This post is very much overdue! Besides the fact that this particular post should really get an airing before I finish the last part of Genre which will discuss the social country house, I find I’ve not included a plain and simple breakdown of the country house servant hierarchy! That’s without a mention of the incredibly persuasive Downton Abbey….
Therefore, the following is a list of servants predominantly from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and a very brief note of duties for those respective positions.
I have included an average of annual wages or salaries for positions throughout the centuries where possible* taking into account rising costs, but it is important to note that these could be vastly different between houses, and the demands of particular families. I have omitted references to other allowances such as beer, general perquisites like clothing or livery and board wages (a sum given to the servants who reside when the family are not at home for the season for example), and also the obvious increase in wages based on experience and length of employment. They are therefore intended as a guide only.
Housekeeper. The housekeeper was the undisputed head of the female staff. Such a role demanded a huge array of responsibility and the best character was dependable, prudent, sensible, and honest. Known as ‘Mrs’ regardless of marital status, a good housekeeper was probably a terrifying woman to work with if you were young and inexperienced, since she would have been expert in balancing her managerial duties with the skills to influence the social interaction of a large household. (Wage: 18th century – £15; 19th century – £30; 20th century – £50 upwards)
Cook. The image of a blowzy woman shouting orders at young kitchen maids and errand lads is probably most synonymous with the female cook. Not as prestigious as the male cook or chef, the female cook was nonetheless gifted and sought out for her sophisticated practical knowledge. Crucially, she had immense power over the reputation of her mistress when it came to entertaining and feeding guests. (Wage: 18th century – £12: 19th century – £40; 20th century £60 upwards)
Head Nurse/Nanny. The use of these terms is dependent upon the perception of the roles in any particular household as well as the age of the children. Modern-day perceptions of a nanny most likely come from the 19th century middle-class stereotype who was a stern and efficient outsider. In the country house the term nanny was used more affectionately for a long-standing female employee who had previously been in charge of the youngest children. (Wage: 18th century – £8; 19th century – £25; 20th century – £30)
Housemaid. Put simply, the housemaid was the cleaner of the country house, or any living arrangement, and her duties were endless making hours long. Her less attractive duty was of course the emptying of the chamber pot into a slop bucket. In larger houses there would be more than one house maid, known as a second and third housemaid or a small number of under housemaids. Regular live-in housemaids were supported at weekends or ‘busy periods’ by outside help. (Wage: 18th century – £5; 19th century – £15; 20th century – £25)
Kitchen maid/Cook maid. Often very skilled women or with the ambition to be so, they were part of the team of females overseeing everything in the kitchen department from cleanliness and efficiency to food preparation as well as answering to the demands of the dining table on a daily basis. (Wage: 18th century – £4; 19th century – £14; 20th century – £25)
Laundry maid. It was not uncommon for many houses to employ outside help in the form of a washerwoman and her family, day staff, or a laundry man who also outsourced the work (the latter was more common in later years), but the skilled laundry maid was a blessing if she excelled in the practicalities of steaming, pressing and goffering. (Wage: 18th century – £5; 19th century – £14; 20th century – £20)
Nursemaid. This was the nursery support who had the less pleasurable duties to attend to including washing nappies and removing any other soiled items from sight. Where the household required a wet nurse, the nursemaid also attended to her needs as well as ensuring the entire department was kept clean. (Wage: 18th century – £4; 19th century – £12; 20th century – £20)
Dairy maid. The 18th century image of a buxom maiden flirting with stable boys or the tenant farmer’s son added to the romance of the dairy maid and her rural freedoms. In reality she stood to support the network of employees connected with country house self-sufficiency. A woman in this job knew how to churn butter, to recognise the perfect creams for eating and how best to use the milky by-products for a variety of ingredients in the kitchen. This role became less crucial to the country house structure by the 20th century due to the impact of large-scale dairy farming and the ease at which produce could be bought from the open market. (Wage: 18th century – £5; 19th century £12; 20th century – £15)
Scullery maid. A country house maid-of-all-work whose routine revolved around supporting the kitchen maids with fetching and carrying, scrubbing, washing and scouring pots, pans and the kitchen generally! Her duties consisted of whatever the other staff (mainly the kitchen maids) thought fit within that department. (Wage: 18th century – £2 10s; 19th century £6; 20th century – £12)
Other roles. Storeroom maid: The support for the housekeeper in maintaining the vast stores of linens, foodstuffs and household supplies; an early role which seems to have all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century. Still room maid: A wonderfully practical role which demanded a certain amount of knowledge and skill in distilling and preserving – part of the housekeeper’s domain. Casual staff: These are often neglected in many secondary sources, but it would be impossible to run a large establishment without some extra external assistance. Not unusually, female casual staff were engaged in work at the house supporting the housemaids and kitchen staff and entries in household account books might list them as the ‘charwoman’ or ‘Saturday’s woman’.
Estate steward/Agent and House steward. The key administrative role and one particularly necessary when the master of the house had to attend to business elsewhere. The stewards and/or agent saw to processing almost every aspect of management for the family and its affairs, communicating with lawyers, architects, suppliers, tenants, and other family members. Depending upon the size of the estate these positions may have been fulfilled by one person. However, an estate usually consisted of different property across a region so an agent might have had responsibility for more than one estate steward. On smaller estates the house steward performed all these duties as one. (Estate Steward/Agent Wage: 18th century – £40; 19th century – £120; 20th century – £200 upwards. House Steward Wage: 18th century – £35; 19th century – £80; 20th century – £100 upwards)
Man-Cook/Chef. A male cook held great esteem for a household, greater still if he was a French chef. The master of the house made it his business to enquire about a good chef and seek references out. As head of the kitchen department, the male cook or chef demanded enthusiasm and hard work from his support staff and was probably not unlike the sharp-tongued chefs seen regularly on TV in modern times. (Wage: 18th century – £30; 19th century – £80; 20th century – £150 upwards)
Valet/Groom of the Chamber. The better paid equivalent of the lady’s maid, the valet was the companion of the master of the house and saw to every personal need. Like the lady’s maid, the valet helped dress and style his master, accompany him, liaise with the other servants, and attend to the private domestic arrangements of his employer. (Wage: 18th century – £20; 19th century – £50; 20th century – £120 upwards)
Butler. That lovely rosy-cheeked stereotype with well-polished mannerisms and clipped speech has the possibility to exist outside fiction. The butler was responsible primarily for the cellar goodies and would have needed an extensive knowledge of alcoholic beverages, ‘the charge of Wine and Liquors’ and most aspects of dining and entertainment. In smaller households, the butler replaced the valet in his duties. (Wage: 18th century – £10; 19th century – £50; 20th century – £70) Underbutler. (Wage: 18th century – £6; 19th century – £35; 20th century – £60)
Footman. Part of the ‘butler’s pantry’ department, the footman’s duties were deliberately light on labour – laying the table, answering the door, waiting at table and accompanying family when travelling on foot and by carriage. The key role of any footman was to aid conspicuous consumption through their expensive livery uniform, refined mannerisms and general appearance; the latter being a fundamental attribute in gaining employment. How tall they were for example dictated their annual salary, and a hopeful footman standing at over 5′ 10″ could command a respectable wage (18th century – £8; 19th century – £30; 20th century – £40).
Coachman. Just like the footmen, the coachman added a touch of conspicuous refinement whilst the family moved around or entertained. A good coachman would be sought after for his knowledge of coach maintenance combined with a general equestrian understanding – the mechanics of road travel. His undoubted successor into the 20th century was the Chauffeur who similarly would have had knowledge of car maintenance as well as acting as a medium for projecting family wealth. (Wage: 18th century – £12; 19th century – £40)
Head groom. Less conspicuous than the previous roles, but nonetheless a part of the network of specialist servants who communicated directly with their master or mistress. In reaching the position of head groom, dedication and ambition were key, and it is not unusual to see men undertaking this role after years of experience in the stable department beginning their career as a young postilion. (Wage: 18th century – £12; 19th century – £45)
Postilion. A strange role, and one which is rarely included in secondary sources despite it still existing in formal parades, particularly in Britain. The postilion rode the left horse of a pair if there was no coachman, or the front left horse if more than a pair in order to ‘drive’ the horses. Young men or boys were usually employed in this role as they were light and therefore created less strain on the horses pulling the carriage. (Wage: 18th century – £5; 19th century – £12)
Gardener. There were shifts in gardening trends over the period which demanded different horticultural knowledge from country house gardeners. As a highly specialist role, the most common thread would certainly have been the knowledge of produce – the more exotic the better. With this a gardener could sway the reputation of his employer; pineapples, apricots, grapes or oranges were inviting and added a great deal of variety to the dining table both at home or away in London. (Wage: 18th century – £10; 19th century – £60; 20th century – £100 upwards)
Gamekeeper (‘Keeper’). This seems to have been quite a perilous role for many. The Gamekeeper stood in an awkward place between his master and the preservation of game on the estate (deer, pheasant, rabbits etc.) and the local community who understood these creatures to be part of their share. Poaching was clearly as old as private landownership itself, but with the growth in popularity in the late 18th century of skilled marksmanship and the rights of search and arrest, suddenly preservation was as much about human life as it was game. (Wage: 18th century – £10; 19th century – £50; 20th century – £80 upwards)
Other roles. Hall boy or House boy/Page. Basically an aspiring footman who had shown steady ambition in another servant department. Typically an adolescent or younger. Porter. Similar to the hall boy or similar, though most likely carried out by an older male given the extent of duties and the nature of these – mainly building security. Casual staff: Unlike the female equivalent these roles would have been considered artisan rather than mere cleaning and char work. Journeymen and tailors for example sought to apply their skills at the country house and perhaps set up some informal contract to which they could return when required. Responsibilities might include repair of furnishings or specialist cleaning.
* Figures have been adapted from primary source material (Castle Howard, Temple Newsam and Nostell Priory MSS) and secondary sources (see below). These must not be taken as exact figures. Details of annual wages or salaries throughout the period are difficult to gain for several reasons, though mainly because amounts varied so vastly between estates and houses and often some positions are hard to identify. By the 20th century many positions had disappeared or been replaced by modern equivalents and thus wages were altered to reflect this shift. In this respect, I have omitted the 20th century wages for those occupations which had altered irretrievably by that point; Coachman, Head Groom and Postilion. Moreover, when servant numbers dwindled during and after the First World War, wages increased dramatically to entice prospective employees.
Arley Hall, Cheshire including list of wages 1750-90 http://www.arleyhallarchives.co.uk/staff.htm
Beautifully observed US description of country house servants with Dollar conversion of wages http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/servantwages.htm
The Great House (including servants) on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_house
The Victorian Servant http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/agunn/teaching/enl3251/vf/pres/davis.htm
The 18th century maidservant, according to Daniel Defoe http://myladyweb.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/maidservants-in-18th-centurya-necessary.html
References and recommended literature on the subject:
Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant. (1830)
Eileen Balderson and Douglas Goodlad, Backstairs Life in a Country House. (1982)
Mrs. Beeton, The Book of Household Management. Facsimile edition. (1982).
Jill Franklin, ‘Troops of Servants: Labour and Planning in the Country House 1840-1914’. Victorian Studies, vol. XIX, number 2 December 1975.
Juliet Gardiner, The Edwardian Country House. Channel 4 Books (2002)
Jessica Gerard, Country House Life: Family and Servants, 1815-1914. (1994)
Jessica Gerard, ‘Invisible Servants: The Country House and the Local Community’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, LVII, pp.144-148. (1984)
Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. (1978)
Hannah Glasse, The Servant’s Directory or Housekeeper’s Companion. (1760)
Peter and Carolyn Hammond, Life in an Eighteenth-Century Country House: Letters from the Grove. (2012)
Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements. National Trust. (1992)
J. J. Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England. (1956)
Bridget Hill, Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century. (1996)
Pamela Horn, Flunkeys and Scullions: Life Below Stairs in Georgian England. (2004)
Pamela Horn, Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century. (1980)
Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. (2000)
Lesley Lewis, The Private Life of a Country House. In Association with The National Trust. (1997)
Dorothy Marshall, ‘The Domestic Servants of the Eighteenth Century’, Economica, number 9, pp.15-40 (April 1929)
Pamela A. Sambrook, The Country House Servant. In Association with the National Trust. (2004)
Pamela A. Sambrook and Peter Brears, The Country House Kitchen: 1650-1900. (2010)
Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: at Home in Georgian England. (2009)
Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic history of Erddig. (1980)