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The Roles and Responsibilities of Female Victorian Servants

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The Victorian Age, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, saw great changes in technology, industrialization, and population growth. Those with the means employed servants for every aspect of running a home. In fact, the 1851 census of England, Scotland, and Wales shows the biggest areas of employment were farm laborers followed by domestic servants. Out of a total population of 15.75 million, 1.04 million were employed by a household.

Queen Victoria

Alexander Bassano portrait of Queen Victoria

Alexander Bassano portrait of Queen Victoria

A Good Life

At the beginning of the Victorian era, an ‘in service’ job was considered a good job. Servants were fed, clothed and provided with accommodation. The worry, expense, and responsibility for their life fell under the responsibility of their employer. The flip side of this was that servants lived at the beck and call of their employers, often enduring strict rules for dress, behavior, long days with physically demanding work, and dismal sleeping conditions.

For many middle and upper-class families, employing servants was an essential way of life. Even those with limited means would consider a housemaid and a cook a priority. Other types of servants included maids for the nursery, kitchen, scullery, chamber, parlor, and stillroom. Estates and large homes might also employ gardening staff, housekeepers, butlers, valets, footmen, nurses, pages, tea boys, grooms, stable masters, gamekeepers, groundskeepers, governesses, and even gatekeepers. Large estates may even have servants to assist their servants, such as an undercook to help the cook.

So What Exactly Did the Servants Do?

Except for the butler, cook, and footmen, most of the indoor staff were female. The daily lives of these women were often long, physically demanding, and repetitive.

The Housekeeper

The most senior female member of staff in a household was usually the housekeeper. The housekeeper was in charge of all of the female servants except for the lady’s maid and head nurse who were under the direction of the mistress of the house. The housekeeper oversaw everything that happened in the daily running of the home. Her role involved keeping weekly accounts of daily expenditure in a ledger, paying all the bills, and filing receipts. Every article sent to the house was examined and weighed to ensure it matched the order. She would supervise the making of pickles, jams, liquor, and salting or smoking of meat. Depending on the size of the staff she may also be responsible for the linen closet, mending and keeping track of the linen inventory. She would report back on any wear and tear. Her accounts were inspected once a month by the mistress of the house. The housekeeper would normally have a private agreement as to any extra provisions of beer, tea, or sugar in addition to the ones supplied to all of the servants.

Beeton's Book of Household Management

Mrs. Beeton's books included sections for cooks on kitchen management, recipes and job descriptions.

Mrs. Beeton's books included sections for cooks on kitchen management, recipes and job descriptions.

The Cook

The cook, who could be either male or female, had complete control of the kitchen. In smaller residences with no housekeeper, some of their duties could also include other areas of the house. As well as cooking all the meals, the cook would supervise the larder, baking of cakes and bread, and making of preserves. They had to be knowledgeable about when particular foods were in season and keep up-to-date on new recipes and ways of cooking food; the cook would need to continue to practice and develop their skills. The scullery maid was under their direction and would carry out all that was asked of her.

The Upper Nurse

The duties of the upper nurse included complete knowledge of all common ailments of babies and children and the ability to recognize and treat symptoms. For many, their duties also included the care of the mistress. The nurse's domain was the nursery where she ate, slept and worked. In fact, she was only able to leave the nursery when her charges were asleep and the under nurse was present to watch over them. The washing and dressing of the infants was performed by the nurse, and the older children were cared for by the under nurse. The upper nurse was responsible for taking the children out in the carriage and making and mending their clothes. The under nurse was under her instruction and helped with making beds, cleaning the grate and preparing and bringing up water and meals.

Painting of a lady and her maid circa 1890

Painting of a lady and her maid circa 1890

The Lady's Maid

The lady's maid worked alongside the housekeeper and reported directly to the mistress. The lady's maid would begin work before the mistress rose. She would prepare and bring a tray with tea and toast and layout the clothing needed for the morning. She would assist with dressing if required, then style the mistress's hair. The maid would need to be proficient in the latest hair styles and dress. Her roles would also include making any toiletries needed, and being able to repair or alter clothing as needed. While the mistress was at breakfast, she would put the room back in order and prepare any items needed for that day. Her duties would also include cleaning and preserving clothing such as fur, lace, and millinery and keeping up-to-date on the latest fashion trends.

The lady's maid kept accounts of any expenses related to her role, including an inventory of items, and would give notice of any items needing replacement. She would prepare in advance any clothing items needed for an outing, and be proficient in folding and packing for trips.

In the evening, the maid would lay out any clothing or jewelry, and wait up to assist with the bedtime routine until she was dismissed.

Depending on the health and age of the mistress, her duties could also include nursing, reading and taking dictation. In smaller households, the lady's maid and housekeeper duties might have been shared.

The Upper Housemaid

The main duties of the housemaid were cleaning. Before the family rose, the breakfast room, boudoir and drawing room needed to be cleaned and arranged. While the family ate breakfast, the bedrooms were set in order, windows opened, beds shaken and turned, slop emptied, floors wiped, and woodwork dusted. The rugs were taken out and shaken, mirrors polished, the grate and irons cleaned, and the beds remade.

Weekly duties involved cleaning the paintwork and windows, washing china ornaments and polishing furniture. Stairs, landings, and upper corridors were cleaned. Linens were collected and counted and mended if necessary. Curtains were taken down, shaken and rehung, rugs and cushions cleaned to destroy any moths or fleas. Depending on the size of the staff, other duties could include answering the hall door.

Other Servants

The under housemaid, under nurse, kitchen maid and general house servant all worked under other servants in their areas of duty. General servants would do whatever was asked of them and were at the beck and call of both the mistress and the other servants.

Whatever position a female servant held, the days were long, monotonous, and exhausting. Depending on the rules of the mistress of the house, they could be working from the early hours until late at night with very few breaks. The hierarchy involved meant that lower servants were often under the direction of other servants, who were hopefully, but not always, mentors.

© 2015 Ruthbro


Ruthbro (author) from USA on January 03, 2015:

Thank you!

Kay Plumeau from New Jersey, USA on January 02, 2015:

Very interesting. Definitely will be sharing this as well!

Ruthbro (author) from USA on January 02, 2015:

Thanks for reading!

Dip Mtra from World Citizen on January 01, 2015:

Great hub. Voted up.

Dip Mtra from World Citizen on January 01, 2015:

With so many servants around the household, politics and rivalry must have been rife. Good that the vast estates have gone to a large extent and homes are small enough that we do our own work. Voted up.