Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Servant Hierarchies

by Maria Grace

Importance of Rank

In Regency England, everyone knew their place. Individuals were keenly aware both of those above them and those below. This social hierarchy extended from the highest peer to the lowest servant in their household, with every servant knowing his or her rank among those of their class.

The number and type of servants in a household depended upon the ranks and wealth of the master/mistress of the household and the size of the establishment that need to be maintained. A first rate household with an income above 5000 pounds a year might employ twenty to twenty four domestics while tenth rate households with an income under 150 pounds a year might employ only a single young girl. Sometimes unique positions were created to tend to unique situations within a household.

Nonetheless, principles of rank could be applied to every servant so they knew where they stood in the world.

Rank of household served

When servants accompanied a master or mistress who traveled, their rank and thus their treatment in the host’s household would be according to the rank of their employer. Servants of higher ranking households were of a higher rank than those who held a similar position for a lower ranking household. This was true despite length of service, so the valet of a peer, even if newly hired, would out rank a mere gentleman’s valet even if he had served that gentleman for a decade.

Rank of household member served

When there were several servants in a household of equal job title, their rank would be determined by the prominence of the person they served within the family. The master’s valet would out rank the eldest son’s valet who would in turn outrank the younger son’s valet. Considerable turmoil in the servant ranks could follow the death of the master. His valet would be replaced in rank by the heir’s valet, and he might very well be out of a job entirely.

Rank within the household

Auguste Serrure A distraction from choresNot all individuals working for the household were considered servants. Some were possessed of skills and training that placed them definitely above the working classes. These professionals, usually men, were generally employed directly by the master of the house to handle managerial responsibilities. Chamberlains, agents, land stewards were hired by large establishments to assist in the management of lands and house stewards might handle the household accounts in households too large for a housekeeper to keep the books. In many cases these men were trained as solicitors, making them part of the middle class.

Two ranks of female servants occupied a similar not-quite-a-servant position in the households that employed them, the governess and the companion. These women were not considered professionals, but they were regarded as genteel, a necessary quality for imbuing young ladies with the accomplishments they would need in life and for protecting their reputations and delicacy. Thus, they were above the servants, but not part of the family either. So their rank was an awkward neither-this-nor-that sort of affair.

Skilled over unskilled

Below these professional and genteel employees were the true servants, members of the working class. Those who worked in these capacities were divided between the skilled—upper staff and senior staff—and the unskilled—the lower staff. Not surprisingly the skilled workers were more highly ranked.

Junger Mann am WeinkühlerIt is interesting to note that males servants, who were far less numerous than female ones, were over-represented among the skilled, higher ranking staff. Within the house, men were charged with protecting the household and its luxuries and overseeing a staff; outside, they managed and worked land and animals. All of these tasks required some form of training, typically apprentice. Thus the positions men filled were more typically considered skilled positions.

In many ways, most households could not afford to employ men for unskilled labor. Because of a tax specifically placed on male servants and the higher wages they commanded by virtue of being male, they were simply too expensive to assign to the unskilled labor that encompassed most housework. Thus female servants ended up with much of the hardest, dirtiest work of the household.

Upper, Senior and Lower Staff

The upper staff servants reported directly to the Master and Mistress of the house. Typically they would rise to their positions through years of experience of service, possibly in multiple households. These included the butler and housekeeper, to whom the lower staff reported, the cook, and the master and mistress’ personal attendants, the valet and lady’s maid.

Cruikshank Loo in the kitchin

Their rank afforded them a number of privileges including private quarters and sitting rooms. They ate at a separate table from the lower servants and were waited on by the lower servants. Their meals consisted of better food, including first pick of what might be leftover from the family's table. Part of their pay often included cast off clothes and household items like used tea leaves and candle stubs. Although these may seem odd to modern sensibilities, they were considered valuable goods in the era and an important part of an upper servant’s compensation.

Senior staff also reported to the master or mistress, but they were hired for very specific skills and did not rise up through the ranks of the servants, thus their slightly lower position than upper staff. These positions included for men: head groom/stable master, coachman, head gardener and head game keeper; for women, head nurse (who minded the children). The governess was often considered among these ranks, although her education and gentility set her apart. Depending on the number of senior staff employed, they might eat and socialize with the upper staff or together with their own ranks.

Lower servants were the least skilled workers among the household. They reported to the upper staff and in large households might never interact with the master or mistress of the house. They slept in large rooms, often dormitory style, with little privacy. Usually the women had quarters in the attics. The housekeeper's room was often by the stairway to those attic rooms so she could monitor the comings and goings of the young women. The men were often quartered in the basement or ground floor, amongst the service rooms, where the butler could supervise them. Male and female lower servants were typically segregated from one another, eating in separate rooms and under strict orders not to fraternize with one another.

Jeune filleThe very lowest ranked servants in a household would often be girls and possibly even boys as young as eleven years old. These children could be hired as scullery maids who would do some of the least skilled, most physically demanding labor, cleaning and laundering, emptying chamber pots and polishing boots.


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.

Ardelie, Susan. "Domestic Servants - Part 1 - Women." Making History Tart Titillating. February 16, 2010. Accessed August 10, 2015. https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/domestic-servants-part-1-women/.

Ardelie, Susan. "Domestic Servants - Part 2 - Men." Making History Tart Titillating. March 2, 2010. Accessed August 10, 2015. https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2010/03/02/domestic-servants-part-2-men/.

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.

Giles, Kelly. "Servants." Randolph College Faculty Webserver. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://faculty.randolphcollege.edu/janeausten/reports/servants.htm.

Glover, Anne. "Regency Culture and Society: A Primer on Household Staff." Regency Reader. March 19, 2012. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://www.regrom.com/2012/03/19/regency-culture-and-society-a-primer-on-household-staff/.

Hoppe, Michelle Jean. "Servants--Their Hierarchy and Duties." Literary Liaisons. 2003. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article046.htm.

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.

Koster, Kristen. "A Primer on Regency Era Servants - Kristen Koster." Kristen Koster. November 29, 2011. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://www.kristenkoster.com/a-primer-on-regency-era-servants/.

Schmidt, Wayne. "Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale." Wayne's This and That. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/servantwages.htm.

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.

Webster, Thomas, and William Parkes. An Encyclopædia of Domestic Economy . London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans;, 1852.


Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision, The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn, Remember the Past, and Mistaking Her Character. Click 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. I'm sure a lot of people will find this useful.

  2. Great article! This is the kind of stuff writers of historical fiction should know and incorporate into their characters' lives.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.