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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Beyond the Door; or “The Homes of the Victorians”: Part Two: Servants:

Continuing with our peek through the keyhole of an upper class Victorian home we come to the engine of the house; the servant.

Servants were a big part of the upper class Victorian household, and were generally sought out and employed by the upper classes in three ways:

  1. Through word of mouth, via a friend, another servant or a local tradesman’s recommendation 
  1. By advertisements in shop windows or newspapers (if you can find an old copy of the times then the front few pages will generally be loaded with advertisements for maids and servants)
  1. By going to a registry office

During the 19th century, around a third of London’s population were servants. Virtually all of these would have been women as only the very wealthy could afford a butler of manservant.

So, what did servants do?

The easy answer is this: they did everything. They would rise early, between four and six in the morning to light the fires in the house and help the cook prepare breakfast. At around eight they would have their own breakfast of bread and butter with some tea or something similar. Their working day would only end when all tasks were complete and the family were back in bed, often well after midnight.

Some of the chores of the servant are as follows:

Cleaning and Sweeping:
Before the fires were all cleaned out the hearth rugs were taken up and cleaned so no ash was dropped on them. The rooms were then swept, with all the dust being swept toward the fireplaces. A cloth would then be placed on the floor and the cinder box placed on the cloth so that cinders could be pulled from the fire and put in the cinder box before being thrown in the kitchen range.

Cleaning the fires:
This was done daily, first, the cinders (see above) and ashes were removed, before the grate was polished using dry leather to rub it. This was also done to the fender and fender irons.
If any rust appeared, this was rubbed off using emery paper (I’ve done that, it is hard work! – A.C) before a paste-like substance called blacklead was applied, buffed with a blacklead brush, and then polished to a shine. Every room would have a fire, and this would be done to every one before the fire was lit and the rugs replaced.

Cleaning the Range:
The range was in the kitchen and was in virtually constant use, so had to be thoroughly cleaned and maintained twice a week, otherwise, when it became hot after a while, the heated metal spread a smell of scorched fat and burning food through the house.
To clean the range, the fender and fire irons first had to be removed, then damp tea leaves were scattered over the fuel to keep dust down whilst cleaning was in progress.
The ashes and cinders from the previous day were raked out and the cinders sifted. The ash was set aside to be collected by the dustman, and the cinders from all the fires in the house were re-used in the range.
Then the flues were cleaned and the grease scraped off the stove. The steel part of the range was polished with a bathbrick and paraffin.

All before anyone in the family woke up, as the maids were supposed to be virtually invisible. Having all the work done before the family rose meant that they were not in the way whilst the family was going about the house.

Quite often servants would be girls from rural areas as they were thought to be harder workers than girls from cities. The ‘Girls Friendly Society’, founded in 1874, was a charitable agency that ran servant registries - establishments in towns and cities where women and girls would find a placement with a family. Girls coming from out of town would often have to sleep in the attics of the registries whilst they waited for a placement as they were so far from home and had no money to stay anywhere else.

Another major source of servant was the workhouse. This was due to the fact that the girls were thought of as hard working and able to stick to strict rules. These girls, though, were often avoided by better off families as, coming from a workhouse, they had no experience of cleaning and handling delicate and expensive items.

Servants did enjoy the odd perk; a ladies maid would receive cast-off clothing, and some servants could dine on the left-over food of their masters. Not only that, but because their job was one that required them to ‘live-in’, they also had a home, although, a servants room was sparsely decorated and furnished, usually with nothing more than an old bed, washstand, drawers and little else. The floor would be bare wood.

Servants had to be on their best behaviour at all times, as when they left one position for another, they could not get another job without a good reference, or ‘character’ from their current employer. If the servant was slow, loud or just inept, she would receive a poor character from her employer and struggle to find another job.

For more reading on servants, I recommend this great and brilliantly researched article by a real historian, Alison Kay of, which delves into the costs of keeping a servant. Click here for the Property Historian site.

Tomorrow, a short interlude to our curtain-twitching, as we examine how the Victorians lit their rooms...

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