Domestic Servants Who Weren’t Actually Servants

Domestic Servants Who Weren’t Actually Servants

Last Monday I began this series of blog essays with Servants & Staff at a Country Estate: An Overview. Click the link to read that post as an introduction. For the next several Mondays I will be covering those staff members who performed their duties largely within the walls of the manor house. Also referred to as the inside or domestic workers, most fell into the clearly delineated “servant” category. There were three independent staff members, however, who were not servants in the strict definition of the word (although the lines were a bit blurred) and who were not wholly under the jurisdiction of the butler or housekeeper. Today I will focus on the Estate Steward, the Valet, and the Lady’s Maid.


Estate Steward

The Estate or Land Steward was also called an “estate agent,” although this was rare by the late Georgian period. This man (always a male, never a female) was not considered a servant in any way, shape, or form. This position was by far the highest ranking and most vital for the running of estates during this pastoral era in England. The steward was a professional employee and completely independent from all the other staff members. He was educated at university, firmly in the mid to top tier of the professional class if not of the lower gentry level, well-respected, excellently paid, trusted, and ranked immediately below the Master he served. He literally answered to no one except the owner of the estate.

STEWARD
(noun) – Old English stiward, stigweard > “house guardian, housekeeper,” from stig > “hall, pen for cattle, part of a house” + weard > “guard.” Used after the Norman Conquest as the equivalent of Old French seneschal. Meaning of “overseer of workmen” is attested from c. 1300. The sense of “officer on a ship in charge of provisions and meals” is first recorded mid-15c. Steward was the title of a class of high officers of the state in early England and Scotland, hence meaning “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer” (late 14c.).
Mr. Keith, the Pemberley steward in The Darcy Saga

The earmark of the 18th century steward, according to Christopher Clay in Landlords and Estate Management in England, was “the increasing tendency to employ the modern type of land steward who saw his task not just as that of a mere rent collector but as an active manager whose business it was to improve his employer’s property to the utmost.”

Joan Thirsk, in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, gives credit for the positive attitudes of estate management from the 17th century onward to the steward, writing: “…land stewards, who were becoming a more cohesive professional group, finished up in the late eighteenth century as the most highly paid of all professional men.”

As a high-ranking employee, the estate steward usually owned his own home away from the main house or lived in a separate dwelling on the estate granted to him by the master. His duties included complete management issues for the estate itself: hiring and firing of workers, settling tenant disputes, overseeing the harvest and livestock, collecting rents, keeping the financial records, etc. Sometimes called a bailiff in times past, he also dealt with local criminal matters. Very wealthy men with huge estates might hire several stewards (one for the house and one for the estate lands, for instance), and if they owned more than one property, each had its own steward.

How much autonomous control the steward had over an estate depended, naturally, on the landowner. A diligent landowner would be actively involved in the management of his estate and intimately aware of every last detail. Not too surprisingly, this was not always the case! Between men too busy socially or politically, or because they simply wanted to have fun spending their money, or they lacked intelligence, there are numerous historical instances of untrustworthy, venal stewards robbing from the estate and abusing power. On the flip side of the coin, stewards were not always allowed to manage as they should due to a controlling, arrogant, or not-too-bright landowner who ignored the expert advice of his steward. In such cases, a bad landowner could run an estate into the ground, and himself into the poorhouse, and guess who would be blamed? The steward!

 


Valet, or Manservant

 

VALET
(noun) – “personal man-servant,” mid-14c. from Old French valet, variant of vaslet “man’s servant, workman’s assistant,” originally “squire, young man, youth of noble birth” (12c.), from Gallo-Roman vassellittus “young nobleman, squire, page,” diminutive of Medieval Latin vassallus, from vassus “servant” (vassal).  Since the 16th century, the word has traditionally been pronounced as rhyming with pallet, though an alternative pronunciation, rhyming with chalet, as in French, is now common. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations as valid.

Since the 16th century, the word has traditionally been pronounced as rhyming with pallet, though an alternative pronunciation, rhyming with chalet, as in French, is now common. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations as valid.

Anthonij-de-Bordes-and-His-Valet
“Anthonij de Bordes and His Valet” by Michael Sweerts, 1648.

 

For a well-bred gentleman of the upper class, acquiring an excellent valet was essential. The simple act of getting dressed in proper Regency attire was practically impossible without assistance. That said, do not make the mistake of assuming a valet’s only job was to pick out clothing or help don a jacket. Indeed, his primary duty was the maintenance of his master’s wardrobe, yet this was merely the beginning. Before I cover specific valet tasks, let me talk about generalities.

Typically a gentleman employed one valet (his “man” or “gentleman’s gentleman”) who stayed within his employ for years. Upon occasion, the valet might serve other gentlemen in a household or assist male guests without their own personal servant, and in a pinch might double as a footman, but always his primary duty was to his master. Typically at least one or two footmen would be trained in basic valet duties as substitutes in emergency situations or for visiting gentlemen. Largely for this reason, the valet fell into the gray area of being a servant while also an independent employee.

Technically, they fell under the authority of the butler, who ruled over all male household servants. At the same time, the valet answered directly and solely to the gentleman he served, and the needs of the master overruled the needs of the household in general. Meaning, a butler could not order a valet to do anything that might interfere with his duty as a valet. On the other hand, the valet could not order a footman or a maid to do anything, even if essential to carry out an order from the master, without permission from the butler or housekeeper. Thus the relationship was a careful balancing act at times with everyone remembering who they were and where their authority fell.

A valet had a room separate but attached to the gentleman’s dressing room where he tended to his chores. Oftentimes this room doubled as his private sleeping quarters, but if not, his bedchamber would be located as close as possible to the master’s suite with a direct bell system. Essentially a valet was on call 24/7. A valet was aware of his master’s schedule down to the precise minute, but he never assumed his time was free. He was always on the alert, ready and waiting for his gentleman’s return. Unless given designated “time off” or away from the house for a task related to his job, the valet remained available.

1812-regency-a-la-mode
1812 caricature of the Prince Regent’s valet lacing Prinny’s corset.

On a personal level, a valet was rarely considered a friend and never an equal to his master. Nevertheless, he was expected to be intimately familiar with the gentleman he served beyond most wives or male companions. They were often confidants and privy to information no one else would know, trust therefore imperative. The valet witnessed their employer’s unguarded moments, beheld all their secrets, bore the brunt of their moods, served as agents to all demands no matter how capricious, ran personal errands of delicate natures, and so on. A valet would never gossip to other staff or reveal the minutest detail of his master’s private affairs. Remember, he ultimately answered to no one but his employer, and upon his authority as spokesperson for the master of the house, he was not questioned when requesting something. Hence the fine balance of power and respect with the upper-level servants, specifically the butler and housekeeper, as noted above.

A valet was expected to foresee any possible need of his master before asked. Everything from choosing the appropriate attire or grooming product to having the fire lit or bath drawn or curtains opened should be anticipated and prepared for in advance. His work was ongoing all day and night. A valet was always a learned man although not typically possessing a higher education. His skills included secretarial duties such as writing letters for his master, keeping private accounts, and making travel arrangements, among other similar tasks. Additionally, a trusted valet might offer advice or handle business affairs for his master. It was expected for him to pack a traveling bag swiftly and include exactly what was needed down to the tiniest detail. Furthermore, as an essential servant, the valet was almost always a traveling companion.

While largely unseen in public, the valet was a reflection of his master and presented himself as a gentleman, i.e. well-groomed and dressed, proper and polite, etc. He did not wear livery (unless called upon to serve in a footman capacity) so did not have a “uniform” per se. Rather, he dressed in a somber, plain suit of black or brown.

 

Samuel Oliver valet
Mr. Samuel Oliver, Mr. Darcy’s valet in Sharon Lathan’s Darcy Saga novels.

A short list of a valet’s duties–

  1. He maintained the wardrobe. This included washing and removing stains, steaming and pressing, polishing boots and buttons, brushing the dust from jackets and coats, and caring for hats and all the other accouterments (of which there were many). He mended, cleaned, and stocked literally every article of clothing, item, lotion, perfume, etc. that touched his master. Nothing, absolutely nothing, passed his inspection or was touched by any other servant unless overseen or specifically requested.
  2. Assistance with dressing and undressing, several times in a day. Depending on the gentleman’s fashion sense, the valet chose the appropriate garments and accessories for the planned event.
  3. Aware of latest fashion styles, fabrics, colors, etc. Master of the plethora of possible cravat ties! This was critical during the Regency. The valet worked closely with the gentleman’s chosen tailor as well as merchants selling men’s essentials (perfumer, draper, cobbler, etc.)
  4. Shaving his master, or assisting with the process since most men preferred to shave themselves.
  5. Cutting and styling his hair, beard, and mustache. Basically attended to all grooming chores imaginable. Cutting toenails too? Probably!
  6. Purchasing and preparing various personal concoctions: preferred eau de cologne, tooth powder, and blacking for the boots. 
  7. Purchasing and caring for all personal merchandise: razors, brushes, soap, towels and linens, candles, etc.
  8. Cleaning of the dressing room and master’s bedchamber, personally and in overseeing the maids. He ensured that the private sanctuaries were prepared precisely as the master required.
  9. Preparing the room: fireplace lit or ready to light, candles/lamps in proper order, bed warmed, windows and drapes opened/shut depending on the master’s preferences, etc.
  10. Serving breakfast, coffee, stocking the liquor cabinet, etc.

Lady’s Maid

ladies-maid-1313 copy
“Belinda at her Toilet” 1829

 

Sometimes called an abigail based on a character from the 1616 play The Scornful Lady, and perhaps associated with King David’s wife Abigail who called herself a handmaid.

As the female counterpart to the valet, the lady’s maid had similar duties and characteristics. In essence, everything noted above for the valet was true for her. Re-read inserting her title instead and you’ll get the full picture! This is true with the hierarchy aspects as well. As a female servant, the housekeeper held authority over the lady’s maid, but as with the valet, the relationship balancing act was in play.

In many respects, her job was far more complicated than the valet. For instance, a woman’s wardrobe, cosmetic needs, and personal hygiene requirements were substantially greater than a man’s. A gentleman’s daily garments were largely the same in fabric and style, but a woman’s dress varied greatly. Fabrics alone were multiplied enormously compared to those worn by men. Then add on furs, laces, ribbons, feathers, flowers, and on and on it goes. Next imagine the array of jewelry, hats, gloves, shoes, fans, reticules… You get the idea!  All of these a personal maid (never anyone else) would proficiently clean, iron, mend, store, and pack.

A lady wore special outfits for the opera, a dinner party, Royal event, a ball, walking at specific hours or places, riding, and so on. It was normal for a woman of Society to change clothing up to five times in a single day, this job alone easily consuming a maid’s whole day. Her knowledge of the latest fashions, diverse hair styles, proper garments and adornments for every conceivable engagement, and rules of dress etiquette must be current and vast. She worked closely with merchants and modistes, fully aware of her mistress’s preferences. It was essential for her to possess excellent skills as a seamstress, and if also a quality modiste, her worth increased.

Marguerite Charbaneau ladies maid
Miss Marguerite Charbaneau, Mrs. Darcy’s lady’s maid in Sharon Lathan’s Darcy Saga

Her understanding of which cleaning solutions removed stains from particular fabrics was a daunting skill requiring constant education in chemistry. Add to that the wealth of cosmetics and toiletries and perfumes she would not only need to know how to acquire and/or concoct but also how to apply. Next, consider the numerous jewels, hair adornments, and fashion accessories she had to polish, protect, and repair. There were dozens of hairstyles she must know how to create along with the various brushes, combs, and curling devices to clean and repair. Whew! One can readily imagine how challenging it was to keep her lady well dressed.

“It will be her business to dress, re-dress, and undress her lady; and in this, she should learn to be particularly au fait and expeditious, ever studying, so far as it depends upon herself, to manifest good taste by suiting the ornaments of and decoration of her dress to the complexion habits age and general appearance of her person. Thus she will evince her own good sense, best serve her lady and gratify all those who are most interested in her welfare and happiness. She should alway be punctual in her attendance and assiduous in her attention.”  ~ The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams (1825)

Remember that like the valet, her duties began with the clothing but certainly did not end there. The lady’s maid also maintained the mistress’s private chambers: sweeping the carpets, changing bed linens, fresh daily flowers, dusting and polishing, emptying the water closet pot, providing fresh water, tending to and laying the fire, trimming candles and lamps, etc. She might enlist the assistance of a chambermaid or footman (for heavy tasks) but always bearing in mind that the lady’s private chambers were restricted.

She personally communicated with shop owners and tradesman in purchasing supplies, performed secretarial tasks, and was in charge of packing for trips. Through it all she would be polite, impeccably groomed, and gracious, remembering that she represented her mistress and must please her at all times.


The Complete Servant: Being A Practical Guide To The Peculiar Duties And Business Of All Descriptions Of Servants, by Samuel and Sarah Adams was published in 1825 is a 500+ page book covering everything. Awesome book! It can be purchased in hardback or paperback on Amazon at this link: Amazon Buy  OR read it on Google Books or download as an eBook: Google Books Link

The Duties of a Lady’s Maid with Directions for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette is a specific book written and published in 1825, and can be read on Google Books HERE.


This ends Part Two. Return next Monday for more!

Comments and questions are VERY welcome!

2 Comments for Domestic Servants Who Weren’t Actually Servants

  1. Well there’s not much chance that I would have qualified as a lady’s maid then! I’m not very good with hair, I hate ironing and mending and have precious little fashion sense (I’m also not too fond of cleaning and making beds)! Therefore if I went back to that time I would have to be a lady – preferably a very wealthy lady!
    Yes I could certainly cope with having servants to wash, dress and style me as well as clean my home and cook my meals. That would leave me more time to read (although I’m not sure there would have been JAFF at that time so maybe I will stay as I am and just close my eyes to the mess!
    Thanks Sharon, I’m enjoying this series again.

    • I’m in the same boat, Glynis. I don’t really like to boss people around, but I DO have excellent organizational skills so would probably do well as the housekeeper. But never could I manage as a lady’s maid! I can barely dry my own hair let alone style. LOL!

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