During the eighteenth century, the lady of the house faced a constant problem in employing good servants. Whether you ran a town household or a country one, servants were becoming hard to find. They were also difficult to keep. Alternative employment was on the increase, as the mills and factories drew in more workers. At the same time, the supply of suitable persons was narrowing.
At one time, the children of tenant farmers could be relied upon. A pamphlet of 1766 noted that small farms had provided:
“… servant girls who had had the opportunity of learning at home how to brew, bake, cook, knit, sew, get up linen, etc., whereas poor peoples’ children have not such advantages”.
Agricultural improvement and enclosures merged smallholdings into larger farms for the sake of efficiency. There were fewer tenant families in any given area. Those there were grew more prosperous and ‘middle class’. Their children — especially the girls — were much less interested in ‘menial’ servant roles.
The rural poor were also less abundant. Enclosures forced families off the land and sent them to seek work in the manufacturing towns. Poor people still existed in large numbers, of course, but these new urban poor were not seen as suitable for employment in genteel households.
The Servant Hierarchy
The social changes were most obvious at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. To secure a place amongst the upper servants — the housekeeper, the butler, the steward, the governess, the cook, the gentleman’s valet and the lady’s maid — was difficult. It required proven skills, experience and good references from previous households. Upper servants were closest to their employers. They needed to be seen as competent and trustworthy. Once established, many remained with the same family for years at a time.
The supply of upper servants seeking new work was always limited. The best moved only when forced to do so, perhaps by the break-up of their existing household. When that happened, their availability would quickly be made known amongst potential employers. Their previous master or mistress might even take an active part in recommending them elsewhere. For the rest, senior positions were earned by long and meritorious service in a single household, not moves between them.
Two trends combined to increase the demand for servants. Household size was increasing. The houses of the aristocracy and gentry had ever more rooms and more complex layouts. The profits of enterprise and empire were increasing the number and wealth of the middle classes. An upper-middle class of merchants, professional men and manufacturers ran households as fine as those of the gentry. The upper classes needed even higher standards of comfort and luxury to stand out.
The middle class generally was more prosperous too. Even quite modest families amongst this rising group now needed several servants to be able to keep up appearances.
The best analogy is with today’s ownership of household appliances. It may sound unkind, but eighteenth-century under-servants were the food processors, cleaners and dishwashers of their time. What once had been thought a luxury soon became a necessity. The mistress of a middle-class household did not expect to undertake menial work herself. She did not wash her own dishes, launder and iron her own clothes, or sweep and clean the rooms in her house. She did not prepare the food. She gave the orders and supervised the results; others did the work. With greater wealth came higher expectations.
Those who took on menial household tasks were the most mobile and least of servants. Most came from poor families. Before entering service, they had no experience of anything useful. Their standards of cleanliness — in themselves and the work they did — were often deplorable. They lacked the basic education to follow written instructions. They arrived without any understanding of the requirements of household discipline — let alone how to behave with proper decorum. It took time and attention to train them. That was assuming they remained long enough. Many rebelled at the drudgery, close supervision and petty restrictions and ran away.
Imagine the huge difference between the furniture and household goods in a wealthy household and what existed in the homes of the poor. Inexperienced maids could cause havoc. Fine items required special care in handling and cleaning. The poor had no idea how vulnerable such things were to mistreatment or careless handling. A new maid would have to be shown how to clean a room without causing damage. She needed to be taught how to light a fire without producing too much smoke. She had probably never blacked a grate or polished metals. Tools like a flat-iron or a mangle would be outside her previous experience. One eighteenth-century mistress bewailed, “the inconveniences of changing housemaids so often”, which was due to the time it took to “make them understand these kinds of things”.
Servants at this basic level were also expected to turn their hands to almost any job required. Maids might join the harvesters on the farm. Male servants would be expected to give a hand with heavy work like shifting furniture or working the mangle on washing day. There were so many tasks to be done. So much labour involved in doing them. Even in the greatest of households, minor aspects of housekeeping would have to get by on minimal attention.
Turnover amongst lower servants was high. It was not uncommon for only a minority of under-servants to remain with a household for more than a year or so. Often it was less. Theft was a common cause of dismissal, as were drunkenness, dirtiness and insubordination. Pregnancy claimed many of the girls. It might be due to the attentions of male members of the family. It was more likely they had succumbed to advances from other servants, local farm labourers or visiting tradespeople.
In the 1740s, Elizabeth Purefoy wrote to a friend,
’Tis not my dairymaid that is with child but my cook maid, and it is reported our parson’s maid is also with kinchen [sic] by the same person who has gone off and shown them a pair of heels for it …”<
Later, her new maid was “apprehended for taking and conveying away strong beer out of the cellar”, and she was reduced to writing around to her friends to seek a maid without “too great assurance” and preferably “forty years old”.
The image of the ladies of the eighteenth-century given in many dramas and books is misleading. They didn’t spend all their time changing their clothes, beautifying themselves and indulging in polite conversation. Running a significant household was a full-time job.
Any leisure away from domestic demands would be seized upon with eagerness. Even then, it had to be fitted in with discussing menus with the cook and making sure the housekeeper was able to cope with the next influx of visitors. Time would be needed to see the maids weren’t destroying your fine ornaments by careless handling or stealing the silver spoons. You might have to deal with a butler drunk on the master’s brandy. Your maid might purloin items of your jewellery or lace, or the footmen using the guest beds to roger the chambermaids.
At least today’s household appliances don’t (yet) have minds and vices of their own!