Just as the members of the ton or high society were stratified by rank and precedence, so were the servants hired to maintain, clean and run their homes. The rankings observed by Regency Era servants could even be said to be stricter than those they worked for.
Generally, there were two broad categories of servants: the upper servants and the lower servants. The more responsibilities and the closer the servant worked with the master or mistress of the household, the higher their standing. Typically, in most fiction, we see a butler and a housekeeper as the heads of the male and female staff in a household. A steward would work more closely with the master of the house, and often in the master’s absence, perform day to day tasks in his stead and, in truth, the butler would have deferred to him.Servants of equal job title under the same roof would be ranked by the standing, in the family line as well as society, of whom they served. The prominence of the person served was far more important than length of service to the family. Deaths in the family could cause quite an upheaval as the servant’s ranks reshuffled, especially in the case of an heir assuming the title.
This strict adherence to precedence by the servants went as far as to even dictate who ate first. The upper servants dined apart from and before the lower servants. The stratification of rank also extended to the servants of those visiting the household.
Likewise, butlers and housekeepers kept an eye on their staff and required that the employees mind the proprieties much more closely than their employers. We often see in fiction how the servants have been with the household since the hero or heroine was a child. This was more an exception than the norm. Turn over for most household positions averaged once every two to three years, more frequently for the lower staff members.
During the Regency, anyone who wanted to portray themselves as having an air of middle-class respectability employed domestic help. To our modern thinking, live-in servants seem an extravagant luxury. However, prior to the advent of electricity and indoor plumbing, the amount of manpower to maintain a modest home — keeping it lit, heated and clean — could be a full-time job. 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.
The Upper Regency Era Servants
In large households, the master and mistress of the house did not directly supervise the help. Gentlemen of great wealth and importance often had a steward, a sort of personal assistant, whose duties included management of the domestic staff. Beneath the steward, or at the top of the hierarchy in large households that did not employ a steward, came the butler and housekeeper. Jane Austen’s World has a great post describing the hiring of Regency Era servants.
The butler was the head of the male staff. He was in charge of the wine cellar and the household’s silver and china. The butler also dealt with visitors and so had to be aware of social distinctions and proper etiquette. Unlike lower servants, the butler was always called by his surname.
The housekeeper, called “Mrs.” as a sign of respect even if she was unmarried, was the head of the female staff and kept the household accounts. She was also in charge of the linens and carried a large keyring with all the household keys on it. She also made coffee, tea, and preserves.
A very desirable position as she was the only maid not under the housekeeper’s control, the lady’s maid served the lady or ladies of the house directly. A lady’s maid styled hair, helped her mistress dress and undress and maintained her wardrobe. She might also read aloud or massage her mistress’s temples when she had a headache. A lady’s maid was expected to be pretty and personable, and was preferably French. With the Napoleonic Wars, few suitable French girls were available, so some ladies of fashion employed English maids and simply called them by French names.
A gentleman’s valet acted as the gentleman of the house’s personal barber, assisted him to dress and undress, and maintained his wardrobe. A common alternative term for a valet is a gentleman’s gentleman.
Cooks and Chefs
Ladies of the Regency Era did not cook for their own families. The cook (or male chef in a great house) was usually employed directly by the master or mistress of the house and paid more than the steward and as such was often regarded as separate from the rest of the domestic staff.
The Lower Regency Era Servants
Footmen announced visitors, served at meals, and attended the family when they went out (often to carry packages while shopping on Bond Street in much fiction). As their duties also included elements of the bodyguard or bouncer, footmen tended to be tall and imposing. Since they dealt with visitors, employers also preferred footmen to be good-looking.
Chamber Maids or House Maids
The duties of other maids were considerably more taxing. Housemaids were the standard kind of maid. They were responsible for carrying coal, lighting the fires, heating water for washing and bathing and carrying it upstairs to the bedrooms, cleaning chamber pots, changing bed linens, drawing the curtains, and scrubbing the floors.
Large households divided the housemaids into upper and lower maids. The upper housemaids were expected to be more presentable in terms of appearance and manners and performed the duties that required direct interaction with the family and visitors. They might also be in charge of decorating. Lower maids were responsible for heavier work.
The cook or chef was, in turn, served by kitchen maids, who lit the stoves and helped with meal preparation. Clean up was left to the scullery maids.
Scullery Maids and Laundry Maids
These maids were considered the lowest in the hierarchy, their work difficult and painful. The only cleansing agents at the time were harsh abrasives like sand and lye. With lavish multi-course dinner parties all the fashion during the Regency, scullery maids often worked long hours cleaning the hundreds of dirty dishes generated during such an affair.
Maid Of All Work
In less wealthy households, all of the above tasks might be performed by a single woman, the maid-of-all-work. Her workdays might last from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., for about two shillings per week. These maids were not merely the hardest working; they were also the most common. By Victorian times, three-fifths of all maids were maids-of-all-work.
Some households employed specialty maids for specific tasks. Dairymaids or milkmaids milked cows and churned butter on country estates. Nursemaids cared for small children. Nursemaids were usually under twenty years of age and were the only female servants who spent much time out of the house, as they took the children for daily walks, which made them very popular with young soldiers and policemen.
These jobs would have included the coachmen, who both cared for and drove the coaches, and grooms for the horses. There was often a gardener, with assistants beneath him for homes with extensive grounds. Country estates might employ a gamekeeper to breed and feed game and to provide that oh-so-convenient cottage for the hero and heroine to get stranded in during storms.
More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.