Domestic Servants were vital for the efficient running of large households
Along with the Housekeeper, the Butler was the most important member of staff; he was in charge of all the other male members of staff, and was responsible for ensuring that every meal upstairs ran smoothly. Apart from general waiting duties, usually assisted by a Footman, he would announce when meals were ready , and keep a watchful eye on proceedings, serving wine as necessary, until pudding had been served when he would go to the drawing room to see to the fire and make sure that everything was ready for when his employers finished their meal.
The Butler was in charge of paying bills and to some degree, looking after the other servants, but his most important duties lay in the wine cellar; he needed to be very well versed in the quality of different wines, and how best to store them, along with whiskies etc., and it was he who would also bring up whatever was needed each day, making sure that absolutely every removal from the cellar was recorded in the cellar book. Wines were not often bought ready bottled, and the Butler had to know exactly how to fine the wine, and also how to bottle it, lay it down and record it so that he knew exactly when it might be ready to drink.
He was responsible for locking up the house at night after the household had retired to bed, and would ensure that all fires were safe and all candles extinguished.
The Coachman may have been in charge of grooms and stable boys, or perhaps in smaller households would have been working on his own.
His responsibility was not only to be a skilful driver of carriages, but also supremely knowledgeable in all matters concerning the care of horses and ponies; he would have needed a basic veterinary knowledge, but must also have known when to call in help, and he needed to make sure that the carriage and harness or saddlery was kept clean – whether he did it himself or supervised the stable boy.
The stables had to be kept tidy and clean, and the horses and ponies needed to be well turned out at all times in case they were needed at short notice; if they were not needed at all on any day, then the Coachman and/or the grooms would need to exercise them in order to keep the fitness levels up and the excitability down.
Anyone who has owned horses knows the hard work and long hours that go into ensuring their comfort and welfare, and if the Coachman was on his own then his day would have been long indeed. On top of this, he might have been called upon to wait at table, or ride out with members of the household.
The Coachman’s main duty however was to drive the coach or carriage, and he had to do this in a manner that was comfortable for the passengers as well as least tiring for the horses. A good Coachman knew his horses well, and made it his business to quickly get to know any new arrivals in the stables – by knowing their likes, dislikes, foibles and preferences he would be able to place them in the most suitable position in the traces and get the very best out of them with the least effort. In the same way that a pilot checks every detail of his plane before climbing into the cockpit, the Coachman would walk around his carriage checking the wheels and inspecting the harnesses and traces before taking up his position in the driving seat.
Horses and carriages were valuable commodities, and a good Coachman was worth his weight in gold.
The Cook employed by large households was in total charge of her kitchen, and was responsible for overseeing everything that went on therein. She had to not only be a superb cook, but also had to be obsessively clean with almost limitless stamina……..getting up at the crack of dawn was normal, as was not retiring until late in the evening.
Very often she would have a Kitchen Maid and a Scullery Maid working beneath her, and maybe an under Cook too if she was lucky which would have helped to reduce her work load.
The Lady of the house would suggest menus for the day first thing in the morning, and Cook would then source the necessary food and set about preparation whilst delegating tasks to the servants beneath her. She also oversaw the servants’ meals in the kitchen, but would leave the finally clearing, cleaning and scrubbing to the Scullery Maid.
Not many households ran to a dairy maid, but generally her duties were to ensure constant supplies of dairy products such as milk, butter and cream.
She would have a dairy to work in, which was usually thick walled and set apart from the house in a shady place, and it had to be kept scrupulously clean along with the tools of her trade, i.e. churns, milk pails, sieves, pans, marble dishes, wooden bowls, butter moulds and patters.
Sometimes the Dairy Maid was required to milk the cows if they belonged to the estate, but usually she was given the milk for the day by the cowman and she would then deal with it as necessary – churning some for butter, and skimming some for cream, and then giving it to the cook for use in the kitchen. This sounds simple, but in fact butter churning was a laborious process and it was easy for things to go wrong, with the result that the butter would appear unappetising, and if she was lax in her hygiene then things could become rather nasty.
The footman may have been the only male servant or one of several, but either way his duties were many.
If there was a butler in the household, then the footman answered to him, and assisted him at mealtimes with laying the tables, waiting at mealtimes and keeping all cutlery and glasses etc. spotlessly clean. He would be required to answer the door to visitors, and carry out his duties in a quiet and unobtrusive manner whilst turning a deaf ear to conversations that he inevitably overheard. He would be smartly dressed in livery provided by his master, and would wear spotless white gloves at all times when upstairs.
He would serve morning coffee and afternoon tea to his employers and guests, and was responsible for ensuring that any requests were promptly dealt with.
If he was the only male servant, then he would carry out many of the duties normally done by a valet and butler, so his workload would be heavy.
Think modern day cleaner, but without all the modern aids and virtually no time off! The housemaid’s work was incredibly strenuous, starting early in the morning, and not finishing until mid evening at best.
Not only did she sweep, dust, polish and generally keep all rooms spotless, she was also expected to clean out the grates every morning then lay and light the fires during the winter; and in some households she would also have to wait at table at mealtimes, clearing up afterwards and putting the room to rights.
Making the beds was part of the job description, as well as cleaning the bedrooms, and in her “spare time” she might be expected to mend torn curtains or repair broken ornaments (which hopefully were not damaged at her hand), and she made up all polishes; stain removers, etc. etc. herself.
The Housekeeper was the most important member of staff, and was in charge of overseeing all the domestic servants, including looking after their welfare and day to day problems. She was in a highly trusted position, and was in charge of the book keeping and payment of bills etc. as well making sure that meals for the family were prepared to the highest standard and that the house was running satisfactorily.
Like any good manager, the Housekeeper had to act in a way that promoted respect but she also had to be approachable with a kindly nature, and possess common sense so that she could deal satisfactorily with grievances or troubles amongst the servants.
The Lady’s Maid was required to possess impeccable discretion, as once she gained the trust of her mistress she was taken into many confidences much as if she was a true friend but of course she was not, and she had to remain polite at all times, basically only speaking when spoken to.
Mainly though, her role was not only to dress her mistress but often also to make or mend the clothes and hats; she had to be proficient in removing dirt from all manner of fabrics, and had to make sure that articles of clothing were put away in good order ready for wearing again.
All apparel from hats to boots had to be carefully checked for stains or tears after each wearing, and dealt with accordingly before being hung up or put away; jewellery had to be carefully cleaned and locked away after use.
The Lady’s Maid was required to keep the dressing room clean, tidy and warm, and also to ensure that all bed linen was kept in good repair, as well as making or sourcing toiletries as needed.
Hairdressing skills were most important, and most lady’s maids had thorough training from professionals before taking up duties, but of course fashion constantly changed and they would have to keep up with the times. She would also have to make up shampoo and pomades, and endless lotions and potions to promote healthy shiny hair – no popping to the shop for a bottle of conditioner!
Duties of a Laundry Maid are pretty self explanatory, and although professional facilities were available in many towns and cities, most households preferred the gentler ministrations of home washing.
There was a wash house and a drying room (I remember these from my childhood), with large tubs fed hot water by a boiler or furnace, as well as a sink with cold water, and an area for a mangle as well as clothes horses for airing and drying. (I remember these too – they were perfect for upending, draping with a sheet and using as a tent!).
The laundry maid took care of all the washing much as we do today, except of course she did not have any modern aids to help her, and it was all just a hard slog from start to finish with different fabrics and colours having to be treated differently. Any stains were dealt with by various methods prior to washing, and the act of washing itself was incredibly hard on the hands – leaving them sore and raw. Much of the washing was done with harsh soaps and water almost too hot to bear, and each item had to be scrubbed between the hands; it must have been an incredible relief to get to the silks and wools which required cool water and less harsh treatment.
The washing process started on Mondays and in a large household was not completed until Fridays, when the ironing would start, and the wash house would be scrubbed down and thoroughly cleaned ready for use again the following week.
Basically the Nursemaid was the mother once weaning of the child/children had commenced. All the usual care of an infant, including washing; dressing; feeding and entertaining etc. was included in the duties of a Nursemaid, and she was expected to be endlessly patient with her charges whilst bringing them up in a proper manner. Any form of punishment was out of the question, no matter what the misdemeanour, but any form of “wantonness” had to be quashed immediately.
Also, a certain level of first aid was necessary, as well as knowledge of childhood illnesses and their symptoms. Hmmmm, Nursemaids were special people indeed.
As well as taking care of the children, the Nursemaid was responsible for all things to do with the nursery, including cleaning, lighting fires, making beds etc. and ensuring that their charges were clean and tidy at all times, especially for their daily visit to or by their mother and father.
One has to consider how devastating it must have been for any of these ladies who lost their posts within a family for whatever reason – their relationship with the children they looked after was indeed the same as any mother.
This position was the lowest rung on the household ladder and was normally taken up by young girls; and the work was extremely hard involving not only scrubbing all the pots and pans, dishes etc., but also scouring the ovens and kitchen floor; dealing with the other servants’ chamber pots and lugging pails of hot water for the household to have baths.
The scullery maid had to get up very early in order to stoke up the kitchen range and set water to boil ready for morning tea, and then scrub the kitchen, pantry, and scullery floors before the cook arrived. The rest of the day was taken up with washing dishes and scrubbing pans; laying the servants’ table at meal times and making sure that the kitchen remained spotlessly clean at all times. Endless drudgery in other words, but sometimes she would be required to help the kitchen maid with simple tasks such as preparing vegetables which must have been something of a relief for her hands after all that scrubbing.
There were no true qualifications for this post, except compassion and common sense along with an even temper and a rudimentary knowledge of nursing. The sick nurse could well be another member of the household, such as a housemaid, and she would be expected to keep the sick room spotlessly clean and well aired, as well as tending to the needs of the patient.
Of course, if truly serious illness struck a household, then a professional nurse would be paid to come in and take care of the patients.
The valet was the male equivalent of the lady’s maid, and like her he would be expected to be discrete in all things.
He would begin the day ensuring that his master’s dressing room was ready, clean and tidy and that the fire was well alight, and would then lay out the clothing to be worn that morning. He was also responsible for setting out the shaving equipment, but would rarely be expected to carry out the actual shaving, although he did need to tidy up his master’s hair and cut it when necessary.
Once his master was dressed and brushed down, he would once again tidy up the dressing room ready for any further change of clothing throughout the day.
The valet was responsible for receiving and passing on messages as promptly as possible, and for carrying out any duties according to his master’s wishes.
Sometimes after a mother had given birth, she was unable (or unwilling) to feed her baby herself, and in this case a wet nurse was often used.
A wet nurse was usually young and of course healthy in all respects, as well as being scrupulously clean and fully understanding of what she should and shouldn’t eat herself whilst feeding a baby; the mother would often oversee the meals of her wet nurse herself, and interestingly a “must have” for a wet nurse was regular pints of porter or stout.