Moving on in the series covering the many people who kept a massive country estate running efficiently, time for the third installment. To read the previous two essays, the links are below–
For several more segments, I’ll remain within the manor’s walls discussing the job duties for the domestic (or inside) staff members. Following the standard chain-of-command hierarchy, as noted in the diagram below, I’ll focus on the servants extending from the butler and housekeeper. In each case, the groupings fell along clear gender lines, the only possible exception being a male chef who might technically fall under the always-female housekeeper’s command but would answer to the always-male butler. Whatever the gender of the cook, the butler was the undisputed leader of the entire household, including, technically, the females, although he worked alongside the housekeeper.
I will delve deeper into the kitchen staff, including the cook, as well as the educational staff (governess, nurse, tutor, etc.) with their unique roles amid the hierarchy in later posts. Also, bear in mind that while the majority of households followed typical standards in regards to servant duties, living arrangements, salaries, personal relationships amongst staff and employers, and so on, there were wide variables.
The Butler was the highest ranking servant and final authority on everything pertaining to the management of the household. His orders came directly from the master and the power he wielded was absolute. Conversely, as the admiral (or general) of the house, his tushie was on the line more than anyone else. His was a role with incredible responsibility. Imagine the breadth of affairs he was ultimately responsible for! Without superior management skills, a man simply could not rise to the butler level. No one became a butler without years of service in lower servant roles and impeccable references.
Additionally, and probably most importantly, the Butler’s relationship with the housekeeper had to be favorable. She was his right-hand helper, nearly on equal footing, and as mentioned above, with so many servants directly under her command, smooth running of the house critically depended upon these two working in concord. Technically he was the boss over the entire household staff so he could, and probably often did, issue orders whenever and to whoever he needed to. Nevertheless, the butler primarily oversaw the duties of the footmen while the housekeeper oversaw the maids.
He didn’t, however, walk around barking demands to the minions! The duties specific to him were myriad.
Foremost, the butler was solely in charge of the wine cellar. In those days of pre-refrigeration, and with alcohol being highly important as the preferred beverage choice, this one task was a phenomenal responsibility. Only he was allowed to touch the wines or enter the cellar. His job included safe storage of the wines, meticulous records of stock and financial accounts, possibly the brewing of beer, purchasing diverse vintages and an array of alcohol, properly selecting which wine or spirit to accent each course during the meal, and mixing cocktails. It was also his job alone to pour the wines, ensuring a diner’s glass was never empty. The keeping of fine wines and keen knowledge of serving was vital to the prestige and social status for the household. A Georgian Butler was literally a sommelier in an era before that term had been invented!
The butler was responsible for cleaning and safeguarding the family silver, china, glassware, table linens, and serving implements. Everything to do with the dining room was directly up to him. This included the lighting and fires, directing the footman who assisted with meal service, announcing the meals, serving the first dishes personally, removing the dish covers, orchestrating the flow and timing of each course, pouring all the beverages, serving the final dessert course, and attending at tea time. Throughout the meal, while the family and guests were dining, he stood at attention behind the master’s chair or at the sideboard, ready to jump into action when signaled. Since meals were highly formal in those days, especially when entertaining guests, this was not a lightweight responsibility. Dinners could last for several hours, with a dozen food courses, so coordinating this perfectly was an enormous undertaking.
If guests were expected, the butler typically answered the main door rather than the assigned footman. It was essential for him to be aware of social distinctions and proper etiquette. One set of keys to all locks in the house was entrusted to him, and he held the only key to the wine cellar. Footmen under his charge would attend to the more laborious tasks, but the butler constantly and personally checked that all was done properly. Before retiring at night he assured the house was secured, guaranteed all candles and lamps were in good repair and readily available for lighting (or already lit, depending on the situation and preference), and that every fireplace was prepped for the cold night and/or next day.
In a pinch, he would step in as valet, assist the master with business matters, operate as a secretary, and pay bills. In appearance, he did not wear livery but would never allow himself to be mistaken for a gentleman. Thus his attire was impeccable but subdued, usually a solid dark suit with simple tie. He would be addressed by his surname. A designated butler’s office was located in the servant’s hall close or attached to the “butler’s pantry” where the silver and china were stored. The bachelor butler most commonly resided in a small apartment within the house. Typically past the age of raising young children when attaining the rank of a butler, a married butler might live with his wife (who was often also a servant) in a nearby detached cottage.
In novels and period dramas footmen are depicted as tall and masculine, their striking physiques shown to advantage in snug tailored livery in dazzling colors. It may be assumed by some that this is a theatrical or romantic affectation. Not so. According to Daniel Poole in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew:
…footmen wore “livery,” or household uniform of fancy coat, knee breeches, stockings, and powdered hair, a costume that endured to the end of the 1800s. Because of their appearance at dinner and in public with the family, footmen were supposed to be the most “presentable” of the male servants. They were evaluated on the basis of the appearance of their calves in silk stocking, and they often gave their height when advertising for positions in the paper–it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height. (Poole, p. 221)
The main qualifications for being a footman in the Regency and Victorian Eras were good looks and a great physique. In order to complete the duties assigned, it was essential for a footman to be tall, masculine, strong, athletic, handsome, and have a good voice. This was the age of Beau Brummell accenting the fine male specimen. Being surrounded by as many manly servants in their sparkling livery as possible was not only appealing to the eye but boldly declared one’s wealth and station. Young, physically fit men were snatched up by the military, so the wage for a footman was high in order to attract and secure the best specimens. A footman’s job description did entail real work, but appearance too often was the main prerequisite.
To quote Mrs. Beeton:
“…when the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of his calf, it is not surprising that she should find a domestic who has no attachment for the family, who considers the figure he cuts behind her carriage, and the late hours he is compelled to keep, a full compensation for the wages he exacts, for the food he wastes, and for the perquisites he can lay his hands on.”
Did the footman just stand around all day long looking delicious? Indeed, a large part of his duties did involve standing at attention. Footmen aided in meal service, answered doors and took outer wear garments, rode on the backs of carriages to open the door and assist disembarking, manned the household bell station so calls would be responded to instantly, and hovered unobtrusively nearby during social gatherings. He looked pretty while he did these tasks, his attire immaculate from powdered wig to snow-white gloves to shiny buckled shoes. But he was expected to have the eyes of a hawk, alert and aware of every movement, and to be quick to respond to the minutest signal from his employers or their guests. Eloquence, manners, and intelligence were necessary along with fine physical attributes!
There was also a practical application to being buff and brawny. To the footmen fell the tough manual labor-type duties. They rose early and worked until late into the night. Obviously, they followed the butler in dining room duties being a huge portion of their job. They set the dining table, carried food encumbered trays from the kitchen, and acted as a waiter throughout meals and tea time. In between, footmen polished the silver and copper, sharpened the knives, shined and blackened the boots, applied the heavy furniture polishes, lifted and carried heavy items, trimmed the lamps, swept the fireplaces, laid the fires and kept them burning (meaning they also lugged the wood), and prowled the house at night.
The footman ran errands, delivered and received messages, greeted at the door, and escorted the ladies of the house when out shopping or visiting, doing so with the utmost civility and perfection. Never could he err in delivering a written or spoken message, or mispronounce a name when announcing, or catch a lady’s gown in the carriage door, or act as if he is listening to the conversations around him, or show the slightest overt interest in the activity, or spill a drop of food, or blunder in the precise pattern of meal service, or attract attention to himself by noise or movement, or be familiar in any way. Whew! Not so easy after all!
They Also Served: The Real Life Story of My Lifetime in Service as a Butler
During more than 30 years in a variety of houses, Bob Sharpe managed to rise from garden boy to valet and finally to the feared and respected position of butler. As a boy he had to kill pheasant chicks, boil rabbits for the estate dogs, carry the wood up and down stairs every day for 30 fires, and sleep on the floor outside his master’s room. He cleaned shoes, ironed underwear and socks, and once had to stand all night in the hall waiting for a late visitor to arrive. But as a butler he was the best paid servant in the house, waited on, feared, and respected by the other servants. Bob Sharpe knew the real world of upstairs/downstairs and the secrets of the landed gentry—even to the point of incest and attempted murder—and it’s all included here in this captivating read.
This ends Part Three. Return next Monday for more!
Comments and questions are VERY welcome!