This book from Shire Classics describes the 19th-Century servant class in Great Britain in satisfying detail. Combined with another book I purchased at the National Portrait Gallery of portraits taken of the servant class, my DVDs of Gosford Park and Upstairs/Downstairs, and my recent viewing of Edwardian House and Regency House, I think that I am getting a fairly good idea about how a great house operated in days of yore.
The Victorian Domestic Servant reveals that the Duke of Bedford (died 1839) employed 300 servants and the Duke of Portland employed 320. These were excessive amounts to be sure, but most respectable Victorian households employed servants. An income of 250 a year allowed a family to employ a maid of all work, but an income of 100 would barely pay the rent, much less pay for help. As an aside, Jane Austen, her mother and sister were able to afford a maid of all work and a male servant on their modest income. After moving to Barton Cottage, the Dashwood women employed two servants as well. Yet both the Austen and Dashwood women, while not destitute, had to count every penny. People like Mrs. Smith from Persuasion and the Bates women in Emma could afford no help at all.
In 1851 domestic service represented the second largest occupation in England after agriculture, although the servant class was in constant flux. People frequently moved positions looking for higher pay or for promotions or for a way out. Although many servants felt professional pride towards their work, they often left service because the deference their employers expected wore them down. For the lower servants, the constant need for showing respect was even worse. The servant hierarchy Below Stairs showed as many distinctions as Above Stairs, with lower and upper servants rarely commingling. Lower servants were expected to remain silent unless spoken to at the table when dining, for example. They were expected neither to be seen nor heard as they worked.
Most of the work that servants performed had to be done out of sight of the family that employed them. This meant they had to rise early to do their tasks, stopping when the family arose and restarting late in the evening. Tasks were repetitive and laborious, such as filling a tub with water, which meant heating pails and pails of water and trudging up and down the stairs, or bringing coal to fireplaces and stoves and removing ashes. Much time was spent removing coal ash from fireplaces, and then dusting rooms and sweeping floors clear of the substance.
The preferred servant was raised in the country, for these people tended to show more respect and deference than their urban counterparts. A symbol of status was the footman, who wore livery and had actually not much work to do other than to look handsome and open and close doors, help the butler serve food at table, and sleep in the Butler’s Pantry to protect the family plate and silver from thieves.
While The Victorian Domestic Servant is only 32 pages long, I found so much information packed in its pages that I will have to read it again soon. For those who are curious about the servant class, or for writers of the Victorian Era, I cannot recommend this book enough. If this were a regency book, I would give it three regency fans. In this instance, I think I shall give it five out of five dust bins, broom sticks, and wash cloths.
More on the topic
- Read my posts about Regency servants in this link
- Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale
- Domestic Servant
Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Shire; illustrated edition edition (March 4, 2008)