Life below stairs

Angela Youngman

The Victorian era: a social whirl of house parties and balls, with people waiting on you hand and foot - if you were rich. If you weren't wealthy, however, you could well have been one of the servants. Angela Youngman takes a peek at...

Historical film and TV dramas set in the 19th century often show the glamorous, glittering, social high-life of the wealthy. But the chances are that, if we had been alive then, few of us would have been enjoying such luxurious, country house living. Instead, many of us would have had jobs "below stairs", or "in service".

According to the 1901 census, there were 1.7m women and 140,000 men in service out of a population of 38m. As an economic group in Victorian Britain, servants were only outnumbered by agricultural workers, and their lives could be just as harsh as those of poor farmers.

Servants were often up at 5am to light fires and organise the household, and had to work until 10pm or later. But some were more fortunate than others. Live-in servants would have their own bed, clothing, food and a roof over their head. "Lower" servants, meanwhile, often came from two-room cottages where there would have been six to eight children sharing a bed. All but the poorest families had at least one servant. The most common was the "maid of all work", who toiled 14 to 16 hours a day. Typical tasks involved cleaning out fireplaces, washing up, sweeping, scrubbing the floor, and running up and down stairs carrying hot water, buckets of coal and breakfast trays. She would run errands, scrub vegetables, dust and clean.

Live-in staff were usually allowed a two-week vacation per year, a half-day off on Sunday, one evening out a week, and a day off each month.

Servants feared being dismissed without a "character" - the Victorian term for a reference. If an employer refused to give one, for whatever reason, it was almost impossible to get another job. The workhouse, crime or begging for a living were often the only options left open to staff who had been dismissed.

Class divisions

The gulf between servant and master was wide. Servants had to use the back stairs - even when accompanying a family member upstairs. They would separate, and then meet at the top. Having to face the wall when a member of the family passed by was common. Hidden doors in panelling were used by servants serving meals, leaving the main doors free for family and visitors. No smiling or talking was allowed. At Petworth, the staff quarters and the kitchens were totally separated from the main house, linked only by an underground corridor.

Social divisions did not just exist between the rich "upstairs" dwellers and the humbler "downstairs" folk. There was a very strict servant hierarchy downstairs as well. The butler, housekeeper and ladies' maids were at the top. They often ate separately and had the authority to boss the other staff about.

Next came cooks and footmen, kitchen maids, housemaids, scullery maids and general maids. There were also outside staff - gardeners and odd-job men (also called "oddmen" or "extra men") - who were often looked down upon by the inside staff.

What's in a name?

As a sign of respect, employers referred to the butler by his family name, while other staff called him "Mr". Housekeepers were "Mrs" whether they were married or not. Footmen were often renamed Thomas or John by their employers, so their names were easy to remember, and they were expected to answer only to those names. Rich women often gave their English maids French names, as French maids were popular at the time.

Who did what?

The Butler

He was responsible for the hiring and firing the inside male staff. His duties included being in charge of the wine cellar, making sure wick lamps were trimmed and cleaned, setting up the candles, announcing visitors, guarding the pantry (where china and silverware were kept) and seeing dinner table regulations were observed by staff. He supervised the footmen, who set out cutlery and waited on the dinner table, and shut up the house in the evening. Each morning he ironed his master's newspaper so the ink was dry.

The Housekeeper

An authoritarian figure, responsible for running the household. She bought supplies, such as tea and coffee, hired and fired the female staff, and supervised the maids. Only she and the lady of the house would have had keys to things like the locked tea caddy. The housekeeper, cook and lady of the house would agree menus and what goods were to be ordered from shops.

Lady's maid

Anna Wild, lady's maid at Killerton in 1851, was responsible for the personal welfare of her mistress. She had to dress her, do her hair, make and repair clothes, nurse her, help her to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. These jobs were insecure. Employers preferred young lady's maids. The skills needed for the job were personal, and not equivalent to those of the housekeeper.


Duties included trimming lamps, announcing visitors, carrying coal, cleaning silver, setting up the table under the butler's supervision, and escorting family members to the theatre. Footmen were often the most visible servants in big houses and wore colourful uniforms; at Ickworth they wore pinstriped black trousers, crimson waistcoats and green jackets. Employers liked tall footmen with good legs, as they often wore breeches.


Male chefs were popular with the late Victorians. Often not-so-wealthy families had a woman, called "cook", who might have worked her way up into the job.


Housemaids were responsible for many unpleasant chores around the home, such as emptying chamber pots and cleaning.


These became fashionable in houses that could not afford a butler but wanted a servant. They combined the duties of butler and housekeeper, but were expected to be prettier than other maids as they had to be on show.

'A servant's life for me...'

The richer you were, the more servants you had. In 1851, magistrate Albert Ranking of Hastings had six live-in servants; at Ickworth House, Suffolk (home of the Marquis of Bristol) household staff included eight housemaids, a butler, two footmen, a housekeeper, two cooks, a ladies maid, two oddmen, laundresses, two scullery maids, a nurse, an under nurse, a night nurse, and nursery maids. There were also outside workers - another oddman, the head groom, eight grooms, four house gardeners, 15 vegetable gardeners, 15 foresters, a gamekeeper, six under keepers, six warreners and a mole catcher.

At Osborne House, the home of Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight, the 1861 census indicated the existence of more than 80 servants ranging from footmen, cooks, valets and a governess to a royal nurse, dresser, usher, lamplighter and cellarman. Only very wealthy families could afford male domestic servants as there was a tax to be paid on them.

At Cragside in Northumberland, the servants' wage book for 1884 reveals that the cook was paid pound;45 per annum, the butler pound;56; kitchenmaid pound;14, housemaid pound;18, footman pound;20, lady's maid pound;18, and a pageboy pound;8. Staff also received food and accommodation free of charge. Uniforms were sometimes provided. The quality of clothing varied according to the staff's rank. Servants seen above stairs would have been given better-quality clothing than those downstairs. The lower servants never went into the butler's pantry or the main house.


Most of the following houses offer living history events or activities about the lives of Victorian servants: Cragside, Northumberland Tel: 01669 620150 (ex 103) Charlecote Park, Warwickshire Tel:01789 470277 Dunham Massey Hall, Manchester Tel: 0161 941 4886 Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk Tel: 01263 837444 Ickworth House, Suffolk Tel: 01284 735270 Killerton House, Devon Tel: 01392 881345 Leighton Hall, Lancashire Tel: 01524 724473 Osborne House, Isle of Wight Tel: 01983 280201 Petworth,Sussex Tel: 01798 344976 PUBLICATIONS

Petworth The Servant's Quarters National Trust (pound;2.50) Life on a Royal Estate (Osborne House pack) English Heritage (pound;3.99) Food amp; Cooking in Nineteenth Century Britain English Heritage (pound;2.95) Killerton Resource book for teachers National Trust (pound;2.50) WEBSITES


* www.tsimmes.comcatsvictorianservants.html

* schoolhistoryservants.htm Links to the National curriculum This feature supports the QCA History schemes of work: Key Stage 1, Unit 2 What were homes like a long time ago? Key Stage 2, Unit 11, What was it like for children living in Victorian Britain? and Unit 12, How did life change in our locality in Victorian times?.

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Angela Youngman

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