Life Below Stairs ~ Part Three – The Role of the Male Servant

Dinner in the Servants' Hall

Dinner in the Servants’ Hall

The English aristocrat often lived beyond his means. Maintaining country houses (often several of them) and a large Georgian town house in Mayfair took its toll on his purse strings. In addition to owning the property, Society forced him to maintain an extensive staff, which would see to his family’s needs.

Rank among the serving class manifested itself in extra bedrooms and workrooms to meet the servant hierarchy. The house steward and the housekeeper were often given a sitting room in which the upper servants could dine. A work space was required for the steward to conduct his business. The butler oversaw an extensive pantry. A stillroom was necessary. Storerooms for groceries. A separate china closet. The scullery. The ladies’ maids required a separate room where they could do their mending and ironing. Don’t forget a knife room. A shoe room. A lamp room. A brushing room. A servants’ hall. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Even a modest staff was costly. Characteristically, a land owner maintained 40-50 servants. A large number of male servants was an indication of a man’s wealth. Employing males, instead of females, created a greater expense because a tax on male servants was introduced by Lord North in 1777. The tax was to be used for the cost of fighting the Americans and the war with the French. It cost a landowner £7 for each male servant if there were eleven or more in the household. Although it was gradually reduced over the years, the tax continued until 1937.

Running Footman

Compounding the issue of keeping powdered footmen increased by the duty placed on the hair powder. That tax remained in place from 1786 to 1869. Is it any wonder that some landowners forced their servants to use ordinary house flour to save on expenses. A smart footman might use the household flour and then claim the reimbursement for the expense of the duty.

Footmen and other male servants were provided tailored livery. In the mid 1800s, it would cost 3 guineas for a footman’s uniform. Typically, a footman received 2-3 suits per year. Only the wealthiest aristocrat could afford to employ a house steward, groom of the chambers, valet, cook, butler, under-butler, footmen, footboy, usher, page, “tiger,” coachmen, grooms, a man-of-all-work, gardeners, etc.


LibertaBooks tells us in their piece entitled “Footmen: The Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings”… 

footmen in livery“The naming of footmen

“Gentry addressed footmen by Christian name. It might be their own name. It might not. Some families always used the same names for their footmen: the most senior might be “Charles”, the next “John” and so on. The approach was convenient for the employers who did not have to bother to learn the real names of real people.

“For the footmen, it probably felt demeaning, but what could they do? (Perhaps they followed some of Dean Swift’s advice for getting their own back?)

The curse of footmen — Dean Swift’s “advice”

Jonathan Swift, author of Directions to Servants

“Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay Directions to Servants (published posthumously in 1745) devotes many pages to its “advice” to footmen, including suggested excuses to use when absent for somewhat longer than the message requires, perhaps two, four, six, or eight hours, or some such trifle.

“My favourite is probably this, relating to service at table: Never wear Socks when you wait at Meals, on the Account of your own Health, as well as of them who set at Table; because as most Ladies like the Smell of young Men’s Toes, so it is a sovereign Remedy against the Vapours.

“Swift’s satire had little effect. A file of nine tall, matched footmen in silver and lace preceded the Countess of Northumberland’s sedan chair. It’s not clear what else her footmen actually did. (Footmen often created trouble among the maids, but it was always the female who was dismissed; a member of a matched set of footmen was too difficult to replace.)”

Footmen were chosen for their height and their handsomeness. Most were at least six feet tall. It was desirable to match the footmen in height (like the Rockettes). Most households had 3 footmen. The first footman, who was often called “James,” no matter what was his Christian name, usually acted as the lady’s footman. He would serve her breakfast, clean her shoes, take her dogs for a walk, stand behind her chair when she dined elsewhere, carry packages when she shopped, etc. The second footman served the afternoon meal. Often he completed valet duties for the eldest son. The third footman carried the coals and wood. The first and second footman served meals. They would accompany the carriage whenever it was used by any member of the household. The footmen were responsible for cleaning and polishing the silver.

The valet was usually at least 30 years of age. He was expected to have a superficial air of aristocracy about him. He saw to his master’s dress and was expected to be abreast of social gossip to aid his master in social engagements, etc. He did not wear livery. He would rise before his master. The aristocrat’s clothes were prepared, a bath drawn, and everything his master required for his ablutions prepared. He might also be required to dress the master, or he might need to know how to load a gun quickly so that his master could shoot with his friends.

The butler needed similar skills as the valet. He was responsible for the footmen, the custody of the plate, and the contents of the wine cellar. He also oversaw the brewing of the servants’ beer, the arrangement of the dining room, etc. Unlike our perceptions of the haughty butler who ruled a household with an iron hand, the Victorian butler was in a more lowly position. In reality, the valet, the house steward, and the groom of the chambers, all outranked him in the household. They also received higher pay.

The groom of the chambers was the one who attended the main door, opened doors for members of the household, filled inkpots, saw that everything the household members needed was within reach.

The house steward oversaw the transition from country estate to Town when the Season came around. He was responsible for all the servants. He maintained the household accounts.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Life Below Stairs ~ Part Three – The Role of the Male Servant

  1. Very nice blog post. I certainly appreciate this site. Thanks!

  2. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Another great post! Sorry I missed this one earlier. Love Jonathan Swift’s take on the curse of footmen.

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