Up before dawn, the servants of an aristocratic household found the work tedious. Likely, the lower servants worked two hours before he/she was permitted to sit to his own meager breakfast.
The kitchen maid began her day with lighting the cooking fire. To do so in a cast iron stove, she must first rake out the cinders and sweep the bars, the hobs, and the hearth free of dust. She would then clean the stove with a round-headed brush and black lead mixed with some water to make a “paste.” When the black lead dried, it was polished with a special brush, which was designed to get into the groves of the ornamental work. At least one weekly, she also swept away the accumulated soot from the flues. Generally, she was expected to bring the cook the woman’s morning tea.
The housemaids began their days with cleaning the carpets. An unusual ritual included scattering wet sand or damp tea leaves over the carpets before they swept them. They cleaned the main hall and receiving rooms thoroughly and set fires in the hearths (after cleaning the grates). After morning prayers, the housemaids cleaned the bedchambers: changed bed linens, emptied chamberpots and baths, swept the carpets, dusted the furnishings, washed and polished wooden floors, etc. One must recall that there were three mattresses on a Victorian bed. The bottom one was filled with straw and was turned once weekly. The middle one was filled with wool or horsehair. It was turned daily. The top mattress was filled with feathers. Please recall that the housemaids were supposed to finished with their work by mid day.
Upper servants (cook, lady’s maid, governess, parlour maid, and nurse) usually got an extra hour sleep while others began their days as early as 5 A.M. The cook was responsible for 4 meals daily for the master and mistress and their guests, the children, and the other servants. She prepared a different type of meal for each group. All the servants, minus the nursery staff, sat down to breakfast shortly after 8 A.M. They would dine on leftovers of yesterday’s roast or cold meat pie and a slice of bread, along with a weak tea or home brewed beer. A tea break for the servants came at approximately 11 A.M. The cook would meet regularly with the mistress to discuss the menus for the day. The servants had their “dinner” between midday and one o’clock. Generally, it was a roast and vegetables with a rice or suet pudding. Beer was served with the meal. The nursery staff were given a shepherd’s pie or mutton stew. The master and mistress and the older children had a luncheon served by liveried footmen. This was a more formal meal than was breakfast. The course was usual fish, which was followed by hot dishes and then a sweet dessert or fresh fruit. The ladies would be out the door for afternoon social calls.
Parlour maids, which replaced butlers during the Victorian era, set the table in the dining room, as well as to oversee the removal of the leftovers. Occasionally, the parlour maid acted as a valet to the master of the house. Parlour maids, like footmen, were chosen for their height and good looks, and they were often a target for unfaithful husbands. At about 9 each morning, the parlour maid would summon the family, the children, and the other servants to family prayers in the drawing room. (If you recall, Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford discuss this practice in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.) Before she called the household to prayers, the parlour maid had set the table with linen and silverware. She had also placed bread, toast, butter, jam, and honey on the table, along with a cream and sugar for tea. After the prayers, she brought in the covered breakfast dishes. They family would then choose from hot and cold dishes: eggs, bacon, kidneys, kippers, fish, tongue, potted meat, etc.
The ladies’ maid woke her mistress and helped the lady of the house with her ablutions and dress. Remember that women of the Victorian Period wore tightly laced corsets or stays, several petticoats, steel-hooped crinolines, tight pantaloons, and dresses with yards and yards and yards of material.
Nursery maids swept and cleaned the day nursery and lit the hearth for warmth. The governess saw to the children. Upper class ladies rarely visited their children in the nursery for longer than 30 minutes per day. With infants, a wet nurse was engaged. Ladies of quality never breast fed their children. Governesses were occasionally accused of using a bit of laudanum to keep the children in order. The first duty of the day was to bath and feed the babies/children. A mixture of milk and barley water was used for the infants. The governess was also responsible for administering prescribed medicines and purges of castor oil, senna, or peppermint. They took the children out for morning and afternoon excursions. Older children were bathed and dressed. Even little boys wore stays until the age of 7 or 8. Breakfast was a porridge or gruel. It was quite bland when compared to what the parents ate.