Life as a Victorian servant was very hard and unforgiving, involving long hours with very few days off and basic living conditions. With more Victorians working as domestic servants than in factories or farms, there were an enormous number of people living a life of loyal servitude and for much of the Era many were just thankful to have a small income and food on the table rather than protesting at the questionable manner with which they were often overlooked, uniformly pigeon-holed and dictated to by the Master and Mistress of the house.
With no technology like that which we benefit so greatly from today, the large, elite Victorian home needed many servants to run the house as everything took so much longer. In addition, whereas it is perfectly acceptable, normal even, for the more wealthy today to sometimes tackle a domestic task such as loading the dishwasher, feeding the cat or pruning a rosebush, the Master and Mistress of the 1800s household would not be seen to be involving themselves in such lowly chores.
Depending on the size of the house in question, a wealthy Victorian home would employ a string of maids, each responsible for a different task, some of them just young girls of around ten years old. From the Scullery Maid who would wash the dishes to the Laundry Maid who took care of all the washing and ironing of the family’s clothes to the Parlour Maids who would be responsible for the maintaining of the drawing and sitting rooms, there was an incredible amount of work to be done. Chamber Maids, responsible solely for the maintenance of the bedrooms, were a little better paid as they had more intimate contact with the family. The most highly paid maid of all was the Lady’s Maid, the private servant of the Lady of the house. Various maids existed to carry out the numerous extra duties around the home too; these would have included general house maids, ‘Between Maids’, who would run between garden and house as needed, and a Kitchen Maid to assist the cook.
The kitchen staff
As well as the Kitchen Maid and Scullery Maid, the Butler or Housekeeper would employ both a Cook and an Under Cook to assist in preparing the family meals. The Cook would be in charge of all of the kitchen staff and had an extremely important job, despite being far from the highest in rank of the domestic staff, because it was so essential to impress guests when the family was entertaining.
From First Footman to Footman to Second Footman, all these well dressed, handsome men or boys would be key servants in representing the estate’s grandeur and finesse and their good looks and smart attire were important. With the First Footman having the most important jobs such as accompanying the Lady of the house on trips out, serving the family meals and assisting the Butler, the others would perform tasks to assist him such as holding open doors or helping at meal times.
Running the house
The most highly ranked servant of all was the Butler, who would be in charge of running the house. Well paid, he would have taken home between forty and sixty pounds a year and would undertake key tasks such as taking on new employees and overseeing the daily execution of the household chores. To assist him in his duties, the Housekeeper, a female, would be responsible for managing the female staff and maintaining the furnishings of the home; she was considered a high ranking servant.
Outside of the house itself, there were often enormous gardens to maintain, which was taken care of by a Head Gardener and his team. Many houses would also have need for a Groom and Stable Boy, who could be as young as ten years old, to care for the horses. Large estates would additionally employ a Game Keeper, whose job it would be to maintain the bird population so that the Lord of the house could entertain his guests with hunting parties.
Looking after the children
Not at all a job for the parents themselves in a wealthy Victorian home, the occupation of looking after the children of the household was left to the Governess and a Nurse. Depending on how many children there were – quite possibly ten or more – the number of nurses would increase and a Head Nurse would be necessary to run her small team who could be made up of children themselves. Indeed, around 20% of nurses employed in the 1870s were under 15 years old. The Governess, responsible for educating the older girls of the household – boys would be sent to boarding school – was not entirely looked upon as a servant. Indeed, her life would often be a lonely, difficult one through being caught between two different groups – the servants who viewed her as above them, having come from a wealthier, more educated background, and her employers who treated her as a servant.
By no means an exhaustive list, these descriptions of the common domestic service positions held in a large household help to paint a picture of domestic life in the wealthy Victorian home for much of the era. However, by the 1880s, new ideas were forming which threatened to change Britain’s ideals on status and class. The servants themselves were beginning to question their place and role in society and this decade saw the first attempts by butlers and maids of wealthy homes across the nation to cast doubt over the Victorian obsession with hierarchy. The first sounds of discontentment with the class system and servitude were echoing around mealtime discussions, newspaper articles and even courtrooms as servants decided to speak up about their life of domestic service. Over the next few decades, things were set to change.