Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society

Cragside House had many servants.
Cragside House had many servants.

Domestic servants in the 19th century was the subject of a talk by Dr Christine Seal to members of Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society.

Dr Seal worked for many years for the National Trust in several houses in the south as an archivist, but has drawn her research from those and other houses, which still do have the records, from the 19th century and even earlier.

It appears that to some extent the numbers employed depended on the amount of land, rents, and growing affluence of industrialists and other emerging industries who were able to employ servants.

The small shopkeeper would have one very hard-worked servant with some big houses employing as many as 300 or more.

There was a strict hierarchy within the servants’ world with upper and lower servants, liveried and unliveried, indoor and outdoor gardeners and grooms.

Everyone knew their place; the housekeeper made sure of that. Discipline was rigorous, even down to staff relationships.

HG Wells’ mother was a housekeeper, sacked for incompetence. The house steward and chef seemed to be the highest paid with the parlour maid at the bottom: In one house £120 - £18 per year ‘all found’.

Mrs Beeton published a book recommending what appeared to be lower wages. However, the government levied a tax for certain classes of servants.

Many houses had what was called The Brushing Room, where clothes would be brushed clean rather than washed, such as tweeds.

In the bigger houses, the house servants were expected to do all their cleaning, fire lighting, fetching and carrying before the family got up in the morning.

In one house if they were so much as seen with a broom in their hands they could be sacked. Staff turnover tended to be frequent – many every two years, perhaps to find better jobs or employers.

Some senior staff stayed on to be pensioners of the estate with a house and income, but some seniors would move for better positions. Many old servants ended their lives in the poor house.

Word of mouth was the traditional way to find servants and employers but during the 19th century advertising and agencies grew up to cater for the growing need for servants and employers. One advert shown required a footman of a certain height and weight who could read and write.

One observation made during question time was that it was probably the servants who preserved the big houses for us to visit today.

The next talk is the Life of Lord Armstrong from Birth to Death by Andrew Sawyer on Friday, March 21, in The Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, at 7.30pm, coffee beforehand, visitors £2, all welcome.