Kelly Giles


Help! Ė Servants During the Regency

During the Regency Era, anyone with pretensions to middle-class respectability employed domestic help. Fanny Priceís impoverished family keeps two housemaids, although apparently not of good quality. These servants are made more difficult to afford yet even more necessary because of Mr. Priceís alcoholism, Mrs. Priceís indolence, and the presence of up to ten children in the house. Even the "shabby genteel" Mrs. and Miss Bates, who survive primarily on the strength of their good connections, manage to employ a maid-of-all-work.

This may seem extravagant, as today live-in servants are found only in the wealthiest of homes. However, during the Regency servants were essential for practical reasons as well as of a sign of social status. Before electricity and indoor plumbing it took a lot of manpower (or more often womanpower) to keep a household running. Keeping even a modest home lit, heated, and clean could be a full-time job. Maintaining a grand home and an equally grand lifestyle might require a small army. The Duke of Westminster employed 50 servants at Eaton Hall.

In large households, the master and mistress of the house did not directly supervise the help. Gentlemen of great wealth and importance often had a steward, a sort of personal assistant, whose duties included management of the domestic staff. Beneath the steward, or at the top of the hierarchy in the many large households that did not employ a steward, came the butler and housekeeper.

The butler was the head of the male staff, and was in charge of the wine cellar and the householdís valuable silver and china. The butler also dealt with visitors and so had to be aware of social distinctions and proper etiquette. Unlike lower servants, the butler was always called by his surname. The housekeeper, called "Mrs." as a sign of respect even if she was unmarried, was the head of the female staff. She kept the household accounts, was in charge of the linens, and carried a large keyring with all the household keys on it. She also made coffee, tea, and preserves.

The position of ladyís maid was very desirable, not least of all because a ladyís maid was the only maid not under the control of the housekeeper. She served the lady of the house directly. A ladyís maid styled her mistressís hair, helped her to dress and undress, and maintained her wardrobe. She might also read aloud to her mistress and massage her temples when she had a headache. A gentlemanís valet performed similar duties for him. A ladyís maid was expected to be pretty and personable, and was preferably French. As there were not always suitable French girls available, some ladies of fashion employed English maids and simply called them by French names.

The duties of other maids were considerably more taxing. Housemaids were the standard kind of maid. They were responsible for lighting the fires, heating water for washing and bathing and carrying it upstairs to the bedrooms, cleaning chamber pots, changing bed linens, drawing the curtains, and scrubbing the floors. Large households divided the housemaids into upper and lower maids. The upper housemaids were expected to be more presentable in terms of appearance and manners and performed the duties that required direct interaction with the family and visitors. They might also be in charge of decorating. Lower maids were responsible for heavier work.

Ladies of the Regency did not cook for their own families. Mrs. Bennet, although her family is not rich, is proud that none of the Bennet girls have to cook and is offended when Mr. Collins asks which daughter he should compliment for the fine meal. Many households employed a cook, who was simply called "Cook". She was served by kitchen maids, who lit the stoves and helped with meal preparation.

Scullery maids were at the bottom of the household hierarchy, and looked down upon even by other servants. They were responsible for scrubbing dishes. This was difficult and painful work, as the only cleaning agents available at the time were harsh abrasives. As huge multi-course dinner parties were fashionable during the Regency, scullery maids might have to work long into the night to clean the hundreds of dirty dishes that might be generated by such an affair.

For less well-off households, all of the above tasks might be performed by a single woman, the maid-of-all-work. Her workday might last from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and her pay was only about two shillings a week. These maids were not merely the hardest working; they were also the most common. By Victorian times, three-fifths of all maids were maids-of-all-work.

Some households employed specialty maids. Dairymaids milked cows and churned butter on country estates. Nursemaids cared for small children. Nursemaids were usually under twenty years of age and were the only female servants who spent much time out of the house, as they took the children for daily walks. These circumstances made nursemaids very popular with young soldiers and policemen. Parlor maids, who did not become common until after Austenís time, answered the door, announced guests, and served at dinner. They were essentially female butlers/footmen, employed by families that could not afford male servants.

The greater expense of male servants was due both to their higher wages and to the eventual luxury tax on male servants. This made male servants less common, but a sign of greater social prestige for their employers. While female servants worked almost exclusively indoors, male servants were divided into indoor and outdoor staff. Beneath the butler, the indoor staff consisted of footmen and pages. They trimmed lamps, carried coal, announced visitors, served at meals, and attended the family when they went out. As their duties included elements of the bodyguard or bouncer, footmen tended to be tall and imposing. Since they dealt with visitors, employers also preferred footmen to be good-looking.

The outdoor staff included coachmen, who both cared for and drove the coaches, and grooms for the horses. There was often a gardener, with assistants beneath him for homes with extensive grounds. Country estates might employ a gamekeeper to breed and feed game.

By 1891, servants made up 16% of Englandís national workforce. It is obvious why people wished to employ servants, but why did anyone want to work as a servant? Wages were low (a maid-of-all-work might make £5 per year, a housemaid £11-£14 per year, a male indoor servant £25), the work was difficult, and treatment was often dehumanizing. Lower servants were expected to be seen and not heard. They slept in uncomfortable basement or attic rooms. They were discouraged from marrying. The master and mistress often did not even bother to learn the helpís names. A housemaid named Susan might be called Mary simply because that was the name of the last housemaid, or because one of the ladies of the house was named Susan.

There were, however, benefits to domestic service. Although the work was not easy, many considered it preferable to laboring in textile mills, factories, or coal mines. Domestic service provided some job security, and was one of the only jobs available to the lower class that carried any hope for a pension. Employers often rewarded faithful servants with annuities upon retirement. Some servants received fringe benefits; a ladyís maid got her mistressís cast-off clothing, and cooks could sell drippings from the kitchen. Servants could also expect some time off; they were entitled to two weeks off per year, half days on Sunday, one night out per week, and a day off each month. Servants might have the opportunity to travel with their employers. There was also always hope for advancement within the ranks. A hardworking maid or footman might someday be promoted to housekeeper or butler and thus attain respectability, responsibility, and a degree of power.

It is also worth noting that, while conditions for servants of the Regency Era were not always good, they were not treated in as degrading a manner as servants of the later Victorian Era. Regency servants dressed in the styles of the time that were suitable to their social class. While a maid who was too flashy or who dressed above her station might be scolded by her mistress, she would not be expected to wear a special uniform or old-fashioned costume like a Victorian maid would. She also would not be expected to do every last little thing for her mistress. Unlike their later counterparts, ladies and gentlemen of the Regency were not above a bit of work. They often performed minor household and personal tasks themselves.

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