From Cook to Scullion. Can There Be Too Many in the Kitchen?

From Cook to Scullion. Can There Be Too Many in the Kitchen?

Four down and several more to come! Thus far I’ve written about the valet, steward, lady’s maid, butler and housekeeper, and the footmen and household maids. There are still a few inside, domestic servants to cover, but if you missed the previous essays, the links are below.

Servants & Staff at a Country Estate: An Overview

Domestic Servants Who Weren’t Actually Servants

The Butler and The Male Staff. Much Needed Brawn!

Housekeeper and Housemaids. Females Rule!

Today I will discuss the kitchen staff, and as a compendium will post additional essays this week on the topic (with loads of images) including details of the kitchen rooms where the servants work and ply their craft. Full comprehension of the duties performed by these vital members of a functioning house requires understanding and visualizing their environment. Be sure to check back!

Cook or Chef

The cook takes charge of the fish, soups, and poultry; and the kitchen-maid of the vegetables, sauces, and gravies. These she puts into their appropriate dishes, whilst the scullery-maid waits on and assists the cook. Everything must be timed so as to prevent its getting cold, whilst great care should be taken, that, between the first and second courses, no more time is allowed to elapse than is necessary, for fear that the company in the dining-room lose all relish for what has yet to come of the dinner.  ~Mrs. Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861

CHEF (noun)
“head cook,” 1830, from French chef, short for chef de cuisine, literally “head of the kitchen,” from Old French chief  “leader, ruler, head”
Mrs. Langton, Pemberley Cook

Whether a male chef or female cook, this person was the undisputed leader within the kitchen. If a male, he fell under the authority of the butler. Male or female, however, the housekeeper would be in closest contact due to her relationship with the mistress of the house, the latter designating menu choices. At the same time, the butler, as the staff member responsible for awareness of guests who may be dining with the family, their personal dietary needs or food preference, social statuses dictating culinary elegance, and the vital wine and spirit accompaniments, would play a critical role in meal planning. Suffice to say, managing even the simplest menu on an average day was a complicated endeavor from start to finish. Cook or fancy French chef, getting along and working together was more important than fighting over who was the biggest boss!

That said, when it came to the kitchen itself and getting the job done, the cook was ultimately responsible. Rarely would either the housekeeper or butler interfere directly. A trained male chef from France was esteemed highly, paid an exorbitant salary, and considered most prestigious to employ. A male cook, even if not French, was the next preferred choice, especially if envy amongst one’s peers was the goal! A female cook who had trained under a male cook cost less but came with the advantage of prestige and elevated culinary skills. In an era of formalized dining with the meal often the pinnacle of every social gathering, perfection in taste, beauty to the eye, proper temperature, and excellent timing for each course was critical.

Aside from the obvious job of cooking the dishes, the cook was in charge of food procurement, storage, and preparation. She maintained the kitchen equipment and rooms, kept all the grocery accounts, and dealt personally with the merchants, gamesmen, and others who provided foodstuffs. In a large household, her staff was sizeable. Each kitchen and scullery maid would be hired by her (with help from the housekeeper) and under her direct command. In addition to the daily meals, the cook also concocting jellies, relishes, honeys, sauces, creams, pastries, sweets, compotes, and anything else vital to accompany a meal or for the family to snack on in between.


Elizabeth Hickman (d.1784), Cook. By unknown artist.
Kitchen Cook, 1770a


Kitchen Maids

A small household may have one or two maids assigned to the kitchen. A larger house, such as the typical country manor, would employ several. Whatever the number, kitchen maids assisted the cook directly and worked primarily in the main kitchen.

Unsurprisingly, within the kitchen as in the whole household, a hierarchy of rank existed. The most experienced and reliable kitchen maid served as an “under-cook” or apprentice to the cook, often charged with meal planning and entrusted to cook dishes solo. On down the ladder, maids were assigned jobs based on their skills, beginning with basic food preparation such as cutting and dicing.

18th-century kitchen staff at work.
18th-century kitchen servants cooking a meal.
Frontpiece from The Compleat English Cook

Scullery Maid or Scullion

mid-15c. (early 14c. as a surname), “household department concerned with the care of kitchen utensils,” from Old French escuelerie “office of the servant in charge of plates, etc.,” from escuelier “keeper of the dishes”
Giuseppe Crespi - %22The Scullery Maid%22 (c.1710-1715)
“The Scullery Maid” by Giuseppe Crespi (c.1710-1715)

Lowest of all the servants and typically very young, these girls (and sometimes boys) performed the dirty work. She scoured the pots and pans; cleaned vegetables, scrubbed scales off fish, and plucked poultry; blackened the stoves and lit the cooking fires; cleaned away garbage and debris on the kitchen area floors; kept the pantries and larders clean and organized; etc. 

In a pinch, she might have cleaned and emptied the servants’ chamber pots and/or also assisted in watching the cooking of food, but only in households of meager finances. Typically a scullery maid stayed in the scullery. Due to the filthy nature of her work, a scullery maid never handled the food beyond what was mentioned previously, nor was she trusted to clean any luxury items, such as the china, silver, or glass.   

The position of scullery-maid was not, of course, one of high rank, and her payment was low. Her life was generally one of drudgery and servitude. She arose very early in the morning (often at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.) and stumbled into her simple attic bed later than other servants. Yet, as with all servant positions, if she performed well she could advance.

Plucking the Turkey by Henry Walton, 1776
scullery maid
“The Scullery Maid” by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1738

Dairymaid or Milkmaid

On some of the large dairy farms in other parts of England, she takes her share in the milking, but in private families the milking is generally performed by the cowkeeper, and the dairy-maid only receives the milkpails from him morning and night, and empties and cleans them preparatory to the next milking; her duty being to supply the family with milk, cream, and butter, and other luxuries depending on the “milky mothers” of the herd.  ~Mrs. Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861

The Butter Churner, by Henry Robert Morland (London ca1719-1797)

The dairymaid may seem like an inconsequential servant at first glance. Not so! Dairy products were an essential part of the diet, just as they are today, and without the luxury of refrigeration and electricity, the dairymaid’s job was tricky and arduous.

Typically the dairymaid(s) was also the cowkeeper, increasing her duties and importance. If so, she not only milked the cow(s) but also fed them, kept the animals and stalls clean, and tended to the health of the cows. Whichever way the milk buckets were daily obtained – by her own milking skills, from the estate’s cowkeeper, or the village/town milk seller – the dairymaid immediately stored them properly in cold rooms deep in the basement or ice houses sheltered from the harsh sun.

Her entire day was spent churning butter, making cheeses and whey, and separating the creams for their specific purposes. As noted earlier, people were ignorant of bacteria and sketchy on the chemistry involved in creating the multitude of dairy products, but eons of experience had taught the techniques needed to render basic milk into the array of pleasing substances for the palate… and what would happen if they did the tiniest thing wrong! Part of this including keeping the pans, milk-pails, churns, hair-sieves used to strain the liquids, racks, moulds, utensils, and dishes immaculate.

“Barn Interior with a Maid Churning Butter” by Govert Dircksz Camphuysen (1623 – 1672)
18th-century methods of churning butter
Churning Dairymaid





This ends Part Five. Return next Monday for more!

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