by Kristen Davis
Servants were imperative to the functioning of middle and upper class homes in Victorian England. Without the veritable army of servants for the upper and upper-middle classes, women would not be able to live the leisured lives they had grown accustomed, and would certainly not have the time to flaunt their status with neighbor-calling and the numerous balls and social activities. Even most lower-middle and middle-middle classes employed at least one servant, as assistance was almost a necessity in maintaining the home (Roberts 205). For the most part, these servants had an appreciation for their work, with the opportunity to live in an upper class home and have job security, as the alternative was industrial work with unexplained lay-offs and less than desirable, and often unsanitary, living conditions (Margetson 155).
The highest classes of families would employ this army of servants, each servant having a specific duty, and providing them all with matching uniforms. For the less wealthy families, a maid of all works was common, where the maid would assist with cleaning, cooking, and raising the children (Roberts 205).
In families where many servants were employed, a sort of ranking system occurred, between all of the servants, and even within particular positions. Head butlers, or stewards, were considered higher in ranking than the rest of the servants. The head butler would have managerial responsibilities over the other servants of the home. In the middle, there were valet's, which were the personal assistants to the gentleman, who would clean his clothes, assist him in dressing and in shaving. The lady's maid had similar duties for the woman of the home, mostly assisting in dressing (which was quite the chore in the Victorian era, with multiple layers even before the gown) and requiring nimble fingers for the numerous buttons and hooks. Women were dependent on their maids, as performing a task as menial as dressing themselves would not be viewed as proper for a lady of status. The lowest servants would be the footman and housemaids, whose duties involved mostly cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing silver. The size of the home determined how many footmen and housemaids would be employed. In the beginning of the century, laundry maids were common, which is believable that with all the garments worn, especially by the lady of the house, that a person could be employed just to wash the family's clothes. By the end of the century laundry maids were less common with the advent of professional laundries. If a family owned a stable, a staff of servants including a coachman, a groom, and a stable boy were required (Roberts 206). Other outdoor servants may include game-keepers and huntsmen, who were responsible for hunting food for the family (Margetson 167).
Although frequent in Victorian literature, governesses were not as common in reality, representing a small portion of the servant population. The education required by governesses, and the fact that they were usually selected from upper classes, allowed them to be viewed as slightly higher status than the low servants (Roberts 206).
For the maids of the household, their duties consumed nearly all of their time. Their day would typically begin at 6am and may not have ended until after midnight depending on the social activities of the lady. Until the 1890s, servants were allowed to have one day off per month. By 1900, most servants could take off a half day per week (London Townhouse).
Servants were very important to the social construction of the middle and upper classes in Victorian England, for the obvious reasons that they allowed the ladies and gentlemen of the household time to participate in social activities and flaunt their wealth and status. Servants were also important other, less obvious reasons, including birth rate. Women with many servants could stay in bed during pregnancy and had a better likely-hood of surviving childbirth, where women of lower classes were forced to continue a lifestyle of rigorous chores to maintain the household (19th Century Medicine). In all, the importance of servants reached beyond their literal duties to a societal level, vital in maintaining the class structure and levels of status which Victorian society was so accustomed.
This is a site to the PBS series "Manor House," a show about a group of people re-enacting the living experience of a Victorian England household, getting first-hand experience of what life was like, and examining the differences in the class systems of that time. It is interesting to read the quotes of people telling their experiences of living as a servant versus the people living as a master.
Also, here is a link to a picture of the Servant's Hall of a judge's home in Victorian England, to give an idea of the living conditions of servants.
Kelley, Grace. Nineteenth-Century Medicine in the Literal Sense. 1999. <http://www.gober.net/victorian/reports/medicine.html>.
Margetson, Stella. Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, INC, 1980.
Roberts, Adam C. Victorian Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003.
Servants' Hall. The Judges Lodging Museum. <http://www.judgeslodging.org.uk/Pages/qt_dining_room.html >.
The Victorians: The London Townhouse - The Servants. Romance Ever After. 2001. <http://www.romanceeverafter.com/the_london_townhouse-The%20Servants.htm>.