Regency Culture and Society: A Primer on Household Staff

The mark of one’s consequence in Regency England could be said to measured by the number of a household’s servants.  Jane Austen’s novels often make references to servants as a matter of status:

Mrs Bennet explained quite sharply to him that they were very well able to afford a good cook and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen (Pride and Prejudice)

Her wisdom, too, limited the number of their servants to three; two maids and a man, with whom they were speedily provided from amongst those who had formed their establishment at Norland.  (Sense and Sensibility).

Servants could either be specialized by duty in larger households, or forced to be staff of all work in genteely impoverished households.

Here is a handy chart about hierarchy depending on household wealth:

Baliff or agent reports to Master of the house.  Responsible for collecting rents and maintaining property.

A steward would also report to Master and Mistress of the house over matters of the interior, including the management of household staff and household accounts.  A steward would be employed for his ability to command authority and delegate household work.

Smaller houses would have a Butler, or majordomo (major of the house), heading up male staff including footmen, grooms, coachmen, gamekeeper, gardener,  and page.  He might also serve to help supervise the female staff as a figurehead of authority.

The Housekeeper was in charge of the entire female staff and reported to the Mistress of the house.  Under her purview were the maids, including laundry maids, parlor maids,and nursemaids.  The housekeeper was responsible for acting as a superindendent of the female staff, leading with integrity, authority and as an extension of the house’s mistress.

The Ladies Maid and Valet, like the housekeeper and butler, were upper rank servants reporting directly to their respective master.  They were charged primarily in maintaining their masters’ appearance, and therefore would be exempt from being assigned arbitrary housework.  Working in the closest proximity of the upper class, they would also often be privy to private thoughts and events which discretion would be expected.

An extremely prominent family might house several French chefs, who were predominantly male and reported to the butler or steward.  A smaller home would have a female cook who was under the housekeeper’s domain.  The cook would generally take charge of the kitchen maids.

In between the upstairs and the downstairs, were governesses and tutors. They also reported directly to master and mistresses, and seldom were included in activities of the household staff even though they were paid workers.

The dress of servants would reflect, as much as their numbers, the station of the household they served.  A complete set of clothes, or livery, would be provided for upper rank and even, in wealthy households, lower rank servants.  Some households might provide several different liveries to each servant, including dress livery and labor livery.

Less wealthy families might expect household staff to maintain their own wardrobe from wages, and generally require clothing to be serviceable, clean, and neat.

To read more in depth:

Household work, or the duties of female servants (1850)

Hierarchy and specific duties of household servants

An encyclopædia of domestic economy (This mammoth encyclopedia from 1852 is available for free on google books at link and features a very handy hyperlinked table of contents and index.  Includes other matters of domesticity great as a resource for authors!)

One thought on “Regency Culture and Society: A Primer on Household Staff

  1. Pingback: The pleasures of servitude « ~ punkah wallah ~

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