Friday, July 10, 2015

The Ubiquitous Servant

by Maria Grace

Servants find their way into nearly every work of historical fiction, a familiar stock character in any era. The role and situation of the servant changed dramatically through the ages, in some cases little better than slaves, in others, like the late Georgian/early Victorian era, a person with recognized rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the law.

In the early to mid-1800’s many young people began their adult lives with positions in service. Many moved on to marriage (for the women) or other forms of work. Some remained in service all their adult lives progressing through the ranks to the upper servants ranks: housekeepers, butlers and housestewards. Many households, and nearly all that reached above the lowest classes employed at least one domestic servant.

Servant’s Wages

General recommendations suggested that for incomes of over a thousand pounds a year, about one third of that should go to household expenses and one quarter towards servants and equipage (horses and carriages), the same amount suggested for clothing and other extras. In general, the greater the income, the more servants and the more specialized the servants. A small household might have only one maid of all work whereas a large one might have upper maids, lower maids, laundry maids, dairy maids, nursery maids, still-room maids, scullery maids and a housekeeper to oversee them all.

Most considered an annual income of at least one hundred pounds or guineas a year to be the minimum necessary to employ a servant. At this income level, a household could hire a single young maid servant. (Female servant’s salaries were lower than male servants and the Male Servant Tax 1777-1852 made male servants more expensive to employ.) The expected salary for such a servant would be from five to ten guineas a year, depending on her capabilities.

At an annual income of two hundred pounds, an experienced maid of all work might be hired with an annual salary of twelve to fourteen guineas, but a male servant would probably not be hired until an income level of five to six hundred pounds a year was reached. A male servant’s wages began at around twenty guineas a year for an under footman. A butler might earn fifty and a French trained man-cook eighty. The top paid female servants, the housekeeper and lady’s maid might be paid as much as thirty guineas, notably less than the male servants.

As with the Commander of an Army

"As with the commander of an army, so it is with the mistress of a home" Beeton (1861) wrote. Though the mistress of a household might not be employed outside the home, she had a full-time occupation managing the servants and all the household work. In very large establishments, a housekeeper might manage many of the lower female servants; the mistress was ultimately responsible for directing the housekeeper, governess and lady’s maid. In smaller establishments, the mistress and her daughters might very well work alongside a maid of all work, or even several maids in order to accomplish all that needed to be done in the household. Even if she did not, the mistress of the household had to have a solid understanding of how each task must be done in order to properly supervise the servants.

Often the mistress of the household was herself responsible for hiring (and dismissing) servants. In doing so, household manuals such as Mrs. Beeton’s recommended that she obtain not just a letter of character, but interview the candidate’s previous mistress to ascertain the suitableness of the candidate for a position. Such consideration was important as servants became a kind of dependent upon the family to whom the mistress owed a particular duty of benevolence.

Servants who became ill could not, by law (Adams,1825) be dismissed during the duration of their employment contract. The mistress of the household had the responsibility to see to their proper medical treatment, food and comfort during their illness. Mistresses were encouraged to allow the servants to join family devotions and endeavor to make the servants "spend the Sabbath properly". Day to day, she would both promote their comfort and oversee the steady performance of their duties. Though cautioned not to become overly familiar with her servants, still mistresses were urged to treat them with kindness, gentleness and respect for their feelings.

Desirable qualities for servants

Young persons, on their first entering into service, should endeavor to divest themselves of former habits, and devote themselves to the control of those whom they engage to serve… They will wisely take advantage of the opportunity which Providence fortunately presents to them, to cultivate their minds and improve their principles… They will eagerly embrace every opportunity of learning everything that may be useful to themselves, and of doing anything that may be useful to others. (Adams, 1825)

Though some manuals considered time spent in service as an opportunity to improve one’s character, these same manuals also recommended particular necessary traits for good servants. Mistresses desired servants who were industrious, early-rising, punctual and orderly in their work. Similarly, honesty, loyalty, and cleanliness were also valuable. These traits are similar to those employers would look for today.

Due to the live-in, community nature of the servant employing household, several additional qualities were regarded important. These included, good temper, particularly necessary for getting along both with other servants, and for enduring a cranky mistress ranked high among desirable traits. Humility, modesty and temperance all made it far easier for servants to get along in the household, as did the avoidance of tale bearing. One household manual even devoted an entire section of how female servants were to treat others in the household so as to get along best with everyone.


Adams, Samuel, and Sarah Adams. The Complete Servant; Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants ... with Useful Receipts and Tables,. London: Knight and Lacey, 1825.

Barker, Anne. The Complete Servant Maid or Young Woman's Best Companion. Containing Full, Plain, and Easy Directions for Qualifying Them for Service in General, but More Especially for the Places of Lady's Woman, Housekeeper, Chambermaid, Nursery Maid, Housemaid, Laund. London: Printed for J. Cooke, No. 17, Pater-Noster Row, 1770.

BEETON, Isabella Mary. The Book of Household Management. Edited by Mrs. I. Beeton, Etc. [With Illustrations.]. London: S. O. Beeton, 1861.

Cosnett, Thomas. The Footman's Directory, and Butler's Remembrancer Or, the Advice of Onesimus to His Young Friends: Comprising, Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Their Work ; Rules for Setting out Tables and Sideboards ; the Art of Waiting at Table, and Conduct. London: Printed for the Author ;, 1823.

Household Work, Or, The Duties of Female Servants Practically and Economically Illustrated, through the Respective Grades of Maid-of-all-work, House and Parlour-maid, and Laundry-maid : With Many Valuable Recipes for Facilitating Labour in Every Department. London: J. Masters, 1850.

The Servant's Guide and Family Manual: With New and Improved Receipts, Arranged and Adapted to the Duties of All Classes of Servants ... Forming a Complete System of Domestic Management. 2d ed. London: J. Limbird, 1831.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Thank you for sharing this informative post. It seems, contrary to popular belief, that the mistress of the estate had a great deal of responsibility. It was not a life of leisure.

  2. Very interesting and helpful for my latest WIP. I always enjoy your posts.


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