Posts Tagged ‘Regency Servants’

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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Register Office for the Hiring of Servants, Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1800-05

Contrary to the image of a faithful servant who spends the better part of his life in service to his master, the domestic trade was in reality a transitory one. Servants could be hired and asked to start within a day. They could also be fired on the spot without references.

Servants came and went at a great rate; in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ‘most men had left service before they were forty. This was partly because employers did not want middle -aged footmen or valets, but also because servants themselves tended to see the work as part of the life-cycle rather than a career for life.’ – *Below Stairs, p 95

In Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Footman, John MacDonald writes: “When I had been a week in London, I met the Irish Chairman that carried Mr Hamilton and Major Joass when in London. I said to him, ‘Do you hear of any place for me?’ ‘By G-d, Johnny, I do; go to Major Libbelier; he lodges at a hair-dresser’s in Lower Grosvenor Street; go to him, Johnny, early tomorrow morning.’ I went – the maid told him I was below. ‘Call him up.’ ‘Well, sir, what are your commands?’ ‘Where you ever in Ireland?’ ‘Look to my recommendations.’ ‘I know Colonel Skeene, and Major Joass in particular. Then you have been through Ireland?’ ‘I have, sir.’ ‘Very well, I’ll give you fourteen shillings a week; and if I go to Ireland, I’ll give you sixpence more a day on the road.’ I dressed him and he was pleased.”

The best way to hire a servant was to find one through an advertisement. A personal character, reference, testimonial or note written by a former employer was essential before taking someone on.

It is not a safe plan to go to a Registry unless you know all about it first, though there are some which are really trustworthy. But a servant who once finds his or her way to a Registry Office is almost always unsettled, and no sooner in a place than looking out for another. The average London wages may be set down as: Butlers, £40 to £100; Footmen, £20 to £40; Pages, £8 to £15; Cooks, £18 to £50; House. maids, £10 to £25; Parlour-maids. £12 to £30; “General Servants,” Anglice Maids of all Work, £6 to £15. [Note: these are 1840’s wages.] A month’s notice required before leaving or dismissing; but in the latter case a month’s wages (and board wages if demanded) will suffice. For serious misconduct a servant can be discharged without notice. When left in town, additional board wages will be required at the rate of about 10s. per week. Victorian London – Dickens

Read about the working conditions of servants in my previous posts. Click here

*Source: Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants’ Portraits, Giles Waterfield, anne French, with matthew Craske, Foreword by Julian Fellowes, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2003.

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