Servants: Their Hierarchy and Duties

by Michelle Jean Hoppe





Status was just as important in the servant hierarchy as it was in the aristocratic ranks. Servants were divided into 'Upper' and 'Under' ranks.  Upper ranks were entitled to respect and deference from the under staff.  Upper rank servants would take the head places at dinner, unless they ate separately in the Steward's or Housekeeper's rooms.  Visiting servants were seated according to the ranks of their master or mistress.  Thus, a countess's lady's maid would be seated above a baroness's lady's maid, but both would be seated above a viscountess's under servants.  Another class of servant was the 'senior' class. These servants were of neither 'Upper' or 'Under' rank.  They were accorded some of the same privileges as the upper servants, such as being waited upon by the under ranks and eating with the upper servants.  But they rarely had the full privileges of an upper servant, such as the master or mistress's castoff clothing.






Housekeeper--In households where domestics employed number over twenty-five, the housekeeper's sole duty is to engage, manage and dismiss the female servants, with the exception of lady's maid, nurse and cook, whom the mistress engages.  In smaller households, the housekeeper manages the stores, both ordering and dispersing them.  She tends to the house linen, both repairing it and replacing it as necessary.  She supervises the china-closet, the stillroom department, and superintends the arrangement of bedrooms for visitors and their servants.  Her daily routine includes: overlooks the stillroom, sees what china and linen is given out for breakfast, presides over the housekeeper's room breakfast, gives out the stores for the day, assist in washing china, makes rounds of the bedrooms and replaces supplies such as candles, writing paper and soap, makes sure the rooms are clean and in order, presides over the servant's hall dinner, arranges dessert for dinner, makes tea in the afternoon, and makes the coffee for dinner.  She also makes preserves and bottles fruit. She keeps the household accounts, and does most of the needlework.  In smaller households, the cook often assumes the duties of the housekeeper.  


Lady's Maid--A lady's maid attends to her mistress's appearance.  She arranges her hair and assists in dressing her.  She packs and unpacks the mistress when traveling.  She may also make her mistress's dresses.  Depending on the size of the household, she may assume some of the housekeeper's duties.  In a typical day, she: brings up hot water as necessary, brings up tea before breakfast, prepares clothes for dressing, assists the mistress in dressing, puts the room in order, puts out necessities for walking, riding or driving, assists in taking off her outdoor attire, puts evening dress in order, assists in dressing her for dinner, sits up for her, assists in undressing her, puts away her jewels, keeps her wardrobe in repair and washes the lace and fine linens.  She also attends to any pets the mistress may have.



Governess--A governess taught the children of middle and upper class households until they were old enough to go away to school, college, or to a private tutor.  She was generally a well-educated middle-class girl who needed to earn her own living.  But although she was expected to have the bearing and education of a 'lady' she was treated as a servant.  This often left her in limbo--neither an insider or an outsider, as the other servants resented her as too educated and too good for their ranks.    


Nurse--The nurse is in charge of caring for the household's children from the time they are born, until they are turned over to the care of the governess.  She washes and dresses the children, feeds them, takes them on outings, and puts them to bed.  She makes the children's ordinary under-clothing, and repairs their general clothing. Most nurses have dinner brought to them in the nursery, but some dined with the other servants.



Cook--In large households, only the cooking proper is the duty of the cook.  All ingredients are prepared for her use by the kitchen maids.  (A man cook takes a higher position and even less of the plain cooking.)  A first-class cook attends to the family breakfast after having her own.  She makes out the menu for luncheon and dinner, which is sometimes reviewed and altered by the mistress.  In town, she orders from the tradespeople who serve the house.  She prepares the soup for the following day, prepares the pastry, jellies, creams and entrees for the day, all in the morning.  The afternoon is usually her free time, unless there is a dinner party or guests.  She then prepares dinner, and once dinner is served, her duties are over for the day. It is also her duty to lock the doors and windows of the basement, to let the kitchen fire burn low, and to turn off the gas in the kitchen and passages before retiring. In smaller households, the cook assumes the duties of the head kitchen-maid and even scullery maid.


Kitchen Maid--In large households, the head kitchen maid is an under-cook and assumes many of the plain-cooking responsibilities.  In small households, the kitchen maid prepares vegetables, game and poultry, does the dairy-work, and bakes the bread.  If there is no stillroom maid, she makes the cakes for luncheon, tea and dessert and the rolls for breakfast.  She keeps the kitchen clean and keeps things in order.  


Housemaid--In large households, the upper housemaid undertook lighter jobs such as making beds and tidying bedrooms.  She made sure rooms were supplied with the necessary linens, and that they were kept in repair.  She dusted the china ornaments, and tended to the flower arrangements.  She kept an eye on the lower housemaids, who would light the fires, clean the living rooms, polish the brass, carry water upstairs for washing, and empty the chamberpots.  Some maids were assigned to specific rooms, such as the still-room, laundry, dairy or nursery.  


Scullery Maid--Her chief duty is to clean and scour the pots and pans, as well as the cooking utensils.  She cleans the scullery, servant's hall, larders, and kitchen passages. She usually dines in the kitchen with the kitchen maid.





House Steward--A House Steward is employed only in larger households where the accounts are too extensive for the Housekeeper to manage.  The House Steward has a sitting-room for his duties of household accounting.  He may also act as a Land Steward.  Those households having Land Stewards give them their own separate dwelling.  The House Steward engages men and women servants, with the exception of the family, ladies' maids, nurses and valet.  He pays their wages and dismisses them.  He orders household goods, pays the household bills and keeps the household books.  He usually submits the household books to his master once a month for review.  He does not wear livery.


Valet--Valets are generally kept by single gentlemen and elderly gentlemen.  A butler may act as a valet for a single man.  A valet brushes his master's clothes, cleans his boots, carries up the water for his bath, puts out his clothes for dressing, shaves him if necessary, assists him in dressing, packs and unpacks his clothes when traveling.  He also loads his rifle when shooting, stands behind his master's chair at dinner, waits at his breakfast and luncheon, attends to the master's wardrobe and sees that everything is in repair and order.  A valet to an elderly gentleman attends to his health needs also, and may sleep in the room with his master.  He does not wear livery.


Butler--The butler is the head of his department and responsible for the performance of those under him (the footmen).  He has usually served his apprenticeship in domestic service, slowly working his way up the hierarchy.  His responsibilities increase with the size of his establishment.  He is in charge of the plate chest and makes sure it is properly cleaned before use.  He keeps accounts of the wine handed out and consumed by the household.  He decants the wine for luncheon and dinner, and puts away decanters after each meal.  He also bottles wine, and country butlers brew beer.  A butler takes over the valet's duty when there isn't one in the household.  A butler announces visitors during the afternoon hours.  He readies rooms for use every day, as well as tidies them.  In households with only one footman, the butler assumes some of the pantry work.  



Coachman--His duties vary depending on the number of footmen employed, and whether or not there is a second-coachman on staff.  In families with more than one coachman, the head coachman drives a pair of horses and the second coachman drives one horse.  Nightwork is the duty of the second coachman.  The head coachman supervises those under him (second coachman and grooms), and sees that the horses are properly fed and taken care of.  He also has charge of the the stables and is responsible for ordering supplies.  He assists the groom in cleaning the carriages and harness.    In some families, coachmen have their meals with the servants.  In others, they have their own rooms in the stables.


Head Gardener--The head gardener is in charge of the hot-houses, green-houses and conservatories on the estate.  He supervises the rest of the gardeners, their number depending on the size of the gardens.  



Footman--A typical day for a footman is the following routine: He takes coals to the sitting-room, cleans the boots, trims the lamp wicks, cleans the plate, lays the breakfast table, carries in breakfast, waits at breakfast, removes breakfast, answers the door in the morning after 12 o'clock, delivers notes, lays the luncheon table, takes in and waits luncheon, clears the table and cleans the silver, lays the dinner table, goes out with the carriage in the afternoon, attends to fires throughout the day and evening, prepares table for tea, cleans up after tea, waits at dinner, clears the dinner table, helps clean the plate, washes the glass and silver used at dinner, takes in coffee and dessert after dinner, waits in attendance in front hall when dinner guests are leaving, attends to the gentlemen in the smoking room, attends to lighting in the house at dusk, goes out with the carriage in the evening and valets the young gentlemen in the family.  Footmen dress in livery.  When one footman is employed, the butler assists in his duties.  When two footmen are kept in lieu of a butler and footman, the head footman assumes the duties of the butler.  When two or three footmen are kept with a butler, the head footman is called an under-butler, although he remains in livery.   


Groom--He attends to the horses and exercises them.  He cleans the carriages and harness, and feeds the horses.  He also readies the stables for the master's inspection each morning.  


Depending on the number of servants kept in an establishment, these duties often blend with one another.  


The Duties of Servants Reprinted from 1894 publication by Copper Beech Publishing, Ltd. 

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Household Management by Margaret Willes, The National Trust, Ltd., 1996.


For more sources like these, visit our Research Page.


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