Regency Servants ~ Women in the Household

Regency Servants ~ Women in the Household

Four weeks has passed so it is again my turn to blog, so here is the 4th installment in my Regency Servants series. So many servants… so many essays to write! I suspect another three posts on the folks who kept a country estate operating, with an additional two or three on related topics. I sure am having fun with this subject, and hope y’all are too!

Links to the previous three posts are below, and if you missed them, I would strongly encourage catching up before reading today’s essay.

#1 Regency Servants: Introduction & the Steward

#2 Regency Servants: Valet & Lady’s Maid

#3 Regency Servants: Men in the Household


Male servants may have been prized and considered superior within the late 18th to 19th-century household domestic hierarchy — the jobs they performed were critical to the estate functioning and best done by a physically stronger individual — yet no one can question the extreme importance of the female servants. The sheer number of women compared to men working indoors proves their vital place. In truth, the blend of sexes for the varied tasks was sensible and essential for a host of reasons, but if a blight attacked only one gender, leaving the other to carry on solo, my wager would be on the women managing best! Then again, I am a female so may be prideful and prejudiced. LOL! What do YOU think?


Female Household Servants



More or less the co-equal partner of the butler, the housekeeper ranked the highest and ruled over the entire female domestic staff. Typically addressed as “Mrs. LastName” — the “Mrs.” included to denote respect even if she was unmarried. As noted in the previous installment, she was subservient to the butler and could not directly command the footmen (or the cook if a male chef). This fact of the times, however, did not diminish her power or prestige. She answered directly to the mistress of the house, which in turn gave her tremendous authority.

The situation of a housekeeper, in almost every family, is of great importance. She superintends nearly the whole of the domestic establishment, has generally the control and direction of the servants, particularly of the female servants, has the care of the household furniture and linen, of all the grocery-dried and other fruits, spices, condiments, soap, candles, and stores of all kinds, for culinary and other domestic uses.…  she is the locum tenens, the Lady Bountiful, and the active representative of the mistress of the family; and is expected to do, or to see done, everything that appertains to the good and orderly management of the household.  ~The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams, 1825

Mrs Reynolds
Mrs. Reynolds, housekeeper of Pemberley as visualized in Sharon Lathan’s Darcy Saga novels.

Her integrity, honesty, industry, and organizational abilities had to be above reproach. She was entrusted with keys to the house and all storage cabinets (except for the wine cellar), and her morality and demeanor set the tone for the servant staff. The order, cleanliness, and necessary supplies for the entire household were under her direct command and responsibility. All purchases of stores were conducted by her, requiring her to handle the provided monies and keep impeccable accounts, as well as deal with vendors. She kept detailed inventories of every last item in the house and frequently examined the lists for usage changes over time, anticipating future needs. Household articles would be inspected regularly for breakage or wear, replacement purchases made as needed.

The various maids were directed by and reported to her, and it was her responsibility to make sure they completed their chores. Ostensibly in charge over the kitchen as well, the cook usually managed with scant direct interference from either the housekeeper or the butler, at least in regards to specific cooking techniques and/or ordering of the kitchen staff. Nevertheless, it was the housekeeper who planned and outlined the menus (based on the mistress’s requests), purchased grocery items and ensured proper storage, and gave the final approval of the food to be served. Her knowledge of food and culinary skills, while not usually on par with a trained cook or chef, were adequate to judge the taste of the dishes, and to jump in as a backup cook in an emergency.

Along these same lines, the housekeeper could perform ALL household chores competently. Having first served in a lower level, perhaps initially as far down the rung as the scullery maid, the housekeeper was intimately familiar with the jobs required (often pitching in to help) and definitely not afraid of hard physical labor.

Housekeeper Still-Room
Illustration of a Housekeeper at rest in her Still-Room taken from the frontispiece of Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Domesticum. *click image for larger view to note detail

A prime duty for the housekeeper was assisting the maid in charge of the stillroom. This room, generally attached to the kitchen, was for the distillation of herbal waters, brewing of teas, drying of flowers and herbs, preparations of colognes and toilet waters, concoctions of medicines, making of candles, and mixing of spices. Arguably one of the most important rooms in the house, it was managed by the highest ranked and competent maid in the household. In modest households the housekeeper was the stillroom maid, but in larger estates there would be one or two designated maids for this job alone. The close connection between the housekeeper and stillroom maid(s) led to the passing of knowledge, and as the topmost ranked maid, the transition from stillroom maid to housekeeper was common.  

Housekeepers room by Fredrick William Elwell
Housekeeper’s Room by Fredrick William Elwell

Lastly, the housekeeper’s personal quarters would be in within the servant’s hall. Spacious and luxurious compared to the others, her living area included a sitting room that served as the segregated dining and meeting space for the upper-level servants. The lower level servants would dine in the kitchen and socialize together, rarely mingling with the higher ranked staff.

Housemaid and Chambermaid
“The Housemaid” by Thomas Gainsborough, 1786

These were the woman who performed the gritty, grimy, grueling tasks essential for a manor house to properly function and remain clean. Long before electricity, this was a truly endless, back-breaking chore! The number of servants needed for a ship-shape house varied, of course. A large estate such as Pemberley would obviously employ an extensive quantity compared to Longbourn. Whether a small army or handful, maids were not a ridiculous extravagance. They were, quite literally, critical for a family to survive.  

Within the broad category of “maid” there was a hierarchy. Those maids proven as diligent and trusted were assigned the upkeep of the family rooms and main chambers. Commonly referred to as the “chambermaids” or “parlourmaids” — sometimes both terms used to further distinguish specific duties — they were entrusted for important responsibilities like cleaning the china, assisting the stillmaid, or stepping in as a lady’s maid. They wore fine quality uniforms, just in case they were seen or called upon to serve in some capacity. Depending on the household size, certain maids would be designated to particular portions of the house, rarely working elsewhere. As you may suspect, this was the position to aspire to, lifting the serious, professional domestic servant higher in the ranks and closer to the coveting stillroom and housekeeper positions.


scrubbing woman
The Scrubbing Woman, André Bouys. 1737

General Maid – Laundry Maid

The general maid-of-all-work rarely left the laundry area or lower level rooms where the rougher tasks were performed. All of the maids (all of the servants period, for that matter) worked very, very hard and kept extraordinarily long hours. Yet there is no doubt that those lower down the ladder were given the nasty jobs. 

Up at the crack of dawn, dressed in utilitarian garb and sturdy aprons, they started in on the heavy-duty chores to prepare the house for the family when they arose. Under the leadership and direction of the housekeeper, and aided by the footmen for the super strenuous jobs, the maids’ chores included sweeping all floors and carpets daily, cleaning the vast number of fireplace grates – and by ‘cleaning’ I mean not just emptying of old ashes, but also scouring, scrubbing, and oiling the bricks, fireirons, utensils, and grates – laying new coal and/or wood hauled by bucketfuls from sheds away from the house, cleaning the drapes and shutters and windows, polishing and dusting every surface in sight, lugging water buckets for baths, making the beds with fresh linens each day, mending and repairing, emptying the chamberpots, beating the rugs…. You fill in the blanks!

maid sweeping
Sweeping the Feathers, by Victor Gabriel Gilbert (1847-1933)
Laundry Maid c.1880 by unknown English artist
The Laundress, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1761)
maid ironing
Louis–Leopold Boilly, “Young Woman Ironing” – French 1761–1845

The laundry maid(s) washed, ironed, starched, bleached, folded, scrubbed stains, etc. A separate building of stone with excellent drainage was dedicated to the process of keeping the fabric items of the household clean. This building would include a washing room with an array of tubs, another for the ironing and starching, another with a furnace to steam and dry, and places to store the materials and chemicals needed for these procedures. Pause for a second to dwell on the plethora of fabrics she competently dealt. Do you now have an improved respect for this lowly job?  

Pay for domestic maids on the lowest rungs was minimal, living quarters stark and small, and they only had a half day per week off for leisure. Sounds untenable to our modern sensibilities, yet remember, as I noted in the introductory installment, she was fortunate compared to other working women of her era. Meals and housing were provided, she worked in a respectable atmosphere, her income was steady, and she could count on a long-term career if she worked hard. It was, all considered, a comfortable life.

The stillmaid I covered within the housekeeper section. This concludes the domestic staff specific to the household upkeep and cleanliness. Next month I’ll talk about the cook and kitchen-related staff, with an additional sidebar on culinary dining styles of the day. Something to look forward too!

I hope y’all are enjoying these deeper delves into the “behind the scenes” folks who truly are, from a certain point-of-view, the heroes of the stories we love to read. Without Mrs. Reynolds and her presumably stellar maids, Pemberley would not be the shining beacon of grandeur that aids in opening Lizzy Bennet’s eyes to Mr. Darcy’s importance. Right?

housekeepers tale
*click image for direct Amazon sales page

For my featured book on the topic, I stumbled across The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House by Tessa Boase. Published in 2014, it is available in print (paper and hardcover) and eBook.


Working as a housekeeper was one of the most prestigious jobs a nineteenth and early twentieth-century woman could want – and also one of the toughest. A far cry from the Downton Abbey fiction, the real-life Mrs. Hughes was up against capricious mistresses, low pay, no job security and grueling physical labor. Until now, her story has never been told. The Housekeeper’s Tale reveals the personal sacrifices, bitter disputes and driving ambition that shaped these women’s careers. Delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain’s most prominent households.

There is Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the obscenely wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. There is Sarah Wells, a deaf and elderly Victorian in charge of Uppark, West Sussex. Ellen Penketh is Edwardian cook-housekeeper at the sociable but impecunious Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders. Hannah Mackenzie runs Wrest Park in Bedfordshire â?? Britain’s first country-house war hospital, bankrolled by playwright J. M. Barrie. And there is Grace Higgens, cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex for half a century â?? an era defined by the Second World War.

Revelatory, gripping and unexpectedly poignant, The Housekeeper’s Tale champions the invisible women who ran the English country house.





Come back in four weeks for the fifth essay on Regency Servants! For now, let me know your thoughts on this riveting topic!

13 Responses to Regency Servants ~ Women in the Household

  1. I cannot imagine what the serving staff had to go through each and every day just to make these great houses run smoothly. Your in-depth explanations of the working duties of the upstairs and downstairs staff have been very enlightening. I had no idea. I’ve only recently found this site and have gone back and read all the past blogs regarding the different service positions. My brain simply cannot grasp how times have changed and conveniences and technology has made our lives so much better.
    I noticed the remarks regarding dealing without electricity. In 1994, KY was hit with a massive ice storm and we were without power forever. Fortunately for us, we had a wood stove in our basement. Since it had a flat top, I was able to cook on it and have hot water for coffee and a sponge bath…such a delight. Our neighbor survived his deprivations because we supplied him with hot water for instant coffee. He declared life not worth living without his coffee. I think we saved his life.
    Thanks for all your hard work and time needed for the research.

  2. It is very interesting about all the servants it took to run the households! I can tell you I would not like most of those jobs if any! Maybe in that time period I would have a different opinion. I wonder what other employment was available for women during that time. Thank you for your information!

  3. Very interesting series. It is amazing how many of these full time jobs are now resolved with the push of a button or a quick trip to the store or pharmacy.

    • Isn’t that the truth! I can barely imagine, and only because after living through the big earthquake in CA in 1992 we were without electricity or running water for 4 days. I didn’t know how to begin cleaning up the mess! We are SO dependent upon our gadgets and the ability to dash down to the local market.

      • I can’t say a visit to my local market is a “dash”, but then 40 miles of good road… 🙂 And I was in CA at that same time, it wasn’t fun. But where I live now, I went for a week without power due to ice bringing down our power lines. Luckily I still had water and heat, and a generator that I ran 30 minutes a day. I have to admit tho’ when my power came back on, it made me cry.

  4. I just love this series and this one about the female house staff was one of my favorites. Thanks so much. Jen

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