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The Miserable Work Life of a Victorian Maid

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Highclere Castle, used for interior and exterior filming of "Downton Abbey"

Highclere Castle, used for interior and exterior filming of "Downton Abbey"

Glamorized Drudgery

Period-based programs like Downton Abbey often portray servant life as part of the hustle and bustle of a grand house, of servant hierarchy and internal politics. However, for the majority of female servants, their life was solitary. In fact, Frank E. Huggett in his book Life Below Stairs states that "In Mid-Victorian Times, about six out of every ten female servants worked alone as general maids who were expected to perform all the formal duties and chores."

The emergence of a new middle class due to the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution meant that a new type of household was in need of servants. Many women employed a servant as a sign of their wealth and new status. With a limited budget for only one maid, she was expected to do all of the work in the household. So who were these maids of all work and what was life like for them?

Roles of the Maid of All Work

The maid of all work was expected to do, as the title suggests, all the work of the house. Her role included the chores of a housemaid, nurse, parlor maid and cook. It must have seemed like a never-ending list of tasks. She rose early before the family of the house and cleaned and lit the fires, prepared breakfast and began the housework that would keep her busy all day. Added to these daily chores would be specific days such as wash day and scouring day.

Maid Preparing Vegetables By Henrik Nordenberg (1857–1928)

Maid Preparing Vegetables By Henrik Nordenberg (1857–1928)

These are just a few of the jobs expected to be carried out daily.

Types of Chores Carried out by Maids of All Work

Light the fire

Sweep the floors and hearth

Clean the grates

Dish washing

Wash the marble hearth

Rub and dust chairs, tables and other furniture

Shake out window curtains

Dust window frames, ledges and doors. Dust ornaments, glasses and china

Preparing and cooking meals

Making the beds



How Did They Find Employment?

If a maid was looking for work she had several options. Traditionally servants were recruited from the children of tenants, laborers and small estate farmers to work in the big house. Another option was to attend hiring fairs; servants would attend carrying an object to show their trade to prospective employees. However, with the emergence of the new middle-class, many girls would move from the countryside to find work in the towns and cities. In 1813 a free registry was established by the London Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Female Servants. It made available to prospective employees a list of maids that had been employed for at least two years in one place or had never been in service before. Around this time advertising in newspapers also became more popular for both employers and employees.

During the Victorian period, the workhouse also became a source of servant help. Girls were trained in the skills of housework, childcare, and cooking. These girls were often as young as 13 years old and knew only the life inside the workhouse. They were expected to take on all the roles of the house.

What Was Their Life Like?

The new houses built for the emerging middle class were different from the old estate homes that traditionally had separate entrances, sleeping and eating quarters and even different staircases for servants. The maids of all work who were often employed in these houses would still be expected to follow the Victorian ideals of not being seen or heard as much as possible. Many of the newly built homes still had a back door entrance for the maids to use and outdoor bathroom facilities. They worked a long, exhausting day, typically rising at 5 am and not getting to bed until midnight. A popular saying of the time was 'those who would thrive, must rise by five'. They often had to sleep in the kitchen or basement away from the family and alone.

They were expected to be content, good-tempered and happy with their routine. If they were lucky, their mistress provided help by employing a washerwoman for wash day and a young girl to help with window washing and scrubbing of the front step, but this was not always the case, if no cook was employed this job would also fall to the maid.

The life of a maid generally would have been lonely and isolated as they saw very little of the outside world except for tradesmen, and the visitors who came to the front door. Many mistresses worked them to the point of exhaustion. In his book, Life Below Stairs, Frank T Huggett states that the closer in social class the maid and mistress were the worse the maid was treated. The mistress was keen to show her position of authority. Mistresses of those coming from the workhouse were particularly suspicious of their maids and played tricks on them to test their honesty. This included acts such as placing a coin under the carpet to see if the maid was honest and handed in the found coin. For many of these workhouse girls, the training they received did not adequately prepare them for the life of a maid. They were coming from an institution that fed a large number of people and were used to cooking, cleaning and laundry on a large scale. They were also used to community living. A good mistress would teach them the ways of running her home in a productive way, but often girls were left to learn the skills on the job.

The authors Samuel and Sarah Adams, who themselves spent many years in service suggest in their book The Complete Servant that, "It is very disheartening to a poor servant to be continually found fault with . . . Human nature will not bear constant chiding." This suggests that some employees were complaining about, and to, their servants.

What Happened to Maids When They Left Their Position?

Maids generally had very few rights under the law, and the few laws that did exist were on the side of the employer. The magistrate had no legal right to interfere in a dispute between employer and servant. If an employer withheld a maid's wages or property she had little choice in what to do. She could sue her employer in a civil court but this would have cost money she likely did not have, and the consequence of taking this action would impact her chances of gaining other employment.

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Employers had the right to instant dismissal if a servant broke any legal order and they were not legally bound to provide a character reference for future employment. They were not obliged to provide any medical care for their servants, although some did and were not forced to provide any retirement payment.

There were some charities that provided help and support for female servants. One example is the Female Servants Home Society which gave out awards to servants for the length of their service in one place.

Awards Given From Female Servants Home Society

Length of ServiceAward

2 Years

A Bible

5 Years

A testimonial and a book

9 Years

A silver medal

15 Years

A gold medal

Other charities did provide financial awards but there were often strict rules about eligibility. There were also no legal requirements for employers to provide any sort of financial assistance upon retirement. If a girl was lucky, her employer might look after her when she was unfit to work, but often the maids were forced to enter the workhouse if they had no family of their own or savings to support.

The old saying 'service is no inheritance' sums up life for these poor girls. Often thrust into the daily drudge of servant life at a very young age, with little or no trying or experience of running a household, extremely long hours and no guarantee of support during illness and infirmity was a miserable life. It is not surprising many ran away or drifted from job to job, forced to enter the workhouse for periods of time when work could not be found or illness forced them to. Even if they were lucky enough to find a fair compassionate family to work for they had exhausting days with limited electronic conveniences we take for granted today. Lonely and isolated, the draw of the new industries employing girls that developed during Victoria's reign must have made a huge impact on the volume of girls willing to be maids of all work.

© 2015 Ruthbro


Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 21, 2017:

Watching Downton Abbey, one has a glimpse of this but generally, because the downstairs staff took care of each other, it wasn't that miserable. The mistress and the whole family were good to them, too. But I suppose that was not the case in many households.

Ruthbro (author) from USA on October 01, 2016:

Good question. Many times as you say they became old maids, ultimately becoming inmates at the local workhouse when they became too old/sick to work and had no money to live off. Sometimes relationships were formed with the various delivery boys bringing orders to the homes, newspaper, bread etc. Other times girls went into service to to save money for their families and would return home to be married once they had saved enough money.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 29, 2016:

Very interesting. I'm wondering how these maids, with no social life, ever got married and had households of their own. I assume that for a maid of all work the family would not have male servants. Since the maids apparently had little time to get out of the house, did they usually end up as "old maids"?

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