Dinner is Served: the Roles of English Servants

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by Therese Stenzel, copyright 2007

Need a Butler to decant the wine at dinner? A Lady's Maid to do up a row of buttons? A Footman to carry a silver soup tureen into the dining room? English servants can bring an authentic note to a period novel when the strict hierarchy and specific roles of each servant bow to historical accuracy.

Movies like GosfordPark, Remains of the Day, and Berkeley Square are great resources for understanding the intricate lives of servants in the 1800's and 1900's. A rigid set of rules dictated when they arose, bathed, ate, who they spoke to, and how they dressed. For example at mealtimes, the Upper Servants; Butler, Housekeeper, Cook, Valet, and Lady's Maid met in the Housekeeper's room and filed into the servant's hall in order of station. The Butler sat at the head of the table, and the Housekeeper took a seat at the opposite end. The male servants sat in order of position on one side and the female servants down the other, but only after the Butler gave them permission. He would carve the meat and send the plate to the Housekeeper who served the vegetables. The Second Footman took the plates round to each servant in order of seniority. After dinner, the Upper Servants retired for coffee and fine desserts in the Housekeepers Room while the Lower Servants; Footman, House, Kitchen, and Scullery Maids washed up after the meal.

Considered the most senior servant, the Butler existed as "Mr. Jennings" to the servants and "Jennings" to his employer. He presided over the male staff, supervised the footmen in their serving of meals, the wine cellar, the "plate" (or family silverware,) and each morning ironed his Master's newspaper. He performed most of his duties from a special room called the Butler's Pantry. There the plate and china resided when not in use. The Butler would be the one to take a gentleman or lady visitor directly into the drawing room whilst making sure that the tradesman, workers, or other staff waited in the hall. He maintained responsibly for ringing the "dressing bell" to let guests know it was time to put on their dinner attire. He would oversee the setting of the table, trimming candlewicks, filling lamps with oil, and cleaning the silver. The last duty of the day would be to check that all fires and lights were safely damped out and all doors locked. In 1872, a Butler would earn $750 a year.

The senior female servant, the Housekeeper supervised the hiring and firing of the woman staff. Referred to as "Mrs" whether married or not, she looked after the household accounts, purchased supplies, cured, bottled, and preserved food. She met daily with the Lady of the house to go over the books and preside over the Servant's Tea, using that time to relay any necessary information to members of the staff. She oversaw the storeroom, china closet, still room, and linen cupboard. If the laundry was sent out, she carefully recorded each piece as it went out and came back. Easy to identify, the Housekeeper wore a black silk uniform and large set of keys safely at her waist. Keys prevailed in importance, as many expensive items, tealeaves, spices, and pickled meat remained locked up. Her last duty in the evening would be to oversee the washing and storing of the dinner china. In 1872, she would have earned $300 a year.

The Lady's Maid, called "Miss" whether married or not, (or her mistress could choose to call her by her Christian name,) was often chosen for her looks and youth, although, having a French Lady's Maid remained the height of respectability. Her main responsibilities consisted of attending to her Ladyship's grooming, dressing, packing and laying out her clothes, washing and repairing undergarments, and fixing her hair in the latest fashion. These duties consumed the day as the Lady of the house could spend four to five hours dressing for various meals. The Lady's Maid would also oversee the tidying of her Ladyships' boudoir. At times considered a sort of companion to her mistress and yet treated as a servant, she lived a lonely life. Being better educated than the average maid, permitted to wear her mistress' cast off clothing, and served breakfast each morning by a Second Housemaid, the other maids often resented her. Her last duty would be to wait up until her ladyship retired to assist in undressing, loosening, and brushing her hair. In 1872, she would have earned $150 a year.

A Valet would look after his master's clothing ensuring his wardrobe remained in good order. Sometimes referred to as a gentleman's gentleman, his job consisted of laying out clothing, keeping shoes and hats clean and in good repair, standing behind his employer at dinner, running his bath, and traveling with him. He also had the precarious responsibly of shaving his master with an open cut-throat razor. Most of his job would have taken place in the Brushing Room where you would find boot trees, hatboxes, wire brushes, polishes, and mothballs. In this room, the Valet would have ironed top hats, whitened riding breeches, brushed wool coats, and washed and stretched his master's gloves. His last duty would be to wait up until his Lordship retired to assist in his undressing. In 1872, he would have earned $300.

Many Cooks supervised large staffs to produce three sometimes four elaborate meals a day for the Family and to impress guests. She met daily with the Lady of the house to discuss menus as a minimum of six courses were expected and up to twenty-two could be served on special occasions. In addition, the Cook would be required to provide food for nursery meals, cricket teas, picnics, and dinner parties. Lighting a fire was much more difficult without the ease of matches. Every evening she would preserve embers until morning with a metal dome. Only extremely rich families could afford to hire a male cook or the ultimate status symbol, a French Chef. The last duty of the day would be to prepare the Family's evening meal. In 1872, a male cook would have earned $500, a female cook $350.

The Groom oversawthe care of the horses. If no Coachman served on staff, he would also maintain and drive the carriages. Mornings were spent mucking out the stables, feeding, and cleaning the horses, and preparing a horse or carriage when a member of the Family wished to go riding. Any time a horse or carriage went out, it had to be immediately cleaned and properly stored so that it was ready at a moments notice. He also fashioned and mended harnesses. He did not live in the house, but in accommodations above the stable. Unless the Family went out for the evening and needed the carriage, his last duty would be to feed the horses and put them in the stable. In 1872, he earned $300.

The Footmen had duties in and outside the estate. Responsible for carrying coal, cleaning silverware, announcing visitors, and waiting at table, he also attended the Lady of the house when she went calling by leaving the visitor cards at the front door while she passed the time in the carriage. They often wore vividly ornate uniforms with colorful hats trimmed in gold braid, short knee britches, white gloves and stockings until the late 1800's when their uniforms were simplified. Since they served in pairs, height was vastly important and a tall footman earned more than a short one. The First Footman acted as a sort of valet to the eldest son serving him breakfast, running his bath, preparing clothes, and shaving him. He would also lay the breakfast on the sideboard (the English are not waited on at breakfast,) clear the table after each meal, and clean the glass and plate. He also served afternoon tea to the Family in the drawing room. A Second Footman would have handled the more mundane duties of cleaning the staff boots, emptying the male chamber pots, and valeting the youngest son of the house. His last duty would be to clear and clean dinner china. In 1872, he would earn $150 a year.

Housemaids kept the estate immaculate, bedrooms supplied with water for washing, bathing, and insured fires continued to burn. They scrubbed and emptied chamber pots, drew curtains, turned down beds, dusted and polished, cleaned bedrooms, and tidied the public rooms. They performed grueling monotonous labor as the floors had to scrubbed by hand, fireplaces cleaned out daily, grates polished with black lead, and water lugged from the kitchen and then carried room-to-room. Larger households would employ a First Housemaid for the lighter work and Second and Third Housemaids for the more physical work. The center of her cleaning was the Housemaid's closet. It contained such supplies as foot brushes, stove brushes, banister brushes, carpet brushes, shoe brushes, furniture brushes, velvet brushes, closet brushes, oil brushes, carpet brooms, bed brooms, hair brooms, and wall brooms. She also served the Housekeeper her morning tea. The last job of the evening would be to fill hot water bottles and place them in the Family's and Upper Servants beds to warm them. In 1872, they earned they earned $100-150.

A Kitchen Maid's first job was to prepare the breakfast trays for the Upper Servants and to assist the Cook in preparing the Family's breakfast. She is responsible for making all the breads, sauces, and vegetable dishes for the Family's luncheon, all servants meals and to store any leftovers. She prepared a light evening meal for the children of the house and assisted the Cook in the preparations for the Family dinner. She is only allowed upstairs once a day for compulsory prayers. All her time is spent in the kitchen or her room. Her last duty would be to store away leftover from the Family dinner. In 1872, she earned $75-100 a year.

The Scullery Maid, considered the lowest servant in the house, worked eighteen hours a day. Usually in her early teens, she would be the earliest to rise, with the first task to stoke the kitchen range to a fierce heat so the teakettle boiled quickly for morning tea. She must empty all chamber pots of the female staff and assist the Lower Servants in preparing breakfast for the Upper Servants. She had to clean the kitchen passages, pantries, kitchen, and scullery, lay the servant's hall table for breakfast, clear and wash up afterwards, including all pots, pans, and kitchen utensils used. She would continue lay tables, clear, and wash up throughout the day. A dinner for five utilized 180 separate pieces of porcelain, silver, and crystal, each item needing to be washed and safely stored away. Allowed upstairs only once a day for compulsory prayers, it is the only time she would see her employers. In 1872, she would have earned $50-75.

Dairy Maids churned butter into milk, made clotted cream, butter, milked the cows and delivered it up to the estate, turn curds into cheese and kept the diary clean using only sand and hot water.

Laundress was in charge of cleaning clothes and household washing. Smaller homes had their laundry sent out.

Nanny's cared and dressed the younger members of the family. Took children on excursions to get plenty of fresh air and would be assisted by nursery maids. In larger establishments, a footman would be assigned to the nursery. Nanny slept in the nursery in a separate room next to her charges.

The Governess taught children until the boys left for boarding school. The girls remained in the schoolroom. Although a Governess would have the demeanor and deportment of a lady, usually educated cultured, properly mannered and well bred as well as young and fresh faced, they were treated as servants, because of this, they were often very lonely. There lady-like deportment often created romances in the family.

Maid-of-All-Work was hired if you could only afford one servant. She did a little bit of everything combining the work done by the Cook, Housemaid, Lady's Maid, Laundress, and Nursemaid.

Page is a young boy hired to run errands and answer the door. He served as a junior grade Footman.

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