Regency and Victorian England: Household Servants

“The dinner, too, in its turn, was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellence of its cooking was owning. But here he was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him, with some asperity, that they were vey well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” From Chapter 13 of “Pride and Prejudice”

servants from Upstairs/Downstairs

servants from Upstairs/Downstairs

By the beginning of the 19th Century, keeping a servant or servants was a sign of prosperity, especially among the gentry and the quickly growing middle class. Physicians, lawyers, and other professionals found hiring servants improved their status within a community. 

In order to raise funds for the American War of Independence, the British government levied a tax of one guinea per male servant in 1777. This tax remained in place until 1937. Advertisements in newspapers listed available servants. Servants could be dismissed with either a month’s wages in hand or a month’s notice. Servants were expected to serve out his/her service prior to leaving. 

By religiously saving their wages, a servant, especially an upper servant, could retire in a degree of comfort. Male servants, who had left their positions, often turned to trade or the keeping of public houses. Upper female servants often remained in the household. Those with gentry ways could easily assimilate into a community. 

scene from Downtown Abbey

scene from Downtown Abbey

In September and May, mop fairs were held. This was a tradition, sometimes called a statute or hiring fair. Those being “sold” during the fair wore distinctive additions to their clothing, which indicated the position he/she sought.  A servant could also find a position through statute halls or through servant registries. This early “employment” agencies printed fliers that listed available servants. Unfortunately, these situations were prime areas for fraud. Some of the agencies charged exorbitant fees for nonexistent jobs. 

Generally, servants received a wage + an allowance for tea, sugar, and beer. Board wages were used to purchase food at public houses/inns when the servant was expected to travel between country homes and Town houses. In “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian London,” Kristine Hughes says that a maid of all works would typically receive 6-8 pounds annually plus an allowance; a lady’s maid would receive 12-15 pounds + an allowance; a valet would receive 25-50 pounds + an allowance; a liveried footman 15-25 pounds + an allowance, and that “board wages amounted to about ten shillings per week for females, twelve shillings a week for males. Also a male was allowed a pot of ale per day and a woman a pint per day, in addition to the table beer served during meals. Tea money was paid to a servant in lieu of an employer providing daily tea and sugar.”

On days off from service, servants typically visited family and friends or a public house, which catered to the servant class. In grand house, special events were held purely for the servants. We have seen such activities in the Servant Ball during Season 2 of Downtown Abbey. Queen Victoria was known to host an annual Ghillie’s Ball for her servants at Balmoral Castle.  However, one must recall days off were not the rule of the day. Servants, generally, did not have “private” lives once they entered service. Female servants with suitors were quickly dismissed. 

Liveries were delivered on April 1 and October 1. 

The custom of distributing clothes -or what in the present day would be styled uniforms-  amongst the servants of the Crown- such as Judges, Ministers ,Stewards etc- date from a period nearly coeval with the Conquest.( circa 1066A.D.-jfw) This distribution was termed a “Livreé”: hence the more recent expression, “Livery.”

(Cussans,Page 311)

It ought to be remembered that during the late 18th century/early 19th century most household servants did not wear a distinctive  uniform, such as we are used to seeing in adaptations of fictional Edwardian households such as in Downtown Abbey andUpstairs, Downstairs. Female servants wore what was practical, and often wore cast-offs from their mistresses, though moralists detested this practise.  Sophie von La Roche wrote, during her travels in London in 1786 of the serving girls she saw in the streets of London:

…the maids, women of middle class and the children. The former almost all wear black taminy petticoats and heavily stitched, and over these long English Calico or linen frocks, though not so long and close-fitting to the body as our tailors and taste cut and point them. Further they mostly wear white aprons; though the servants and working women often appear in striped linen aprons

Jane Austen’s kinswoman by marriage, and friend of her aunt and uncle, Leigh Perrots, Mrs Lybbe Powys wrote in her diary of her visit to the Jackson family at Weasenham Hall in Norfolk in 1756:

“Never did a landlord seem so beloved, or indeed deserve to be so, for he is a most worthy man, and in however high a stile a man lives in in town, which he certainly does, real benevolence is more distinguishable in a family at their country -seat, and none do more good than where we now are. Then everything here is regularity itself , but the master’s method is, I take it, now become the method of the servants by use as well as choice.

“Nothing but death make a servant leave them. The old housekeeper has now been there one-and-fifty years; the butler two or three-and-thirty……I was surprised to see them all, except on Sundays, in green stuff gowns, and on my inquiring of Miss Jackson how they all happened to fix so on one particular colour, she told me a green camblet for a gown used for many years to be an annual present of her mothers to those servants who behaved well, and had been so many years in her family, and that now indeed, as they all behaved well, and had lived there much longer than the limited term, this was constantly their master’s New Year gift.

“I thought this in Mr Jackson a pretty compliment to his lady’s memory, as well as testimony of the domestics still deserving of his good opinion.”

According to Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, footmen wore:

“…livery, or household uniform of fancy coat, knee breeches, stockings, and powdered hair, a costume that endured to the end of th 1800s. Because of their appearance at dinner and in public with the family, footmen were supposed to be the most “presentable” of the male servants. They were evaluated on the basis of the appearance of their calves in silk stocking, and they often gave their height when advertising for positions in the paper–it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height. (Poole, pg. 221)



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Regency and Victorian England: Household Servants

  1. Vesper says:

    They are many days I wish I could afford to have paid help when it comes to the chores. Though if I had llved in those times I would have been one of the servants

  2. Unfortunately, I would likely have been a servant also. Perhaps, a governess…

  3. Lovely post, Regina. I love how during the Regency, long time servants were treated with such warmth.

  4. carolegill says:

    Reblogged this on carolegill and commented:
    i am researching and this is so helpful.
    thank you!

  5. carolegill says:

    Great post!
    would you know how servants were hired.
    was the position advertised in a newspaper, I wonder.
    thank you.

    • Carole, many (especially those in London) were placed through an agency. Some were hired through recommendations from others within the household. Some did advertise. If you recall in the novel “Jane Eyre,” Jane advertises for a position as a governess.

      • carolegill says:

        thanks! i do recall that.
        i was thinking earlier than that. Like early 1800’s.
        thanks though that helps.

Comments are closed.