For as long as human society has had money, society has been divided into the Haves, and the Have-Nots. The Haves must, of course, have the best of everything. And 150 years ago, you couldn’t properly be considered rich if you didn’t have a nice, big, country estate, with sprawling grounds, a massive house, the finest carriages and horses, a hunting-ground, and of course…servants.
Domestic servants have existed for centuries, but it was not until the Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, that domestic servants really entered the mould and manner in which we think of them today. This article will explain who everyone was, and what their duties were.
A country house in the 1880s, or even further back, was almost like a small town. They were vast structures with several floors and rooms, and they needed an army of servants to look after the house as well as to wait on the master and his family. Servants’ duties were varied, unrelenting and usually very exhausting. Without modern conveniences such as vacuum-cleaners, dishwashers, washing-machines, dryers and refrigerators, everything had to be done by hand. Servants had to do everything which the master and his family could not, or would not, do themselves. By the Victorian period, and especially by the Edwardian period of the 1900s, domestic servants were organised into a strict heirachy, which reflected the British class-system of the period. So, who was on top, who was at the bottom, and what kinds of jobs did they do?
In this article, servants will be divided into male, and female servants, starting from the most superior, and going down from there. I’ve tried to explain all their duties as best as I can, but in some cases, a single duty could be performed by any number of people. Here we go…
The butler was the most senior member of all the male servants, and generally the most senior servant overall. The butler is the ‘master’ of the servants. He runs the entire house, and ensures that everyone knows what they need to do and what time it needs to be done by. The popular image of the butler is someone who just answers doors, takes calling-cards, announces guests and provides witty remarks and conversation, but this is just the surface. Underneath all this, was a job which required brains, a damn good memory, organisation-skills and patience. The butler answered to the master of the house.
The butler was in charge of keeping all the servants running around smoothly. He was also in charge of waiting on the master’s family at meals, and of looking after the wine-cellar. The title ‘butler’ comes from an old French word meaning “bottler”, that is, the man who looks after the bottles in the wine-cellar. Apart from these duties, he was also expected to answer the door, announce visitors, take calling-cards, escort visitors out of the house, organise the mail and most importantly – it was his duty to lock up the house each night, making sure that all the doors, windows and shutters were locked, closed and bolted. The butler was usually the first person to wake up every morning and the last person to sleep at night.
The valet (pronounced ‘vallay’, also called a ‘manservant’ or a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’), was the personal attendant or servant to the master of the house. His job was to make sure his master’s life ran smoothly. If the master was going away on a journey, his valet packed his steamer-trunks or suitcases for him. He booked taxicabs, hotel-reservations and train or liner-tickets for him. In day-to-day life, the valet would also handle such tasks as shaving his master, running a bath for his master, serving him and his friends drinks and looked after his master’s wardrobe and clothing. The famous fictional character Reginald Jeeves (mentioned in the title of this article), is a valet.
The footmen (as there were usually at least two), were in charge of such things as looking after the chinaware, crystalware and silverware. Ensuring that it was cleaned properly, stored properly, and that the silver was polished and cleaned on a regular basis. They directed guests during parties, assisted visitors with their luggage and waited on the family and any guests, at dinnertime.
Footmen were a sort of human fashion-accessory or status-symbol back in the 18th and 19th centuries, as only the wealthiest of masters could afford them. Footmen were liveried (had special uniforms), which the master had to pay for, out of his own pocket, which made their upkeep a bit more expensive than most other servants. Footmen had to be young, tall, handsome and strong. As they were a sign of their master’s wealth, they were expected to keep themselves presentable at all times, with clean clothes, clear complexions and clean-shaven faces. Footmen answered directly to the butler.
The title ‘footman’ is a contraction of ‘running footman’. Running after what? The carriage, of course! Yes indeed. In the 17th and 18th centuries (and probably before that), a footman was literally a footman. His task was to jog after the master’s carriage, and to look after it (in the company of the coachman), when the master went to town. You can see why footmen had to be tall, young and strong now, can’t you? Can’t be a footman if you can’t run after a carriage all day.
In later times, footmen usually sat on specially-made seats at the fronts or backs of their master’s carriage, and would open the doors to let the occupants out when it reached its destination.
The job of the chef is obvious. He was expected to be able to cook food. Good food. And lots of it. He didn’t just have to cook for the master, his family and any guests…he was also expected to be able to cook for the ENTIRE servant-population living in the house as well! His job centered around the kitchen, making sure that everything ran smoothly and that dishes were sent upstairs in a uniform manner.
Tutor or Schoolmaster.
The tutor or schoolmaster was in charge of the education of any children of schooling age that the master might have, who lived on the estate. His job was simple. He was to teach the young masters maths, English, history, geography, maybe a language like Latin, some music, and maybe a bit of science. His position in the heirachy of servants was a tricky one, though. A tutor was not a servant, but neither was he a member of the master’s family, leaving him awkwardly in the middle of the two classes.
The pageboy was a young man (probably aged between 10-20), whose job it was to deliver messages and run small errands around the house. He would deliver the post to the master’s study, he would post letters which required sending, and performed other light duties which the master might need him to perform, while the master conducted business.
Hallboy and Boot-boy
The hallboy was the lowest of all the male ranks within the domestic heirachy. He did all the tough, gruelling or otherwise dangerous jobs that other servants either could not, or would not do. He chopped firewood, he carried firewood, he swept floors, washed windows, polished doorknobs and polished all the shoes (although this could also be done by a lad known as the boot-boy). The ‘hallboy’ got his name from the fact that he usually worked (and sometimes even slept) in the servant’s dining-hall.
The boot-boy’s job sounds exactly like what it does; his job in the great house was to clean all the boots. He scrubbed the soles to remove any encrusted mud or other yucky things from them, and he polished them until they were nice and shiny. To polish the boots to a nice, dark, squeaky clean shine, he would have to use a substance called ‘blacking’, which was an old form of shoe-polish. Before the 20th century, shoe-polish as we know it today, being sold in little flat, round tins, did not exist. Instead, the poor boot-boy had to make it himself. To make it, he used ingredients such as wax, tallow (animal fat), soot or lamp-black, turpentine and even acid! Considering the fact that boot-boys could be working around the clock and could be very tired, messing up this mixture or getting some of the more undesirable and dangerous ingredients on your hands, was not something you wanted to happen!
Coachman and Stablehands/boys.
The coachman and his stable-boys had the jobs of looking after the master’s carriage and horses. The coachman made sure that the carriage worked properly, that it wasn’t damaged, that it was ready for any journey that the master might want to go on, and that the carriage lamps or lanterns were properly fuelled in case of night-time travel. The stable-boys exercised, fed and looked after all the horses in the stables.
The Gardener and Gamekeeper.
The gardener and the gamekeeper were a pair of men whose jobs it was to look after the gardens and grounds of the estate, and to look after any game-animals (deers, geese, ducks, etc), which resided on the estate, should the master and his shooting-party desire to go hunting.
The housekeeper was the most senior female servant. Her job was to keep the house clean, and to organise all the other female servants. She answered to the mistress of the house.
The housemaid or maids were the housekeeper’s assistants. They helped the housekeeper with her work. They dusted furniture, shook out rugs and carpets and did other general cleaning around the house, such as sweeping and mopping. The medical condition known as ‘housemaid’s knee’ comes from housemaids always being on their knees, scrubbing and scouring and sweeping.
The nurse or nursemaid (today more commonly called a nanny), was responsible for looking after any of the master’s children who were below schooling-age.
The governess had a job similar the tutor or schoolmaster and also similar to the nursemaid. She educated and looked after school-aged children, belonging to the master, who were not yet old enough to attend boarding-school (as was the style of education at the time).
While the housekeeper and her housemaids were responsible for the cleanliness of the entire house, the chambermaid was responsible for just one chamber (room) in the house. It might be a bedroom or a study, the living-room, sitting room, drawing-room, library or dining-room, but it was usually the bedroom. Her tasks included making sure the beds were cleaned and made up properly, that bedsheets were changed and of course, that chamberpots were emptied regularly! Chambermaids would also light fires in the bedrooms during cold weather, to make sure the occupant was warm. They were expected to be able to do this without waking the sleeper up in the middle of the night!
The kitchen-maid was the chef’s assistant. She helped him prepare dishes and ingredients. Once the dishes were ready, she would deliver food from the kitchen to the dining-room. If the household had no footmen around, then she might also serve as a waitress, serving the family and guests their meals.
The scullery-maid (also called a ‘scullion’!) was the lowest of the lowest servants. She did all the most backbreaking work that nobody else would want to do. The scullery-maid’s domain was the scullery. In a grand house, the scullery was the washing-up room. The scullery-maid was the dishwasher, the laundress, the clothes-drier and the dish-stacker. She had a phenomenal amount of work to do. She washed all the cutlery, all the dishes, the pots, the pans, the plates, the bowls, glassware and silverware. She dried it all. She washed all the clothes and linen and she hung it out to dry. She collected it when it was dry, and she ironed it and folded it and then the housemaids would come and take it back upstairs to be put away and footmen or kitchen-maids would take all the washed and dried crockery and cutlery and pots and pans, and put them away.
Maid of all work.
Just like the name suggests, the maid of all work did…ALL…the work. In middle-class or upper-middle class houses during the Georgian and Victorian eras, the master and mistress of the house might employ just the one (or if the maid was lucky, two!) maids, to do all the work. This meant the cooking, cleaning, washing up, ironing, folding, sweeping out fireplaces, filling lamps, replacing candles and wicks, washing windows, sweeping floors, beating rugs, carrying coal, water, firewood, ice and a million other things.
This style or model of service lasted for several centuries, from as far back as maybe the 1600s until finally dying out in the 1940s! The two World Wars and the Depression of the 1930s meant that it was impractical and impossible to keep such vast numbers of servants. Most would have left to fight in the wars, or fill in other occupations. Rising taxes and inflation meant that servants became more expensive to pay and keep, so many started being laid off. Modern inventions such as vacuum-cleaners, dishwashers and washing-machines meant that fewer servants were needed, anyway. By the end of the 1940s, grand houses with butlers, maids, hallboys, pages and valets were slowly consigned to history, to exist only in the novels and stories of P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.