Life Below Stairs: Life as a Maid-of-all Work in Victorian England

Maids-of-all-Work were the “general,” rather than the exception in Victorian England. Women employed in these positions were expected to be a combination of housemaid, nurse, parlourmaid, and even cook if something happened to incapacitate the cook. They were expected to perform all the duties and chores, except that of laundress. [Occasionally, a charwoman or a ‘step girl’ assisted with the required work, but not with any consistency.]

51S9IUq7BPL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg In some households, a single servant served in the role of maid-of-all work. Generally, this servant was a girl from the age of twelve to fifteen.  The conditions of the work were poor, with the girl often working from 5 A.M. to midnight for a wage of £6 to £9 per year. In James Fennimore Cooper’s Gleanings in Europe: England (Bentley, 1837, Vol.II, page 123), the author says: “These poor creatures have an air of dogged sullen misery that I have never seen equalled in any other class of human being, not even excepting the beggars in the streets.” He described one such slavey who entered a room with “a sort of drilled trot, as if she had been taught a particular movement to denote assiduity and diligence, and she never presumed to raise her eyes to mind, but stood the whole time looking meekly down. [Find a copy of the book HERE.] These young girls were often recruited from the workhouse. In the 1870s, the government permitted approved families to ‘adopt’ girls from the workhouses as foster children who would be trained for service in the households. This was a form of subsidized domestic labour. 

089b9ab068a37e079e0e6bfcb93fab81.jpgHouseholds benefited by employing those from workhouses as domestic servants Frank Huggett in Life Below Stairs [Book Club Associates, London, 1977, pages 110-111] describes an 1871-72 investigation into the practice of taking girls from the workhouses. “[The investigation] showed that only 16 per cent of the girls were given good marks by their mistresses; 30 per cent were considered ‘fair’; 38 per cent were rated ‘unsatisfactory’; and 16 per cent were described as ‘bad.’ Although the workhouses claimed that the children were already trained for service, many mistresses found that, in addition to their other manifold faults, they were often totally lacking in domestic abilities. One ‘unsatisfactory’ girl was described by her mistress as ‘a pilferer, untruthful, idle; incorrigibly dirty in habits. Can scrub a floor, but has no other accomplishments.’ A comment on another child read: ‘Girl said she had never lit a fire or cleaned a grate, but as she never spoke the truth about anything, probably she lied there.’ A number were unsound in both body and mind: one ‘half-witted’ orphan was round-backed and unhealthy, with one eye permanently dimmed by disease. No less than 8 per cent of the girls had weak or seriously defective eyesight. Another girl, who was described as ‘strong in body, but deficient in mind,’ was told to sweep the bedroom. When her mistress returned, expecting to find the room neat and tidy, she found to her amazement and annoyance that the girl had trodden all the tea leaves firmly into the carpet. 


image from the St Pancras workhouse at the turn of the century

“Lacking the security of a family, friends and home, these girls often reacted violently to any real imposition or imagined slight. One not unintelligent fifteen-year-old girl, whose father wad dead and whose mother was still living in a workhouse, would ‘sing like a bird’ at her work when she was in a good mood. But ‘when she took a fit of sulks, nothing could be done with her. She would fold her arms and stand behind the kitchen door, and absolutely refuse to do anything.’ Others howled and screamed their rage until a crowd gathered threateningly outside the house to the alarm of the mistress. Mistresses, who tested the girls’ honesty by leaving a coin under the carpet (a common stratagem in Victorian homes), often had their worst expectations confirmed. Some of the girls were violent. One threatened to stab the nurse; another broke a plate over the head of a fellow servant. About 8 per cent absconded and another 2.5 per cent were known, or believed, to have ‘fallen,’ joining the many other former servants who had sunk into the vast underworld of vice and crime in the capital. One girl, who left service to marry a £2-a week house painter, soon discovered that he was nothing but a pimp; another girl, who was dismissed for theft and violence, was later seen by the daughter of the house, walking along the street ‘with long curls down her back, and not looking respectable.’ It was amazing what some mistresses, obviously not uneducated, would put up with just in the hope of getting cheap domestic labour.” 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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15 Responses to Life Below Stairs: Life as a Maid-of-all Work in Victorian England

  1. caeciliadance says:

    I had no idea families used to get maids from workhouses! I wonder whether they were really all so bad as their mistresses made them out to be?

  2. Caffey says:

    Wow. I love learning all these kinds of regency history! I must find a way to get notice whenever you post. Love the books I’ve read so far of yours. Thanks for the links too. This will be fab reading. Great post.

  3. I think I told you before Regina, that my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1865 (a year to remember in America) and was listed as a domestic servant in a census, not sure which one now, but probably 1881; when she would have been but 15 years old (TY; Mr Darcy).
    Fom this post I’d imagine that my Grandmother Smith did not have a very pleasant childhood/adolescence.
    You might have told Caffey, about registering to get emails when you post, like I did.
    Have we finished with all the Signers of the Dec!?

    • We have one signer of the Declaration remaining, Brian. He is Charles Carroll. I saved him for last for he was the last of the men who signed to die. That post will be the last week of December.

      • Thanks Regina; I look forward toreading Mr Carroll’s story. It would be nice to have ALL the signers now that you finished in one great blog/post. I know I’d like that. I’d copy/cut and paste it or do something to keep it. I’ve found this to be the most interesting, instructive, post I’ve ever had the pleasure of following , and as one piece it would be a fine piece to keep.

      • I have been keeping a collection of the various posts and the links for those who missed specific tales. I will send it to you after the Carroll piece is finished. I had planned to post in February. I have been doing the same for my series on “Life Below Stairs,” “Queen Victoria,” and the foundations of “English Literature.”

  4. drcopeland7294 says:

    This is so interesting, thanks for doing the research and passing it on. 🙂

  5. huntersjones says:

    Another great blog, Regina! Thank you for sharing!

  6. JanisB says:

    So many Jane Austen fans dream about how wonderful it would have been to live in the Regency period. Most of us, however, would likely not have been Bingleys or even Bennets, much less Darcys; there is always the possibility that this could have been closer to our lot. I do have a question, tho’: Is the illustration above accurate to what a workhouse might look like? If so, why are there so many young girls/women and so many old men? Many thanks for this eye-opener, Regina.

  7. Jessica Merryn says:

    Hi Regina, Great post, but you’ve cited the wrong source in para 2. This quote: “These poor creatures have an air of dogged sullen misery that I have never seen equalled in any other class of human being, not even excepting the beggars in the streets” comes from a book titled “England, with sketches of society in the metropolis, Vol III by James Fennimore Cooper. FYI – there is no VOL III of “Gleanings in Europe: England”. That is a 2 volume publication.

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