Posts Tagged ‘Regency Servants’


Inquiring readers: This is the first of a post on the subject of the upward mobility for two upper servant positions. Part One examines the duties of the lady’s maid, and her motivation for continuing in a position that was hard and demanding, and that required her to be loyal and subservient to her mistresses’ whims and wishes from early morning to late at night, and at times past her usual long hours.

Through her visits to grand houses, such as Godmersham Park, Jane Austen became familiar with the lives of ladies maids and housekeepers. These two positions belonged to the class of upper female servants, but even with their “status” and the deference they received from the lower servants their service required long work hours and extensive knowledge of and years of training in their respective duties and situations. Their hours were determined by the requirements of the lady of the house and her social schedule  (although, in the instance of the housekeeper, the master of the house might also have a great say, especially if he was unmarried, like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley.)


Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, public domain. Image 1

The Lady’s Maid

According to The Woman’s Domain, the position of the lady’s maid was one of the best in the female hierarchy of servants. Most of her day was spent above stairs working in her lady’s dressing room. She frequently accompanied her lady on travels and visits, a privilege not accorded to many. In public, she was expected to dress fashionably in clothes that were tasteful but not as fine as her mistress’s. Better yet, she was chosen by her mistress and employed directly by her.

The Complete Servant (1825) mentions that the “business of the lady’s maid is extremely simple, and but little varied.” The book’s authors describe the lady’s maid’s duties:

  • She is generally to be near the person of her lady ; 
  • and to be properly qualified for her situation, her education should be superior to that of the ordinary class of females, particularly in needle work, and the useful and ornamental branches of female acquirements.
  • To be peculiarly neat and clean in her person and dress is better than to be tawdry or attractive, as intrinsic merit is a much greater recommendation than extrinsic appearance. 
  • In her temper she should be cheerful and submissive, studying her lady’s disposition.
  • It will be her business to dress, re-dress , and undress her lady; and, in this, she should learn to be perfectly au fait and expeditious, ever studying, so far as it depends on herself, to manifest good taste, by suiting the ornaments and decoration of her dress to the complexion, habits, age , and general appearance of her person . (p237)

The image below lists the skills that a lady’s maid is expected to possess. 


Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain. Image 2

A lady’s maid had no set work hours. Her attention was devoted to her mistress’s comforts and whims. This left her with little time to devote to her family or to visit them. Her schedule was erratic and changed  at the last minute to accommodate unexpected house guests and family trips or travels. She was also expected to attend to her mistress after a  late night return from a ball or visit. During the day she accompanied her mistress while shopping or walking. In this capacity, and while traveling by her mistress’s side, she was expected to behave and dress appropriately, but never to wear clothes more fashionable  than her employer. 

The following image lists the behavior a mistress expects from her lady’s maid, which are described in detail in The Duties of a Lady’s Maid.

Contents 1

Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825. Image 3.

In between caring for her mistress, she was expected to mend her clothes, remove spots, iron, and make poultices, lotions, and cosmetics. She was also a hairdresser, dresser, cosmetician, cleaner, supervisor of lesser servants, seamstress, and companion all rolled into one. In other words, she had no free time except for the few days and hours a month allotted to her. 

The Day of a Lady’s Maid

The Complete Servant lists the lady’s maid’s exhaustive duties:


  • Her first business, in the morning , will be to see that the housemaid has made the fire , and properly prepared her lady’s dressing room: -she then calls her mistress, informs her of the hour, and having laid out all her clothes, and carried her hot water, to wash, she retires to her breakfast with the housekeeper and other principal servants.
  • When her lady’s bell rings, she attends her in her dressing  room – combs her hair for the morning, and waits on her till dressed; after which, she folds and puts away her night clothes , cleans her combs and brushes  and adjusts her toilet table.


  • About one o’clock the family generally take their lunch, and the servants their dinner.– After this, she is again summoned to attend her lady’s toilet whilst dressing to go abroad.
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires , both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .


  • Previous to her mistress ‘ retiring for the night , she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only now, but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, etc. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them , before she folds them away. If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to adminis ter her medicines , and sometimes to read to her. 

Progress of the Toilet Dress Completed Gillray 1810-British Museum

Progress of the Toilet, Plate 3, Dress Completed, James Gillray. Crude copy, 1810. British Museum. Image 4.

During a Lady’s Maid’s “Free Time”

  • In the absence of the housekeeper, she will be required to make tea and coffee for the drawing room company. 
  • At her leisure, practise reading aloud, from the best author; as it is important to acquire a proper style and manner of reading, in all the varieties of poetry or prose, ode or epistle, comedy, or sermon; avoiding, alike, the dull monotony of the school girl, and the formal affectation of the pedant, but following nature as her guide, in all that appertains to emphasis, modulation, and delivery.
  • If acquainted with the superior branches of needle work, she might afford her lady much gratification, in presenting her, occasionally, with such trifles as will be acceptable, and suitable ornaments for her person This will evince her disposition to be grateful and to oblige; and this, combined with a feminine sweetness of temper, and suavity of manners, cannot fail to be her sure recommendation to the esteem of her superiors and others, through all the various circumstances of life. 
  • She lays out and prepares the several articles that may be required for her dinner, or evening dress, and afterwards employs her self at needle work in her own room, or in her other avocations, till her mistress returns to dress for dinner, perhaps about five, when she attends her for that purpose; and having done this, it may happen that no further attendance on her mistress’s person will be required till she retires to bed: meanwhile she employs herself at needle work, as in the morning * more else in the various occupations of getting up the fine linen, gauzes, muslins, cambrics, laces, & washing silk stockings, taking the spots or stains out of silks, [text?] … for doing which the best receipts are annexed . 
  • It is her business to see that the house maid, or chambermaid, empties the slops, keeps up the fires, both in this and the bedroom, ( if wanted ) and keeps the rooms in perfect order .
  • Previous to her mistress’s  retiring for the night, she will have looked out her night clothes, and aired them well; and she will not only do (?), but at all times when she goes to dress, carry up hot water, for washing, & c. and when she is gone to bed, she will carefully examine all her clothes, and do all that is necessary to be done to them, before she folds them away. 
  • If her lady be elderly, infirm, or unwell, she will sometimes be required to bring her work, and sit with her, to administer her medicines, and sometimes to read to her. To qualify herself for this latter purpose, and to acquit herself with propriety

After years of service, she hoped that her loyal and attentive companionship would be rewarded by her mistress or the family in her old age. Sadly, this was not always the case if a widowed husband remarried or a son with his own wife inherited the estate. One would imagine that in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. John Dashwood would bring her own lady’s maid in place of the widow Dashwood’s loyal maid servant. 

A Female Servant’s Attraction to the Job of Lady’s Maid

In the early 19th century servant turnover was already surprisingly high. (This trend became more worrisome as the century wore on.) Those who remained with a household did so for job security, They might not have had other prospects for employment, or they might have moved to better employment. Some stayed for the chance of advancement; or in the hope for a pension after years of loyal service; or, as with a lady’s maid, for a chance to travel beyond her local parish or county. In those days a majority of the working poor or lower working classes lived and worked within walking distances of their villages or homes and rarely ventured beyond that during their lifetime, although there were exceptions.

The working lives of lower servants were not easy. They slept in cramped attic rooms that they shared and that were cold in winter and hot in summer. Many toiled in damp basements throughout the day, and carried heavy buckets of water to heat for food, laundering clothes, or bathing.

No wonder upper servants – land stewarts, butlers, and valets on the male side, and cooks, lady’s maids, and housekeepers on the woman’s side – were positions preferred by those who sought employment. These occupations came with the perks of private rooms and status in the servant hierarchy. Servants who worked under them deferred to their wishes, since few from the lower order spoke to the master or mistress of the house.

Upper servants took years to acquire the necessary skills for their positions, which took years of patience and planning. This personal investment was worth the wait … IF an upward bound position opened.  A century later, Barrow and Molesley in Downton Abbey experienced the travails of thinking they had achieved their goals, only to lose their positions and settle for situations lower down again. 

The Education of Sarah Neal, Whose Ambition Was to be a Lady’s Maid

The road Sarah Neall took to becoming a lady’s maid is described in The Woman’s Domain by Lumis and March. Sarah embarked on her ambitious journey as early as the age of eight. Her father, an innkeeper, sent her to a small private day school for girls in Chichester – which was named Miss Riley’s – to start her on her journey. There she  learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her instruction included scripture, a general knowledge of geography, the counties of England, names and dates of kings and queens, and a smattering of classical culture. Mr. Neal, a working class gent, could not afford French instruction, which was a desirable skill, but he had the means to give her a start that no laborer or unskilled worker could have afforded for their daughters. In her early years Sarah learned the foundational skills that sent her in the direction of achieving her ambitions. Miss Riley’s school and schools like hers were  a common pathway for working class girls to learn the rudiments required for an upper servant position

After attending Miss Riley’s, Sarah apprenticed to a dressmaker for four years where she honed her skills in dressmaking. She also took lessons in hairdressing and millinery. Eventually, Sarah landed a job as one of two young lady’s maids at Uppark, a 17th-century house in South Harting in West Sussex. She was the younger of the two maids, where she hoped for a possible advancement to housekeeper. In her position as lady’s maid, she kept a diary about the places she visited, which documented events but not her thoughts nor descriptions about her employers. Sarah left her position when her mother’s poor health required her to attend to her needs. (More about Sarah in Part 2 of this three part series.)

Uppark_Kip-early 18th C-Wiki

Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image. Image 6.

Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice mentions the Bennet servants at Longbourn: They were a butler, Mrs Hill, and two house maids. Very little is known about each, but Mrs. Bennet required Mrs. Hill’s services several times when she was needed, notably when Mr. Collins announced his visit. The two house maids in Pride and Prejudice dressed and cared for six women, as well as tended to the household duties along with Mrs. Hill. One only can imagine their chores. Lydia and Kitty’s requirements must have been quite a task compared to Mary’s, Elizabeth’s, and Jane’s demands, which I surmise were more restrained. Austen never described those interactions in detail, and so we can only guess.

In Longbourn, Jo Baker the author, weaves a story about Mr. Hill, the butler; Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and his wife; Sarah (16) and Polly (11,) the two house maids; and James Smith, a mysterious man of all work. Baker discussed the two young maids and their duties at length, and I wondered if she fashioned young Sarah after Sarah Neal, so aptly described in the Woman’s Domain and by her son, H.G. Wells in his autobiography (which is why we know so much about her). 

The Perks of Being a Lady’s Maid

As mentioned before, the lady’s maid spent the majority of her day above stairs in comfortable and often luxurious surroundings, ready to change her mistress’s dress or to rearrange her hair for an evening out at a moment’s notice. She received a major perk that other upper servants did not – her mistress’s old clothes that were out of fashion. It was important that she look presentable when accompanying her lady on walks, visits, or out of town trips. She could not under any circumstance outshine her employer. For extra money she had the freedom to sell her second-hand gifts or refurbish them. The travel, the visits to grand houses, her companionship with her lady when she read to her or listened to her confidences – all these were hers in exchange for loyalty, sacrifice from seeing her family freely, and for being discreet.


Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

Description (British Museum): A pretty lady’s maid stoops in profile to the right to gaze with prurient eagerness through a key-hole. She holds a salver with her left hand, letting two jelly-glasses slide off it, while her other hand is beneath her dress. A lady’s bonnet and gloves and a cocked hat and sword, carelessly laid down, show the object of her curiosity. She wears a graceful white gown and a lace cap over her curled hair. April 1817. Etching with hand-colouring.

For the reader: Think about this image re: the Lady’s Maid as discussed in this post: Knowing what is expected of the lady’s maid and her conduct, what about this image disturbs you? What in the details do you see related to her work and attire? What is the satire? Feel free to place your thought in your comment.

The Young Lady’s Maid 

Lastly, this post addresses the young lady’s maids who are hired in large families to wait on a group of young ladies or one in particular. (Recall that Sarah began her career when she was 18 or 19.) Recall Mr. Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana. He felt responsible towards her and probably made sure she was “protected” when his schedule and social activities took him away from Pemberley. The duties of her young lady’s maid were to cater to her personal needs and comfort, to be her companion during outings, and to read to her or converse with her during private periods. This young lady’s maid’s duties were similar to her more mature counterparts, and she would be expected to follow similar directions and instructions to serve her young mistress.

Her situation was considered initiatory to a better trajectory in life. A more mature upper servant in the household would provide oversight. In young Miss Darcy’s instance, this would most likely be the housekeeper. Successful young lady’s maids grew up with their mistresses and stayed with them for years, achieving a deep affection and close friendship for one another. These young charges as they matured often knew their ladies better than their own families. 

Next post in this series: Part Two: Lady’s Maid to Housekeeper and Her Responsibilities.


Original Sources:

The Complete Servant; Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants, FROM THB HOUSEKEEPER TO THE SERVANT OP ALL WORK , AND FROM THE LAND STEWARD TO THE BOOT – BOY ; WITH USEFUL RECIPES AND TABLES , BY SAMUEL AND SARAH ADAMS , Fifty years Servants in different Families . LONDON : PUBLISHED BY KNIGHT AND LACEY , PUBLISHERS OF BOOKS CONNECTED WITH THE USEFUL ARTS , at the James Watt , in Paternoster – Row . MDCCCXxv (1825).  Price Seven Shillings and Sixpence. From The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Free google play book.

The Duties of a Lady’s Maid; With Directions for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette, LONDON : PRINTED FOR JAMES BULCOCK , 163 , STRAND . 1825 . Free Google play book, downloaded 1-11-2022. 

Wells, H.G.,  Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). 1934, Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #539, where this book is in the public domain with restrictions. Link to the book: Downloaded 1-14-2022.


Lummis, T.& March, J. in association with The National Trust, The Woman’s Domain: Women and the English Country House (1993 2nd Ed.) Penguin Books, England.221 pp.

Meade-Featherstonhaugh, M. & Warner, O. Uppark and Its People (1995, 2nd ed) The National Trust, London.

Pool, D. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England. 1993. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, NY.

Servants in Regency England: Fall 2016 Adapting Jane Austen, A Xavier University First Year Seminar


Image 1: Fronticepiece, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 2: Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 3: Duties of Behavior of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, Public Domain.

Image 4: The Progress of the Toilet, Dress Completed, Plate 3, 1810. Gillray, British Museum

Image 5: The Dressmaker, Book of Trades, 1804, Rijks Museum, anonymous. Click on the title.

Image 6: Uppark, early 18th c. This is a bird’s eye view of Uppark and its lands by Jan Kip. Wikipedia, creative commons image.

Image 7: Satirical print of a Lady’s Maid, British Museum, entitled Curiosity, Charles William, 1817.

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The House Servant’s Directory: An African American Butler’s 1827 Guide by Robert Roberts is the first books written by an African American to have been published in the

Gore Place, Waltham MA

Gore Place, Waltham MA. Image @Wikipedia

United States by a major publisher. Roberts worked as a butler and major domo for Christopher Gore (a U.S. Senator and governor of Massachusetts) from 1825-1827 at Gore Place. Robert’s book, a remarkable feat, was also popular, for it was to have two more printings in 1828 and 1834. His advice gives us a glimpse into the life of an early 19th century butler.

Here are his instructions for taking care of a gentleman’s clothes:

if your gentleman’s clothes should happen to get wet or muddy, hang them out in the sun or before the fire to dry. Do not attempt to brush them when wet, or you will surely spoil them, but as soon as they are perfectly dry, take and rub them between your hands where there are any spots of mud, then hang them on your clothes horse, which you must have for the purpose; then take a rattan and give them a whipping, to take out the dust, but be careful and don’t hit the buttons, or you will be apt to break or scratch them.

Image @Wikipedia

Image @Wikipedia

He goes on to describe how one should then carefully brush the coat, starting with the back of the collar, moving to the shoulders, and then to the sleeves and cuffs.  Roberts’ instructions for folding the coat are equally meticulous and given so that “you will find the coat folded in a manner that will gain you credit from any gentleman, and will keep smooth for any journey.” Clothes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, were quite expensive, and taking care of them and keeping them in good shape was a major undertaking.

Man's suit, American. 1810-1820. Museum of Fine Art

Man’s suit, American. 1810-1820. Museum of Fine Art

Hats were another part of a gentleman’s wardrobe that required great care lest they begin to look shabby. A soft camels hair brush is the preferred instrument to brush hats with, for it will not injure fur or scratch it off. Wet hands should be handled with great care or “you will put it out of form.” Using a silk handkerchief and holding the hat carefully (hand inside and fingers extended) “rub it lightly all round, the way the fur goes”. Roberts was most likely talking about beaver hats, which were quite the rage and expensive.

Hat 1820-1830, Snowshill Manor. Image @Nationa Trust/Richard Blakey

Hat 1820-1830, Snowshill Manor. Image @Nationa Trust/Richard Blakey

There are some people that think brushing a hat while it is wet, certainly spoils it; but it is quite the contrary; for the hatters themselves always brush and finish off their hats while damp, so as to give the fur a brilliant appearance. Likewise they set them to their regular shape while damp. I have received these instructions myself, from one of the best hat manufacturers in London.”

This last statement demonstrates Roberts’s worldly and educated background. It is no wonder that his advice still holds up well today.

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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

Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Shire; illustrated edition edition (March 4, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0747803684
ISBN-13: 978-0747803683

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The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration: her life is a solitary one, and in, some places, her work is never done. She is also subject to rougher treatment than either the house or kitchen-maid – Mrs. Isabella Beeton

Maid of all work, W.H. Pyne

Maid of all work, W.H. Pyne

Gracie, the maid of all work in Anne Perry’s mystery novels, was lucky. Charlotte Pitt, the wife of Inspector Pitt, was a good and kind mistress who worked alongside her maid and gave gentle instructions. They quickly established a friendly relationship. Charlotte’s kindness did not make Gracie’s work life much easier, but she was luckier than most of her counterparts. In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton places a maid of all work lower than even a scullery maid. According to Mrs. Beeton, an ambitious scullery maid could learn skills from the kitchen maids and cook and move up the servant ranks, whereas a maid of all work was generally stuck in her position.

As with the scullery maid, the maid of all work was generally a very young girl. She could also be a mature woman so down on her luck that the only other choices open to her were life on the streets or finding shelter in a work house, which was to be avoided at all costs. In Mansfield Park Fanny’s family in Portsmouth is described as being poor, yet even they were able to hire a maid of all work, so you can just imagine what the work conditions were like for these poor women, who literally did everything from cooking, sweeping the floors, hauling water, carrying out slops, looking after the pets and children, laundering, changing the beds, and serving the family at mealtimes. Maids of all work were the first to rise and the last to go to bed. If the house was small, they were lucky to receive a pallet to sleep near the fire in the kitchen. As for time off to rest and recuperate, a maid of all work was at the mercy of her employer.

The following description of a maid of all work comes from ‘The Dictionary of Daily Wants’ – 1858-1859:

MAID OF ALL WORK. – A domestic servant, who undertakes the whole duties of a household without assistance; her duties comprising those of cook, housemaid, nurserymaid, and various other offices, acccording to the exigencies of the establishment. The situation is one which is usually regarded as the hardest worked and worst paid of any branch of domestic servitude; it is, therefore, usually filled by inexperienced servants, or females who are so circumstanced that they are only desirous of securing a home, and of earning sufficient to keep themselves decently clad. In many of these situations, a servant may be very comfortably circumstanced, especially if it be a limited family of regular habits, and where there is a disposition to treat the servant with kindness and consideration.

The duties of a maid of all work being multifarious, it is necessary that she should arise early in the morning; and six or half-past six o’clock is the latest period at which she should remain in bed. She should first light the kitchen fire, and set the kettle over to boil; then she should sweep, dust, and prepare the room in which breakfast is to be taken. Having served the breakfast, she should, while the family are engaged upon that meal, proceed to the various bedchambers, strip the beds, open the windows, &c. This done, she will obtain her own breakfast, and after washing and putting away the things, she will again go upstairs, and finish what remains to be done there.

W.H. Pyne, Microcosm of London

W.H. Pyne, Microcosm of London

As the family will in all probability dine early, she must now set about the preliminaries for the dinner, making up the fire, preparing the vegetables, &c. After the dinner is cleared away, and the things washed and put by in their places, she must clean the kitchen; and this done, she is at liberty to attend to her own personal appearance, to wash and dress herself, &c. By this time the preparation for tea will have to be thought of, and this being duly served and cleared away, she must employ herself in needlework in connection with the household, or should there happen to be none requiring to be done, she may embrace this opportunity to attend to her own personal necessities. Supper has then to be attended to; and this finished, the maid of all work should take the chamber candlesticks, hot water, &c., into the sitting-room, and retire to rest as soon as her mistress or the regulation of the establishment will permit her.

The duties here set down can only be regarded as an outline rather than a detail, the habits of every family varying, and thereby regulating the amount of labour demanded, and the order in which the duties are to be performed. As a rule, however, a maid of all work, if she wish to retain her situation, must be industrious, cleanly, and thoughtful; and not only able to work, but to plan.

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maid of all work

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.”

2. References

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.

Registry Office, Rowlandson

Registry Office, Rowlandson

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.

The nurse, detail of the Breedwell Family by Rowlandson

The nurse, detail of the Breedwell Family by Rowlandson

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.

Oh, ah, let em ring again, George Cruikshank (Servants ignoring the bell)

Oh, ah, let em ring again, George Cruikshank (Servants ignoring the bell)

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.

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