Here is the 4th installment in my Regency Servants series. So many servants… so many essays to write! I suspect another three posts on the folks who kept a country estate operating, with an additional two or three on related topics. I sure am having fun with this subject, and hope y’all are too!
Male servants may have been prized and considered superior within the late 18th to 19th-century household domestic hierarchy — the jobs they performed were critical to the estate functioning and best done by a physically stronger individual — yet no one can question the extreme importance of the female servants. The sheer number of women compared to men working indoors proves their vital place. In truth, the blend of sexes for the varied tasks was sensible and essential for a host of reasons, but if a blight attacked only one gender, leaving the other to carry on solo, my wager would be on the women managing best! Then again, I am a female so may be prideful and prejudiced. LOL! What do YOU think?
Female Household Servants
More or less the co-equal partner of the butler, the housekeeper ranked the highest and ruled over the entire female domestic staff. Typically addressed as “Mrs. LastName” — the “Mrs.” included to denote respect even if she was unmarried. As noted in the previous installment, she was subservient to the butler and could not directly command the footmen (or the cook if a male chef). This fact of the times, however, did not diminish her power or prestige. She answered directly to the mistress of the house, which in turn gave her tremendous authority.
The situation of a housekeeper, in almost every family, is of great importance. She superintends nearly the whole of the domestic establishment, has generally the control and direction of the servants, particularly of the female servants, has the care of the household furniture and linen, of all the grocery-dried and other fruits, spices, condiments, soap, candles, and stores of all kinds, for culinary and other domestic uses.… she is the locum tenens, the Lady Bountiful, and the active representative of the mistress of the family; and is expected to do, or to see done, everything that appertains to the good and orderly management of the household. ~The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams, 1825
Her integrity, honesty, industry, and organizational abilities had to be above reproach. She was entrusted with keys to the house and all storage cabinets (except for the wine cellar), and her morality and demeanor set the tone for the servant staff. The order, cleanliness, and necessary supplies for the entire household were under her direct command and responsibility. All purchases of stores were conducted by her, requiring her to handle the provided monies and keep impeccable accounts, as well as deal with vendors. She kept detailed inventories of every last item in the house and frequently examined the lists for usage changes over time, anticipating future needs. Household articles would be inspected regularly for breakage or wear, replacement purchases made as needed.
The various maids were directed by and reported to her, and it was her responsibility to make sure they completed their chores. Ostensibly in charge over the kitchen as well, the cook usually managed with scant direct interference from either the housekeeper or the butler, at least in regards to specific cooking techniques and/or ordering of the kitchen staff. Nevertheless, it was the housekeeper who planned and outlined the menus (based on the mistress’s requests), purchased grocery items and ensured proper storage, and gave the final approval of the food to be served. Her knowledge of food and culinary skills, while not usually on par with a trained cook or chef, were adequate to judge the taste of the dishes, and to jump in as a backup cook in an emergency.
Along these same lines, the housekeeper could perform ALL household chores competently. Having first served in a lower level, perhaps initially as far down the rung as the scullery maid, the housekeeper was intimately familiar with the jobs required (often pitching in to help) and definitely not afraid of hard physical labor.
A prime duty for the housekeeper was assisting the maid in charge of the stillroom. This room, generally attached to the kitchen, was for the distillation of herbal waters, brewing of teas, drying of flowers and herbs, preparations of colognes and toilet waters, concoctions of medicines, making of candles, and mixing of spices. Arguably one of the most important rooms in the house, it was managed by the highest ranked and competent maid in the household. In modest households the housekeeper was the stillroom maid, but in larger estates there would be one or two designated maids for this job alone. The close connection between the housekeeper and stillroom maid(s) led to the passing of knowledge, and as the topmost ranked maid, the transition from stillroom maid to housekeeper was common.
Lastly, the housekeeper’s personal quarters would be in within the servant’s hall. Spacious and luxurious compared to the others, her living area included a sitting room that served as the segregated dining and meeting space for the upper-level servants. The lower level servants would dine in the kitchen and socialize together, rarely mingling with the higher ranked staff.
Housemaid and Chambermaid
These were the woman who performed the gritty, grimy, grueling tasks essential for a manor house to properly function and remain clean. Long before electricity, this was a truly endless, back-breaking chore! The number of servants needed for a ship-shape house varied, of course. A large estate such as Pemberley would obviously employ an extensive quantity compared to Longbourn. Whether a small army or handful, maids were not a ridiculous extravagance. They were, quite literally, critical for a family to survive.
Within the broad category of “maid” there was a hierarchy. Those maids proven as diligent and trusted were assigned the upkeep of the family rooms and main chambers. Commonly referred to as the “chambermaids” or “parlourmaids” — sometimes both terms used to further distinguish specific duties — they were entrusted for important responsibilities like cleaning the china, assisting the stillmaid, or stepping in as a lady’s maid. They wore fine quality uniforms, just in case they were seen or called upon to serve in some capacity. Depending on the household size, certain maids would be designated to particular portions of the house, rarely working elsewhere. As you may suspect, this was the position to aspire to, lifting the serious, professional domestic servant higher in the ranks and closer to the coveting stillroom and housekeeper positions.
General Maid — Laundry Maid
The general maid-of-all-work rarely left the laundry area or lower level rooms where the rougher tasks were performed. All of the maids (all of the servants period, for that matter) worked very, very hard and kept extraordinarily long hours. Yet there is no doubt that those lower down the ladder were given the nasty jobs.
Up at the crack of dawn, dressed in utilitarian garb and sturdy aprons, they started in on the heavy-duty chores to prepare the house for the family when they arose. Under the leadership and direction of the housekeeper, and aided by the footmen for the super strenuous jobs, the maids’ chores included sweeping all floors and carpets daily, cleaning the vast number of fireplace grates – and by ‘cleaning’ I mean not just emptying of old ashes, but also scouring, scrubbing, and oiling the bricks, fireirons, utensils, and grates – laying new coal and/or wood hauled by bucketfuls from sheds away from the house, cleaning the drapes and shutters and windows, polishing and dusting every surface in sight, lugging water buckets for baths, making the beds with fresh linens each day, mending and repairing, emptying the chamberpots, beating the rugs…. You fill in the blanks!
The laundry maid(s) washed, ironed, starched, bleached, folded, scrubbed stains, etc. A separate building of stone with excellent drainage was dedicated to the process of keeping the fabric items of the household clean. This building would include a washing room with an array of tubs, another for the ironing and starching, another with a furnace to steam and dry, and places to store the materials and chemicals needed for these procedures. Pause for a second to dwell on the plethora of fabrics she competently dealt. Do you now have an improved respect for this lowly job?
Pay for domestic maids on the lowest rungs was minimal, living quarters stark and small, and they only had a half day per week off for leisure. Sounds untenable to our modern sensibilities, yet remember, as I noted in the introductory installment, she was fortunate compared to other working women of her era. Meals and housing were provided, she worked in a respectable atmosphere, her income was steady, and she could count on a long-term career if she worked hard. It was, all considered, a comfortable life.
For my featured book on the topic, I stumbled across The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House by Tessa Boase. Published in 2014, it is available in print (paper and hardcover) and eBook.
Working as a housekeeper was one of the most prestigious jobs a nineteenth and early twentieth-century woman could want – and also one of the toughest. A far cry from the Downton Abbey fiction, the real-life Mrs. Hughes was up against capricious mistresses, low pay, no job security and grueling physical labor. Until now, her story has never been told. The Housekeeper’s Tale reveals the personal sacrifices, bitter disputes and driving ambition that shaped these women’s careers. Delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain’s most prominent households.
There is Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the obscenely wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. There is Sarah Wells, a deaf and elderly Victorian in charge of Uppark, West Sussex. Ellen Penketh is Edwardian cook-housekeeper at the sociable but impecunious Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders. Hannah Mackenzie runs Wrest Park in Bedfordshire â?? Britain’s first country-house war hospital, bankrolled by playwright J. M. Barrie. And there is Grace Higgens, cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex for half a century â?? an era defined by the Second World War.
Revelatory, gripping and unexpectedly poignant, The Housekeeper’s Tale champions the invisible women who ran the English country house.