Servants at a Country Estate: An Overview & the Steward

Servants at a Country Estate: An Overview & the Steward

Several years ago I wrote a series on servants, both inside and outside, at a grand country estate. Recently on Austen Authors I dusted the series off, did a ton of fresh research, and rewrote everything for a ten-part blog series. I’ve decided to cross-post here on my blog, and I admit that the blog posts will contain the same content. However, I also wanted to expand on several points that I didn’t have the space to do on Austen Authors, so there will be lots of new material as well. It is a BIG subject worthy of more than ten posts!

Today I will begin with an overview about servants and staff during the Regency and overall Georgian eras. I also begin the breakdown of the individual positions with the Estate Steward.

General Servant Information

Downton Abbey servants as a guide. L -> R: 3 housemaids, footman, lady’s maid, butler, housekeeper, valet, footman, 3 housemaids.

“The sensible master and the kind mistress know, that if servants depend on them for their means of living, in their turn they are dependent on their servants for very many of the comforts of life; and that, with a proper amount of care in choosing servants, and treating them like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature, they will, save in some exceptional case, be tolerably well served, and, in most instances, surround themselves with attached domestics.”  ~Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Grand estate servants and staff were divided into inside and outside personnel, and the inside staff divided again into upper and lower levels. The greater the responsibilities and closer the association with the master or mistress of the household, the higher a servant’s standing. A definite hierarchy existed, servants acutely aware of rank and class distinctions amongst themselves. Service to an English estate, particularly for an esteemed aristocrat or respected gentry class family was considered a prime occupation. In a world of harsh working conditions and strict social divides, gainful employment on an estate provided an excellent salary, security, and prestige; a job to be proud of and possibly evolve into a professional career. If one played by the rules and wasn’t afraid of rough work!

Estimates based on census results from the first decade of the 1800s say domestic servants (household staff) numbered around 910,000 with some 110,000 being male. From 1775 to 1801, servants accounted for anywhere between 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 persons in the UK. Whatever the exact statistics, the point is that servants accounted for an enormous slice of the working class. Wages were meager, compared to some other jobs, but the perks worth the lower pay. Typically room and board were covered, clothing provided (uniforms and possibly cast-offs), monetary tips for special work or from guests of the house, left-over food, and the social benefit of employment in an upper-class house.

Turnover of personnel was far more common than we imagine. Upheavals in the family situations — death, marriage, changes in fortune, etc. — affected the servants, of course. Yet even in a stable household, the long hours, backbreaking labor, and exacting standards led to poor health or injuries and dissatisfaction with the job. The grass may well be greener in another house! Plus, with the majority being female, marriage with resulting children (or just the child without the benefit of a husband, as often happened) further upset the staff roster. As a small aside, it was not forbidden for domestic help to be married. Masters and mistresses established rules as they deemed proper and circumstances varied widely.

Statute Hall for Hiring Servants, 1770
Servant hall in a Georgian townhouse. Staff sleeping quarters might be another level down, or in the attic.

Excellent domestic help was in high demand. An exceptionally good worker could bargain for a higher salary or seek better employment. Conversely, a poor or untrustworthy worker could be swiftly discarded at the whim of the master. Another willing person could easily be found. Servants were typically discovered via recommendations from friends and relatives. If one’s maid was reliable, and she had a younger sister, viola! Girls routinely took jobs at 12 or 13 years of age. Starting as a scullery maid at that age, with hopes to rise in the ranks, was viewed as a golden opportunity. References written for a worthy servant who may be relocating or simply wish to attain an improved position were not required from the employer, but often given.

Servants with experience and special skills — such as a governess, lady’s maid, valet, etc. — if unable to secure employment through the preferred methods above, might advertise in a newspaper, but more likely went to one of the “servant registry” offices scattered about where, for a fee, the office proprietors matched clients. These establishments were unregulated during the Regency so not always reliable, but it was another option both for the servant seeking a job and the employer seeking a worker.

Training schools for domestic help didn’t exist as we imagine it. However, there were charitable organizations with programs to help young ladies, primarily, such as the snippet below indicates. In other words, better a career as a servant than a career as a prostitute!

WINCHESTER FEMALE ASYLUM: 1815 Handbill 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.

An exceptional domestic could rise to a position of power. The housekeeper and butler, for instance, often began service in a lower capacity. Children of trusted staff were fortunate. For them the prospect of future positions on the estate, references extended by the Master to gain entry into another great house, or the gift of higher education to secure an independent future were major perks and common. Men were prized above females and earned a higher wage. (Go ahead and insert groan or “I am woman, hear me roar!” now) The number of male, liveried servants employed was a symbol of status for the Master; his ability to pay for a large number of men an indication of his wealth and prosperity. Likewise, the quantity and quality of servants employed across the board, male or female, displayed one’s prestige. Grab onto one of those super expensive male French chefs floating around after the Revolution to seriously prove your worth!

The precise number of servants necessary for a modest estate to function varied widely. A rapid calculation of the basic requirements easily leads to twenty persons (including the outdoor staff). A larger estate demanded a small army! The running of a grand home in an elegant style, such as Duke of Westminster’s household at Eaton Hall, might require up to fifty servants. Outside of the bare minimums — cook, housekeeper, maid, butler, kitchen maid, groomsman — other positions were optional and roles often combined.

Household servants, with the exception of the upper-level employees, would share rooms either in the basement or the attic. These accommodations were spartan, providing basic needs and scant more. If lucky the rooms possessed small casement windows for ventilation from the smoky fires and to provide sunlight and fresh air. Cast off rugs and wall hangings may be allowed to dim the cold seeping through the stone and add the warmth of homeyness. How comfortable their lodgings and well fed they were depended on the generosity of their master. I’m sure we all agree the Pemberley staff lived like royalty, right?


Steward

Mr. Keith, the Steward of Pemberley Estate in The Darcy Saga.

The Estate or Land Steward (also called “estate agents” although this was rare by the late Georgian period) was not considered a servant in the typical sense. This position was by far the highest ranking and most important for the running of estates during this pastoral era in England. The steward was a professional employee and independent from the rest. Educated, respected, well paid, trusted, and ranked immediately below the Master he served.

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.”

Squarely in the middle class, the estate steward usually owned a home away from the main house or lived in a separate dwelling on the estate. 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 certainly if they owned more than one property each had its own steward.

How much 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 lacked intelligence, there are numerous historical instances of untrustworthy, venal stewards robbing from the estate and abusing power. Additionally, stewards were not always allowed to manage as they should. A controlling, arrogant, or not-too-bright landowner could ignore the expert advice of his steward, running an estate into the ground and himself into the poorhouse, and guess who would be blamed? The steward! Right!

STEWARD

Steward (n) — Old English stiward, stigweard  “house guardian, housekeeper,” from stig “hall, pen for cattle, part of a house” (see sty (n.1)) + weard “guard”. Used after the Conquest as the equivalent of Old French seneschal. Meaning “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. This 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.).

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Paula Mitchell

Also I wanted to ask. If a person lived on an estate did they absolutely have to have a farm? Say if their income came from elsewhere?

Paula Mitchell

I am trying to write a story about the Victorian age. One of my main characters is a factory owner who is a gentleman farmer. The inside servants are Butler. Housekeeper. Cook. Young Ladies Maid (The father is a widower with teenage girls). Footman. Three upstairs house maids. Kitchen maid. Scullery Maid and Hall boy. Of course the outside staff is bigger. Stable staff and gardeners. Since he owns a factory he has a small farm on his estate just for the pleasure of it, so his estate is modest. Is this the right amount of servants?

JOAN REYNOLDS

I have a great interest in this topic and really enjoy your posts. My great grandmother was the head cook in a Great House and my own father remembered visiting the kitchens as a child, and being allowed into the lower rooms when the owners were away on their extended absences. I purchased Musson’s book some years ago – and can thoroughly recommend it. I found it particularly interesting that in the medieval and Tudor times, the management of the household was more team oriented, often the main roles going to relations of the Lord of the Manor – probably because they were trustworthy as being members of the same clan with shared interests in the successful running of the manor and estates..

Glynis

The sad fact of my life is that if I had lived in the time of Darcy and Elizabeth I would have no doubt been a servant!?. Now the question remains as to which servant? I’m not a lover of washing up so not a scullery maid, I also only cook as a necessity so not that either. I can happily ignore dust and clutter and as a child didn’t enjoy trying to get a fire going or making my bed so not an upstairs or downstairs maid. I’m not great at doing hair or ironing so certainly not a lady’s maid. Hmmm well!!! I think if I worked at Pemberley I would have to be the library maid???? checking that the books had all their pages by reading them ???.
You didn’t mention that position above Sharon so maybe I would be the first and therefore be able to command a large remuneration for this great service?
I did read your original posts but am enjoying this updated version thank you.

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