Monday, April 9, 2012

Life Below Stairs - Compensations and Obligations

by Regina Jeffers

With the popularity of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey, the populace has become more aware of the British servant class. So what do we know of those who lived “below stairs”? First, rank and precedence ruled those of the servant class as much as it did their masters. What was known as the “pugs procession” was commonplace among servants. Instead of the chatty scenes between upper and lower servants on Downtown Abbey, most household were ruled by “silence.” All the servants would take their dinner together in the servants’ hall, but then the upper servants (the house steward, the butler, and the housekeeper) would move to a private sitting room for their dessert.

The order of the day involved being neither seen nor heard. It was not unusual for maids to turn and face the wall if she encountered her master or mistress in the passageways. The appearance of the rooms were the responsibility of the upper housemaids. They addressed the draperies, the floral arrangements, the chair covers, etc. The under housemaids did the physical duties of laying a fire, polishing, cleaning the grates, etc. In Letters from England, Elizabeth Davis Bancroft, the wife of the U.S. Minister to England (1846-49), wrote, “The division of labour, or rather ceremonies, between the butler and the footman I have now mastered, I believe in some degree, but that between the upper and under housemaid is still a profound mystery to me, though the upper has explained to me for the twentieth time that she did only ‘the top of the work.”

from "Jane Austen's World"

Richard Henry Dana, son of the author of Two Years Before the Mast, spoke of a similar demarcation of duties in his Hospitable England in the Seventies. Dana had been invited to spend some time with Earl Spencer at Althorp. He and Lord Charles Bruce wished to play some lawn tennis, but they could find no one to whitewash the court’s markings in the grass. It seems that the job belonged to the “man-of-all-work,” but the servant was no where to be found. Dana said, “Neither the gardener, nor the footmen, nor the valets, nor the bootblacks nor, of course, the maids would help. Our hostess knew this so well that she did not even ask them.”

Servants did receive certain “compensations” for their service. They had a roof over their heads and four full meals per day – breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper. If they were enterprising enough, they could also have the remains of the masters’ meals. They received either a pint of home brewed beer (half pint for women) with each meal or a beer money allowance, usually 8d per day. The upper servants often were provided with wine for their meals. Wages were paid quarterly. Except for clothing, servants had few expenses, and a wise servant could save enough for a nest egg, to start a small business, or assist his struggling family. Loyal servants received pensions of £20 to £25. Smart upper servants could “earn” extra funds from tradesmen seeking the master’s business. The cook, traditionally, claimed the roast’s drippings as her own. The butler and footmen laid claimed to the candle butts. A smart butler might siphon off some of the master’s wine stock, either a decanter at a time or a whole bottle.

In “Life Below Stairs” by Frank Huggett, there is a list of wages (1888) from the records of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon paid out to the duke’s servants for a year’s service:

the house steward £100

the groom of the chamber £70

the valet, the housekeeper, and the cook £60 each

the butler £45

the footmen £26 to £34

the ladies’ maids £26 to £28

the stillroom maid £22

the kitchen maids £14 to £24

the housemaids and laundry maids £12 to £26

the scullery maid £12

Servants also EXPECTED to receive a tip from the master’s guests. A guest would leave a half-sovereign for the housemaid in honor of the condition she maintained his quarters, a sovereign for the groom of the chambers for lighting the candles each evening, likewise a sovereign for the butler for his personal advice and favors and a footman who acted as valet to a gentleman traveling without his personal servant. A guest might also tip the gamekeeper, etc. etc., etc. The list could easily grow to a tidy sum. Even visitors making tours of great estates were expected to tip the housekeepers guiding their tours.

And Heaven help the guest who did not meet his obligations. Upon his next visit, he might be housed in a drafty chamber or find his cut of meat the least desirable ones.

For more on Life Below Stairs, please visit my blog

Part II - Snobbery and Rules of Engagement
Part III - The Role of Male Servants
Part IV - The Work Never Ends


The Dissapearance of Georgiana Darcy
A Pride and Prejudice Mystery

By Regina Jeffers
(Released April 10, 2012)
A thrilling novel of malicious villains, dramatic revelations, and heroic gestures that stays true to Austen’s style

Darcy and Elizabeth have faced many challenges, but none as dire as the disappearance of Darcy’s beloved sister, Georgiana. After leaving for the family home in Scotland to be reunited with her new husband, Edward, she has disappeared without a trace. Upon receiving official word that Georgiana is presumed dead, Darcy and Elizabeth travel to the infamous Merrick Moor to launch a search for his sister in the unfamiliar and menacing Scottish countryside. Suspects abound, from the dastardly Wickham to the mysterious MacBethan family. Darcy has always protected his little sister, but how can he keep her safe from the most sinister threat she has ever faced when he doesn’t even know if she’s alive? Written in the language of the Regency era and including Austen’s romantic entanglements and sardonic humor, this suspense-packed sequel to Pride and Prejudice recasts Darcy and Elizabeth as a husband-and-wife detective team hunting for truth amid the dark moors of Scotland.


  1. Oppressive, the lot of a British servant in a properly run household. This makes the life of a Trappist seem more appealing -- at least there the sum total of a lifetime's accomplishment would be a hope of heaven, rather than merely well dusted draperies.

    1. The life of a domestic was not an easy one. Programs such as "Downtown Abbey" glamorize the life, but it was better than living in poverty. Meals and clothing were provided.

  2. It's important to remember too that there were the extremes, but also there was everything in between.

    The eras before the Victorian age sees a great deal more diversity simply because of the size of the population. It's not till post-Napoleonic wars that there were the great population booms which contributed to the massive numbers of servants available to the Victorian household.

    Before that--particularly in the mid-Georgian period--housemaids and cooks are forever running off (particularly when troops are billeted locally), servants don't wear livery or any particular uniform except in the biggest aristocratic households and many, many single gentlemen are sleeping with their housekeepers...Henry Fielding isn't the only one.

    There's a superlative historical thriller which really highlights much of the mid-Georgian servants' world by historian Janet Gleeson called "The Thief Taker".

    1. We tend to speak to the extremes when we research because that is what the audience wants to know. The mundane tends not to be entertaining unless one is Jane Austen. LOL!