March 2015 – Domestic Servants in the 19th Century

At the March meeting of the Alnwick and District Local History Society, Dr Christine Seal was the guest speaker, talking about “Domestic Servants in the 19th Century”, a topic she has been researching for many years.

The 1881 census showed that, at that time, most servants (83%) were under 29 years old, and most were more than 10 miles from home.  They were mainly women, though in the 17th century, men predominated.  Trying to raise income in the Regency period, Lord North put a tax firstly on male servants and later on female servants.  Hair powder, carriages and their horses were also taxed in a bid to raise money from the upper classes.

By Victorian times, with the rise of the middle classes, more servants were employed in small numbers.  Professionals, such as bank managers, could afford to employ  a number of servants.  Joseph Jackson, in Newcastle, had three, while another man in Hexham had 7 servants in 1881, though this included nannies and nurses for three under-fives.  At the top end of the social scale, the Duke of Westminster had 300 servants, including estate staff, while at Wallington, we have a photograph of about 30 estate workers.

Service was very hierarchical.  There were upper and lower servants, each with very specific roles.  At the top of the men were the Steward, the Butler, and the Valet. Heading the women was the housekeeper, who was always called Mrs. .. , even if she was not married.  Ladies’ maids and governesses were also upper servants. After seeking advice, which arrived in the form of a 32-page report, Queen Victoria appointed Lady Lyttleton (daughter of Earl Spencer) as governess for her children.

The lower servants were the footmen, the coachman, and cook/chefs, though the chef might be an upper servant.  There were also a variety of housemaids, who lit fires, heated water, cleaned, did the laundry, etc.  Dairy maids would get up at 3am to make the butter and cream for the coming day. The senior servants had their own comfortable rooms, but the lower ones had rooms often in attics with no heating or hot water, which were uncomfortable and cold.

A survey in 1899 showed that 70% of servants were in post for less than a year, though given good conditions, some served for a lifetime.  For many, being in service was hard work, with long anti-social hours, tyrannical employers and little contact with the outside world.  Not much fun!

The next meeting of the Society will be held on April 28th at 7.30pm at Bailiffgate Museum, when Peter Rowett will be talking about “Convicts, Conflict and Capture at Trafalgar – HMS Berwick, the Early Years”.