Life Below Stairs, Part II – Rules of Engagement

9e258cff4045bcc508f349fc6f62d9b6Previously, we looked at what a servant in an upper house, or even in a second-class household, of the late Regency Period or early Victorian times, might encounter. We spoke of wages, delineation of duties, and additional compensation. Today, we wish to examine the “snobbery” found among the servant class. As mentioned in the previous’s article, the servants in upper households expected “tips” from the master’s guests. If he did not receive it, he might still exact his revenge on those who paid a second visit to the estate. On his return, a guest might find himself in a one of the draftier bedchambers or he might be met at the train in a cart rather than an estate carriage.

The servants expected the guests to conform to certain standards of gentility. Heaven help a stranger who appeared on the doorstep and not dressed to the hilt. John James, in The Memoirs of a House Steward, tells a tale of how, in 1895, he mistook His Grace the Duke of Westminster for a servant. Apparently, Westminster wore shabbily clothing, and he was clean shaved, which was frowned upon in that time. James did not realize his mistake until he examined the man’s card.

Of course, below stairs, the servants commented freely on the master’s guests. “Behind the servants’ mask of perfect politeness and consummate gentility, there were dark thoughts and hidden feelings, another world to which only the still innocent children of the house were ever admitted, where rumours echoed from the lofty ceilings and were imagined and distorted into malicious gossip and false report. The roots of the servant grapevine were embedded deep in the foundation of each great London house. A fragment of conversation overheard by a footman at the dinner table or some actual confidence foolishly entrusted by some too ingenuous mistress to her maid, would be carried swiftly downstairs to the kitchen. From there it was transported lovingly up and down the neighboring area steps by the visiting butterman and butcher to be deposited with that day’s order on the great wooden tables in nearby kitchens, whence it could be disseminated to every part of the house by a word and a wink between the first and second footman or by a whispered conversation between two under housemaids who shared the same room, and sometimes the same bed, in the cold and draughty attic.” (Frank Huggett, Life Below Stairs, John Murray Publishers (July 14, 1977))1901093

sabrina-fair-1954-sabrinaalt-audrey-hepburn-sbf-019p-bkb9egThis situation reminds me of the chauffeur in the play Sabrina Fair (basis of the movie Sabrina, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn) who earns a fortune by simply listening to his employer conduct business in the backseat of the car and then buying and selling stocks based on Linus Larrabee’s knowledge of the stock market.

Some servants even followed their masters into battle. Yet, such devotion to the old ways died quickly as the servant class became more aware of the world in which they lived. The penny post might have brought down a feudal way of life. Although wages increased significantly in the later part of the 19th Century, it did not guarantee a servants’ loyalty. Also, the lower servants no longer accepted the strict unspoken rules of the household. One might find those below stairs sporting more freely among the servant dichotomy.

This information comes from a website I dearly adore. Weddington Castle – An Online History (KEY PEOPLE: The Life of Victorian Servants).

Below are examples of some of the rules that the servants had to follow

1 – When being spoken to, stand still, keeping your hands quiet, and always look at the person speaking.


2 – Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the household, unless they have spoken directly to you a question or statement which requires a response, at which time, speak as little as possible.

3 – In the presence of your mistress, never speak to another servant or person of your own rank, or to a child, unless only for necessity, and then as little as possible and as quietly as possible.

4 – Never begin to talk to the ladies or gentlemen, unless to deliver a message or to ask a necessary question, and then, do it in as few words as possible.

5 – Whenever possible, items that have been dropped, such as spectacles or handkerchiefs, and other small items, should be returned to their owners on a salver.

6 – Always respond when you have received an order, and always use the proper address: “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Miss” or “Mrs,” as the case may be.

7 – Never offer your opinion to your employer.

8 – Always “give room”: that is, if you encounter one of your betters in the house or on the stairs, you are to make yourself as invisible as possible, turning yourself toward the wall and averting your eyes.

9 – Except in reply to a salutation offered, never say “good morning” or “good night” to your employer.

10 – If you are required to walk with a lady or gentleman in order to carry packages, or for any other reason, always keep a few paces back.

11 – You are expected to be punctual to your place at mealtime.

12 – You shall not receive any Relative, Visitor or Friend into the house, nor shall you introduce any person into the Servant’s Hall, without the consent of the Butler or Housekeeper.

13 – Followers are strictly forbidden. Any member of the female staff who is found to be fraternizing shall be immediately dismissed.

14 – Expect that any breakages or damages in the house shall be deducted from your wages.

Servants’ Wages

In Victorian times, live-in servants, who had all their expenses (food, lodging, clothes etc) taken care of, earned as little as £10 a year, (which is only the equivalent of £77 in today’s money).

Here is a list of the average wages of servants (figures collected by the Board of Trade in the 1890s ~ also from Weddington Castle).

Between Maid £10, 7s
Scullery Maid £13
Kitchen Maid £15
Housemaid £16, 2s
Parlour Maid £20, 6s
Cook £20, 2s
Lady’s Maid £24, 7s
Cook / Housekeeper £35, 6s
Housekeeper £52, 5s

In 1888 Butlers earned £45 per annum and had no expenses except clothes. They would make up their income from such perks as tradesman offering discounts to receive continued orders. Butlers would also collect the end of candles and one bottle of wine for every six opened.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, buildings and structures, customs and tradiitons, estates, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Great Britain, history, Living in the Regency, Living in the UK, real life tales, Regency era, Victorian era. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Life Below Stairs, Part II – Rules of Engagement

  1. vvaught512 says:

    Thanks, Regina. This is fascinating.

  2. It’s hard to believe this really happened isn’t it?

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