Life Below Stairs, Part 9 – The Valet

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The Servant Hierarchy | countryhousereader.wordpress. com

Footmen as we learned the last time often thought to join the upper servants in the role of valet or butler. (We saw the character of Thomas Barrow work in all three positions in Downton Abbey.) Today we have a closer look at the role of the valet in an aristocratic home. 

The valet is sometimes referred to as the “gentleman’s gentleman.” Often, in finer homes he was of foreign extraction. In the manner of keeping a “French cook,” many British gentleman sought the skills of a foreign valet. There were certain servants, such as the governess, the valet, etc., who did not quite fit into the categories of upper servants and lower servants. Through his connection to the master of the house the valet was often among others of Society at sporting events, social engagements, etc. This placed the valet in a position to know the latest gossip of those with whom his master associated and made him a figure of “authority” when the upper servants dined in the steward’s quarters. 

The valet was not required to dress in house livery, and most valets dressed in the manner of country gentleman or business owner. His main occupation was to make certain his master appeared to the best advantage. The valet’s job was to see his master well-dressed and immaculate, to the point that the master was free to wile away his time without fretting. 

0156dc722a031861fbf104e3e87fc1d4The valet’s day began long before his master’s. After seeing himself properly dressed, he went about preparing for his master’s day. He would see that clean, polished shoes or boots (depending upon the time period and the occasion) and clean and brushed clothing were prepared for the day. He would gather a pot of tea, bread and butter from the stillroom, the master’s correspondence, and the daily newspaper (pressed, no less) were brought to his master’s quarters on a tray. Hot water would be brought up also for shaving purposes. Entering the bedchamber, the valet would draw back the drapes and open the shutters. He would then empty the wash basin in a slop pail, clean and dry the basin with a cloth, and set out the hot water for shaving. Customarily, the valet would cover the ewer or can containing the hot water for shaving in order to keep it hot. 

He would then set out his master’s clothes for the day: jacket, trousers or breeches (depending upon the decade), shirt, stockings, small clothes or underwear, cravat or neck cloth, and shoes/boots. These were arranged across a chair on hung upon a valet stand. Studs, stick pins, and cuff links were chosen. Then he would prepare a bath if not taken the evening before. If necessary, he would see that the night shirt, etc., was cleaned, brushed, and pressed or placed in the laundry. If his master was elderly or still suffering from too much alcohol, the valet may be required to assist in dressing the gentleman. On page 199 of Charles Cooper’s Town and Country ©1937, a servant describes dressing his gentleman as, ” You throw the dress shirt over his head and fasten the front studs, hand the trousers and fasten braces, put on collar and tie the tie, assist on with waistcoat, jacket or coat, and put on socks and shoes.” The valet may also assist in dressing the gentleman’s hair. 

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Brendan Coyle as Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet at Downton Abbey.

E. S. Turner’s What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem contains a quote from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Strangford, “‘that I shave myself and brush my own clothes: I regret that I cannot clean my own boots; for menservants bore me and the presence of a crowd of idle fellows annoys me more than I can tell you.’ Nevertheless, he employed a valet who served him faithfully, even to the extent of consulting secretly with the Mendicity Office in an effort to eliminate the numerous dishonest contenders for the Duke’s charity. 

The valet customarily stood behind his employer’s chair, both in his master’s house and when dining elsewhere. During shooting and other diversions, the valet would accompany his employer. He was expected to load the gentleman’s gun. The valet would often arrange travel both at home and abroad. He was expected to possess a knowledge of foreign phrases, especially those that a gentleman would not choose to learn himself. He might be required to sleep in his master’s room to guard the gentleman against robbery and insult. In addition, he would know how to rid a bed of fleas and how to make noxious water drinkable. 

When traveling, he located a cab or a hackney. He attended to his master’s luggage. He was expected to know his master’s preferences for gifts (flowers, jewelry, etc.) He had a knowledge of herbal potions and toiletries. He would mix up draughts to fight off a cold or to soothe a headache. He made soap from fresh ley, lamb suet, and olive oil. When the railways multiplied, he was expected to read Bradshaw. To assist his gentleman, the valet required a knowledge of flies, rods, and lines for fishing and of guns for shooting. 

According to Frank Hugget’s Life Below Stairs (pages 30-31), “Although the valet’s duties may seem simple to the uninitiated, he needed a vast amount of equipment if he was do his work well. One former valet recommended that he should have trees for top boots and walking shoes; shoe brushes, black and brown; clothes-brushes, narrow hat and button; a button stick; sand or emery paper; a boot bone, chamois leathers, dusters and cleaning rags; breeches paste and breeches ball; brush for red hunting coat and sponges; American cloth; painter’s white overall, apron and chemicals; hat iron; dubbin; grease brush; old tooth brush; oil for fishing lines; gun oil, cartridge bags, boot top tags and spare boot and shoe laces. In other words, he had to be prepared. The valet was far more immediately and continuously exposed to the whims, peccadilloes and temperament of his employer; but, in compensation, he had a more varied and outgoing life.” 

The valet was the first to feel his master’s wrath. Occasionally, he would rebel. Such was what occurred n 1840 when François Courvoisier, a Swiss valet in service to Lord William Russell, took umbrage with Lord William’s treatment. Reportedly, Lord William berated Courvoisier for attempting to anticipate his employer’s needs by bringing a warming pan to the gentleman when Lord William rang some time after midnight. His lordship sent his servant away, but rang again some 20 minutes later, this time for the same warming pan. Another round of reprimands followed. Later, Lord William went down stairs to find Courvoisier sitting in the dining room. For a third time in as many hours, Lord William read Courvoisier “the riot act,” even making threats to dismiss the valet. Angry, in the wee hours of the night, Courvoisier took a knife and attempted to decapitate his master. Courvoisier was sentenced to hanging. Some 20,000 viewed the execution. The Annual Register, ‘the number of menservants present was remarkable as envincing the fearful interest taken in the culprit’s fate by the class to which he had belonged.’ (What the Butler Saw)

Footnote: Nineteenth-Century Timetables and the History of Reading by Mike Esbester; Book History, Vol. 12 (2009), pp. 156-185 Published by The John Hopkins University Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40930543. “Around the turn of the twentieth century, Punch reprinted, in book form, some to the thoughts offered in its pages over the preceding sixty years on the subject of railway travel. This included the ‘Tourist’s Alphabet,’ in which ‘B is the Bradshae that leads you to swear.’ George Bradshaw’s surname became a synonym for ‘timetable,’ such was the success of his publication, which gave the times of trains to and from all stations in Britain. Bradshaw’s first timetable was issued in 1838, taking on the recognizable format in the 1840s. It was widely imitated, to the extent that after the 1840s ‘Bradshaw’ would have needed no explanation to most people, to whom the word meant no only ‘timetable,’ but also fiendish complexity.'”

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, Living in the UK, Regency era, servant life, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Life Below Stairs, Part 9 – The Valet

  1. vvaught512 says:

    Reblogged this on Vikki Vaught Romance Author and Book Reviewer and commented:
    Another great post!

  2. Pingback: Regency and Victorian Servants | A Novel Approach

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