What was life like as a 19th-century servant?

In recent years, TV dramas including Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey have stoked the nation’s fascination with the daily lives of servants. But what was life really like for people who served in the country houses and estates of the past? Could you have handled the long days and arduous tasks of a servant in a grand Victorian house? Here, Pamela Sambrook reconstructs a typical day in the life of a 19th-century servant, sharing a household timetable with the tasks of the kitchen staff, a footman and a junior housemaid…

A group of household servants photographed in Northumberland, c1860–80. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The research and recreation of servants’ lives has been a popular topic in the media for many years. But how much is actually known about their daily lives?

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We know there seems to have been strong traditional elements in servants’ routines; only men, for example, cleaned silver or polished the most valuable furniture. These traditions aimed to make it easier for new staff to fit in quickly and efficiently.

Blenheim Palace in a c1880 print from ‘A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland’, edited by Reverend FO Morris, Volume I, William Mackenzie, London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

We also know that servant mealtimes were pivotal to the timing of the whole day, and changed only slowly through the 19th century. The first break was usually taken mid-morning and involved a drink. The main meal – ‘dinner’– was taken at around midday, while ‘tea’ was a very light meal served at around 4 o’clock. ‘Supper’ was usually taken at 9 o’clock, after most of the work had been finished. By the end of the 19th century, the time of servants’ dinner slipped later and later into the evening and a new lighter meal, ‘lunch’, took its place in the middle of the day, a division that worked well for the kitchen.

For researchers, it is relatively easy to construct a timetable of servants’ daily work during the 19th century. Documents containing actual memories, such as diaries, are particularly useful as these give us a framework on which to build even if they are not always reliable in detail. It is, however, difficult to place specific individuals in specific households before 1837, when civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in the UK, and particularly before 1841, when the first comprehensive national census was held. Photographic images, of course, are nearly impossible to find. Information gathered by researchers is usually restricted to very rare diaries and the occasional instructional manual designed for use by servants or their employers, which presented invaluable guidelines as to how to run a household efficiently.

It's possible to reconstruct a timetable that might have been used, for instance, in a household such as Tatton Hall in Cheshire. (Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
It’s possible to reconstruct a timetable that might have been used, for instance, in a household such as Tatton Hall in Cheshire. (Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Using these instructional manuals, it is possible to reconstruct a timetable that might have been used, for instance, in a household such as Tatton Hall in Cheshire, which was the country seat of the Egerton family for nearly 400 years until it was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1958. Although every great house functioned slightly differently – and employers often had their own sometimes eccentric requirements – the below timetable shows a workable routine that may have been in place in the mid-19th century. It includes the schedules of a scullery man, a kitchen maid, a footman, a chef and a junior housemaid.

6–7am

It’s an early start for all. At 6 o’clock in the morning,the scullery man opens up the kitchen, cleans and lights the fires, fills the coal buckets and prepares the spit and dripping pan. He cleans the kitchen, the chef’s private room, pantry and larders, and scours the dressers, tables and cutting boards. At least twice a week, he will also scrub the floor with sand.

The kitchen maid also rises at the same time. She helps with the cleaning, lays out all ingredients and utensils needed for the day ahead, and then sets to work cooking the servants’ breakfasts.

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At 6.30, the footman opens the shutters in the main rooms and takes coals to the house’s sitting rooms. He brushes and sponges his own and his master’s clothes as needed, and cleans boots and knives, as well as the butler’s pantry. He trims the household lamps, and cleans and fills them. After this, he changes into a clean apron and lays the family breakfast table and sideboard.

Meanwhile, a junior housemaid reports to the housekeeper’s room and has her housemaid’s box checked for supplies. Setting to work, she draws back and shakes the curtains in the drawing room and cleans the fireplaces. This is an arduous task: she is expected to rake out the fireplaces and put ashes in her housemaid’s box, light the fire, wash the hearthstone and put the coal buckets out in the hall for the footmen to collect and fill. She also takes any small rugs or druggets [floor coverings] outside to shake. At least twice a week, she hand-brushes the carpet, then turns over the edges and sweeps the wooden floor. As well as collecting the dust, it was also important to check for valuable items like earrings that may have been dropped. She then shuts up the room for 15 minutes while the dust settles, and repeats this in the music or sitting rooms. After the dust has settled, she also is expected to return to both rooms and vigorously ‘rub’ the furniture, using two cloths, one in each hand.

Sophie McShera as Daisy in Downton Abbey, 2010. (Picture by AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
Sophie McShera as Daisy in Downton Abbey, 2010. (Picture by AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

8–9am

At 8 o’clock, the chef enters the kitchen for a minor domestic ritual: checking the cleanliness of the hands, hair and uniforms of the kitchen and scullery staff. He also checks the fires and utensils.

Meanwhile, the kitchen maid sends breakfasts to the servants’ hall and the steward’s room, where all the senior staff, including the chef, eat their meals. The remaining kitchen staff eat in the kitchen, after which the scullery man washes the breakfast dishes.

After eating his own breakfast in the servants’ hall, the footman calls each single gentleman in the house and knocks and enters their room, opening the curtains and collecting any clothes from the night before.

After her morning tasks are complete, the junior housemaid washes her hands and changes from a heavy grey working apron into a clean white one. She collects a ‘calling tray’ from the stillroom and ‘calls’ family members and visitors, excepting any single gentlemen. She then takes hot water to each bedroom wash stand before eating her own breakfast.

Victorian wedding, circa 1900: A wedding group poses in the garden, 1900. (Photo by F J Mortimer/Getty Images)

9–11am

The kitchen maid cooks and sends up the family breakfasts, while the scullery man washes up all the pans, dishes and china – but not the glasses and silver, which are washed solely by the footmen.

Meanwhile, the chef checks produce from the estate garden and farm, talks to the gardener and butcher, and weighs and checks the day’s meat. He also consults with the housekeeper about provisions and plans the menus, usually a day ahead, working from the cook’s room. He writes up the current day’s menus on a slate for the staff.

Later, the scullery man helps the kitchen maid to wash, trim and cut up vegetables, pluck game and poultry, and begin making stocks and soups.

Upstairs, the footman carries dishes to the sideboard in the breakfast room. He waits as the family breakfasts and then removes the breakfast things, folding up the table cloth, sweeping up crumbs, making up the fire and sweeping the hearth. He returns the china to the kitchen and stillroom and takes the silver and glass to butler’s pantry. Later, he checks the fires in all downstairs rooms and tidies the gentlemen’s smoking room. He then cleans and polishes the silver, including the bedroom candlesticks, ready for the evening.

While the family and any guests are at breakfast, the junior housemaid goes to each of the main bedrooms and opens the window, throwing bedclothes over the end of the bed to air, and emptying hot water bottles or any ‘slops’ out of the wash stand and chamber pot. She replaces towels and tidies the rooms, cleaning the fires as before. She also has to (after washing her hands, of course) make up the beds, beating the feather pillows.

Her work is not yet done: in the main passages of the house, she sweeps the floors and rugs and dusts furniture and on one day – usually Saturday – she will change all bed linen and collect all the dirty linen for the laundry maids.

circa 1890: A maid in a frilled cap, long white apron and stiff white collar cuffs. (Photo by Downey/W. and D. Downey/Getty Images)
c1890, a maid in a frilled cap, long white apron and stiff white collar cuffs. (Photo by Downey/W. and D. Downey/Getty Images)

11am–1pm

The chef takes the planned menus upstairs to consult with the lady of the house, while all kitchen staff have lunch at 11am, which consists of only a drink. The kitchen maid prepares and cooks the servants’ dinner and nursery meals, while the chef prepares the family lunch and makes any jellies, creams, pastries ready for the family’s dinner. The scullery man washes up.

During this time, the footman would have two usual duties; either he would stand in the entrance hall and answer the front door, or he would attend the family lunch room.

The junior housemaid, in addition to her daily cleaning, ‘turns out’ each main room according to a weekly or fortnightly rota. She moves furniture as necessary, brushes curtains, dusts picture frames (with cotton wool), ‘rubs’ fine furniture and wood floors.

1–3pm

The chef sends up the family lunch, while the kitchen maid sends dinner to the servants’ hall and steward’s room. The scullery man washes up.

During this time, the footman might run errands, either accompanying the family, or paying small bills or delivering visiting cards. If not required, the footman might have time to rest. The downstairs staff eat their dinner in this window, ahead of the busy afternoon.

All the kitchen staff have a few minutes’ rest in the kitchen, then the chef starts preparing and cooking the family dinner, assisted by the kitchen maid especially in attending the spit, cooking vegetables and boiling meat. The scullery man washes up, including the dripping pan and spit, which he rubs with sand and water, rinses, towel-dries, then dries thoroughly in front of the fire to prevent rust. He also disposes of waste, boils up unused offal, and takes out any pig food.

During the family lunch, the junior housemaid checks the fires in all the rooms and generally tidies, plumping cushions and removing dead petals from fresh flowers. She also helps the housekeeper to sort linen for repair, and sews and mends garments – including her own.

The domestic staff at Erdigg Hall, the home of the Yorke family in Wrexham, North Wales, 1852. They are head gardener James Phillips, coachman Edward Humphries, laundry maid Elizabeth Alford, dairy maid Mary Davies, head housemaid Ruth Jones, under gardener William Price, footman William Stephenson, head nurse Eliza Rogers, cook and housekeeper Mrs Webster, butler Thomas Murray, lady's maid Elizabeth Hale, under nurse Sarah Evans, carpenter Thomas Rogers and hall boy Edward Davies. From a daguerrotype. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The domestic staff at Erdigg Hall, North Wales, c1852. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

4–5pm

The footman continues on hall or room duty. Following the family tea, he collects the trays and returns the tea china to the stillroom. All staff have tea at 5pm, which is made and served by the stillroom maid – a female servant who works in the stillroom, where drinks and jams are made.

After his tea, the footman lights lamps, closes shutters and draws curtains in the sitting rooms. He assists the butler in laying the family dinner table: in keeping with tradition, the first footman carries the silver, the second the china, while the butler places the silver and glasses. If guests are expected, one footman stands on hall duty.

Ross Poldark in London in the BBC's drama. The capital city was described in contemporary magazines and newspapers as the "vortex of dissipation", says Hannah Greig. (Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)

7–9pm

All the kitchen staff are needed to help send up the family dinner. The scullery man washes up (again), and then the kitchen maid and scullery man clean the kitchen and sort out the dirty linen.

At 8 o’clock, the footman sounds a gong or bell for dinner 15 minutes before it is served, and once again as the food is sent up. He carries the dinner from the kitchen and waits at the dinner table. Afterwards, he returns plates to kitchen, removes the cloth, dusts the table and puts out the lights. He then prepares and assists in serving tea and coffee in the drawing room or dining room, before washing the silver and glass used at dinner.

When the family dinner bell sounds, the junior housemaid waits a few minutes, then goes into ground floor rooms and tidies as before. During family dinner, she goes into the now empty upstairs and turns down the beds, checks the fires and wash stands and water, and empties ‘slops’.

9pm

The kitchen maid prepares and serves the servants’ supper, after which the kitchen staff have their own supper. The footman attends in the hall while any guests leave the house.

10pm

It’s the end of a long day. The footman serves the family supper, if required, and hands bedroom candlesticks to each member of the family as he or she wishes to retire. He assists the butler in shutting up the house and locking doors, while the kitchen maid checks the fires are safe and shuts up the kitchen. The junior housemaid takes up hot water bottles to the family and guest bedrooms and, finally, goes to bed.

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Pamela Sambrook is the author of The Servants’ Story: Managing a Great Country House (Amberley Books, 2016)