before moving on to the next stage in their lives*, which usually meant marriage and setting up their own household. With job prospects so poor in the countryside, a steady migration of people to towns and cities meant that new arrivals were constantly seeking work and filling up empty servant positions.
No matter how strapped for cash, even the most modest households employed servants, if only a maid of all work. Jane Austen and her mother and sister were by no means rich, but when they moved to Chawton cottage they required the services of at least two servants. After leaving Norland Park and moving to Barton Cottage, the Dashwood women, who had to learn to live on £500 per year, employed male and female help. Even Fanny Price’s poor parents in Portsmouth were able to afford a maid. Chances were that these families found their help through recommendations from others. Listed below are the ways that a servant and master typically found each other:
1.Word of mouth
The most common way to hire help was to ask friends and relatives or your own servants to recommend someone. This system worked well for two reasons. If the servant was happy with his employer, he would probably recommend a friend or family member to apply for a position. The employer benefited from these referrals, since they came from someone they trusted. Allowing a complete stranger to work in your home was a risky business and one could not be too careful when choosing someone new. This caution worked both ways. Scullery maids began to work when they were only twelve or thirteen years old. One can imagine the relief their parents must have felt in knowing that their daughters had been employed by a decent family.
Recommendations came by letter as well. Forty years after the Regency Period ended, Florence Nightingale wrote this missive to an acquaintance:
My dear [Parthenope Verney]
It occurred to me after writing yesterday if you are going to set up a needlewoman under the housekeeper, Mary Jenkins, Bathwoman, Dr. W. Johnson’s, Great Malvern, has a niece, living at Oxford, a first-rate needlewoman, eldest girl of a very large family, who wants or wanted a place. If she is at all like my good old friend, her aunt, she would be a very valuable servant. Perhaps her needlework would be almost too good for your place. I believe she is a qualified “young lady’s maid,” though when I heard of her, she had never been “out,” i.e., in service. Perhaps she has a place. I think it answers very well in a large house to have as much as possible done at home, as little as possible “put out.”
Working for a private employer, no matter how menial the job, was better than working in a factory or making a living on the street. A servant of good standing could obtain a written character from their current employer. These testimonials would be especially important for a servant seeking work with a complete stranger. The catch was that employers were under no legal obligation to provide their employees with these references, and without one it was almost impossible for an individual to find a good position. Servants were at the mercy of their employers when it came to these references, and much is made of this fact in modern fiction and film. Ideally, a written character protected a new employer from hiring a lazy or insolent person or, worse, one who had been caught pilfering. Servants who forged their own characters or altered one ran afoul of the law. The Servants’ Characters Act of 1792 made it quite clear that he (or she) who is found guilty of making up a reference will
“be convicted of such offence in manner aforesaid, every such servant … shall thereupon be discharged and … all penalties and punishments to which at the time of such information given…”
As usual, the deck was stacked in favor of the employer. Servants who were turned out without a character ran in danger of finding a new position in less than desirable circumstances, or worse, would have to work on the street or seek shelter in a workhouse, where life would be bleak and almost unendurable. The script on a handbill from 1815 discusses how young homeless girls can be rescued from life on the streets:
“WINCHESTER FEMALE ASYLUM: 1815 Handbill (195x320mm) announcing the opening of an asylum in Canon Street for girls between 13 & 16 to prepare them for their career as servants, with a strong emphasis on moral development. The project – “to rescue many young persons from misery and infamy and make them respectable members of society” – is outlined in detail by the joint matrons.
3. Registry offices
Servant registry offices were places where employers and servants could find each other without having to advertise. People who just arrived in town or who had no success finding employment through word of mouth, would go to the registry office and enter their name, their job skills, and the kind of employment they were seeking in a registry book. Servant registry offices were not regulated during the Regency Period, and while reliable places did exist, some registries were no more than procuring offices for houses of ill repute or at the very least guilty of shady businesses practices, taking a customer’s money for doing next to nothing or taking advantage of a gullible person. Compulsory government licensing of registry offices was not instituted until the early 20th century, and those who used these concerns had to research them ahead of time. This was easier said than done and nearly impossible for someone who had just arrived in the city and had no means and few skills to uncover useful information.
The custom of hiring servants at “statue fairs” and “mops” still exists in theory if not in practice in several parts of the adjoining counties, but thanks to the low scale of advertising, such a system is not needed now, the introduction of register offices was a great improvement, the first opened in Birmingham being at 26 St John St, (then a respectable neighbourhood), in January 1777, the fee being 6d, for registering and 3d, for an enquiry, there are a number of respectable offices of this kind now, but it cannot be hidden that there have been establishments so called which have been little better than dens of thievery, the proprietors caring only to net all the half crowns and eighteen pences they could extract from the poor people who were foolish enough to go to them. – Source, Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham, 1885
Servant registry offices were divided into three classes: 1. Those who took fees from the employer and servant; 2. Free registries for servants, but the employer paid. The servant might be asked to pay a fee after finding employment; and 3. Registries for foreign servants. This source in Victorian London.org discusses the problems registries and their clients faced:
If the proprietor is anxious to safeguard servants, his business generally comes to nothing. Those registries which are conducted on the merchandise principle, where the interest of the proprietor begins and ends with the fee, anid girls are bundled off to situations without inquiries as to where they are going, or who is to be their mistress, will bring in money; but registries conducted on philanthropic principles seldom pay, and certainly do not make much profit.
In other words, buyer beware. Often servant registries recruited people by distributing handbills in various cities and towns. They would register as many servants as possible in order to offer as wide a range of choices to prospective employers. While this practice benefited the employers and registry offices, it meant that fewer positions were available than the number of servants who were registered.
This rather amusing satire from Punch about Hiring Servants places the servant in control of her hiring. Reading between the lines, one can imagine how much fun people from belowstairs must have had in reading these droll inaccuracies about servant attitudes and behavior. While this article was written during the Victorian Era, it is still interesting to note how little had changed in fifty years in the relationship between servant and master:
The best market to go to in order to suit yourself is a servant’s bazaar – as it is called – where mistresses are always on view for servants to select from. On being shown up to a lady, you should always act and talk as if you were hiring her, instead of wanting to be hired. You should examine her closely as to the company she keeps, and the number of her family; when, if there is any insuperable objection – such as the absence of a footman, a stipulation against perquisites, a total prohibition of a grease-pot, or a denial of the right of visit, by a refusal to allow followers – in either or all of these cases, it will be as well to tell “the lady” plainly that you must decline her situation. It is a good general rule to be the first to give a refusal, and, when you find you are not likely to suit the place, a bold assertion that the place will not suit you, prevents any compromise of your dignity. If you like the appearance and manner of the party requiring your assistance, but with some few concessions to be made, the best way to obtain them will be by declaring that you never heard of any “lady” requiring whatever it may be that you have set your face against. By laying a stress on the word “lady,” you show your knowledge of the habits of the superior classes; and as the person hiring you will probably wish to imitate their ways, she will perhaps take your hint as to what a “lady” ought to do, and dispense with conditions, which, on your authority, are pronounced unlady-like. If a situation seems really desirable you should evince a willingness, and profess an ability, to do anything, and everything. If you get the place, and are ever called upon to fulfil your promises, it is easy to say you did not exactly understand you would be expected to do this, or that; and as people generally dislike changing, you will, most probably, be able to retain your place.
When asked if yen are fond of children, you should not be content with saying simply “yes,” but you should indulge in a sort of involuntary, “Bless their little hearts!” which has the double advantage of appearing to mean everything, while it really pledges you to nothing. Never stick out for followers, if they are objected to; though you may ask permission for a cousin to come and see you; and as you do not say which cousin, provided only one comes at a time, you may have half-a-dozen to visit you. Besides, if the worst comes to the worst, and you cannot do any better, there is always the police to fall back upon. By-the-way, as the police cannot be in every kitchen at once, it might answer the purpose of the female servants throughout London, to establish police sweeps, on the principle of the Derby lotteries, or the Art-Union. Each subscriber might draw a number, and if the number happened to be that of the policeman on duty, she would be entitled to him as a beau, during a specified period.
Always stipulate for beer-money, and propose it less for your own advantage than as a measure of economy to your mistress, urging that when there is beer in the house it is very likely to get wasted. You will, of course, have the milk in your eye when proposing this arrangement. Tea and sugar must not be much insisted on, for they are now seldom given, but this does not prevent them from being very frequently taken.
Mrs. Beeton would have disapproved of the ribald liberty Punch took in the above passages. While her outlook was more realistic, she wrote a rather rosy and optimistic entry in her book on Household Management (1865) that avoided discussing the pitfalls of hiring a stranger to work in one’s home:
Engaging Servants is a most important—and nowadays a most onerous—duty of the mistress. One of the commonest ways of filling vacancies is to insert an advertisement in one or more of the newspapers, setting forth what kind of servant is required, whether the house is in town or country, and the wages offered. There are many respectable registry-offices where efficient and reliable servants may be engaged. A mistress whose general relations with her servants are known to be friendly should have little difficulty, and will often find suitable applicants presenting themselves from the circle of friends of the servant who is leaving. It is hardly safe to be guided by a written character from an unknown quarter; it is better, if possible, to have an interview with the former mistress. You will be helped in your decision as to the fitness of the servant by the appearance of her former place. The proper way to obtain such an interview is to tell the applicant for the situation to ask her former mistress if she will be good enough to appoint a time when you may call on her; this courtesy is necessary to prevent unseasonable intrusion. Your first questions should be relative to the honesty and general conduct of the servant; if the replies are satisfactory, other qualifications can be ascertained. Inquiries should naturally be minute, but brief and strictly to the point.
The fourth way that master and servant found each other was through advertisements. This topic merits a post by itself, which I will write about at another time.
More on the topic:
- Servants at Emo Court – this account of servants at Emo Court records their positions, names, ages, and length of service if this information was available.
- Servants at Emo Court, 1911 census – shows the number of servants required to maintain this estate.