Servants held a unique place in Victorian society. They were vital to the smooth running of every wealthy household, yet their lives were often difficult and demanding. Their job titles and duties varied depending on the household they worked in, but all servants played an important role in their employers’ lives.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the different types of servants who populated Victorian England, as well as what their lives were like below stairs. We’ll also explore some of the myths and misconceptions that still surround these fascinating figures today.
Servants in Victorian England
Victorian society was strictly hierarchical. It’s important to remember that very few members of the household staff were actually ‘servants’ in the true sense of the word. Instead, they would have been better described as employees or workers – with strict rules and regulations surrounding their behavior and duties.
The strict hierarchy extended right down to the servants themselves. There was a clear divide between those who waited on the master and mistress of the house and those who worked as cooks, maids, or footmen in their personal service.
The most senior members of staff were known as ‘parlormaids’, ‘housekeepers’ or ‘butlers’.
Parlormaids carried out the more physical and strenuous tasks around the house, such as dusting and sweeping floors, lighting fires and lighting lamps.
Housekeepers were responsible for managing all of the other staff below the stairs. They supervised junior maids and would report any shortcomings to the butler.
Butlers were charged with attending their master at all times. They were also responsible for valeting him and maintaining the wine cellar. If they worked in a large household, the butler might even act as ‘steward’ to the lady of the house. The Butler supervised other male servants, looked after the wine cellars and served wine at dinner, and attended to the needs of the family and guests in the dining and drawing-room.
At the bottom of this divided social system were the maids, footmen and cooks. They worked long hours below stairs – from early in the morning to late at night – with only a few hours’ respite after lunch. In return for carrying out their duties, servants received food and accommodation as part of their contract.
Typically, a middle-class family needed at least one servant to run their household. A wealthy family might have as many as seven servants: a cook, two maids and a housekeeper, in addition to the butler and footmen.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that all servants were fairly treated or even paid for their work. Many lived and worked in fairly primitive conditions, with little or no time off.
The Role of the Victorian Servant
Servants spent much of their lives below stairs – sometimes even sleeping there. They might have only emerged to carry out more physically arduous tasks on the busy days in the year, such as cleaning grates or emptying chamber pots.
Those who worked closely with their employers were often required to abide by strict social rules. Their conduct had to be impeccable, which could make it difficult if the staff member was ever tempted to marry.
For example, a gentleman’s valet might not have been permitted to marry until his employer had died or the valet retired – which could leave him unable to provide for his wife.
Below Stairs Life
The majority of servants would have had little interaction with their employers, apart from the occasional meeting over breakfast or dinner. It was the housekeeper’s job to ensure that any requests were carried out promptly and efficiently – but most staff wouldn’t even meet their master or mistress during working hours.
As you might expect, the relationship between the housekeeper and maids was often strained. Housekeepers would have been responsible for finding their staff work, making sure they were all available at certain times of the day, and generally keeping them busy.
Maids themselves worked extremely hard during their long days below stairs, particularly if they had young children to look after. That ‘s because they would have had to get up early in the morning and work until late at night, with only a few hours off in between.
A typical day might have begun around 6am when the cook rang a bell to awaken the servants below stairs. They would then help carry out any tasks that were needed before breakfast, such as lighting fires, cleaning and laying out clothes.
After breakfast, the maids might have been required to carry out their principal duties before attending to any special errands. Servants were expected to be punctual – a housemaid arriving late for work would have been frowned upon. Housekeepers would mark an ‘x’ against her name in a book to indicate she hadn’t turned up.
If the family was wealthy enough to employ a lady’s maid, she might have had to wake her mistress and attend to her throughout the morning. She would also help dress and groom her – although some mistresses were quite particular about doing their own hair and make-up.
After lunch, servants’ main duties would be carried out. The housemaids might have had to clean the bedrooms one by one, while footmen and other male servants were expected to lay fires in winter.
Servants’ afternoon tasks depended on their employer’s requirements. For example, if they needed their carriage made ready, the coachman and stable boy would be sent to assist with the horses.
In the evening, servants would be expected to work until they were ready to retire.
For maids this might mean washing dishes and cleaning downstairs areas before retiring, or waiting up for their master or mistress when they returned from dinner.