Why Shoot a Butler?

311134Christina here.  Why Shoot a Butler? is the title of one of Georgette Heyer’s country house mysteries/crime stories. It kind of makes it sound as though a butler isn’t even worth shooting, which is a bit odd! Or maybe that’s just the slant my mind put on it and it wasn’t what the author meant? It did make me think though …

I have just reread all Heyer’s mystery/crime books, and although most of them are ostensibly set during the 1930s (only the last one is after the war), the settings seemed to me almost identical to those of her Regency novels. They all take place either in stately homes or among people of the upper class. The characters are similar to her Regency ones as well – strong alpha males, sensible girls who triumph over the pretty but vapid ones, matrons with decided views on things, etc. And then there are the servants, particularly the butlers, whom I couldn’t help but notice even if the other characters don’t pay them much attention.

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The Life of the Lady’s Maid

Forbidden_350Nicola here. The third series of Downton Abbey starts in the UK this week and so today I thought I would look at the role of the lady’s
maid. The lady’s maid has frequently had a bad press. Dramatists of the 18th
century portrayed her as a vain, twittering creature. Lower servants tended to
dislike the lady’s maid, partly for her affectations to gentility and partly
for the fact that she had the ear of the mistress of the house. Certainly in Downton Abbey Lady Grantham's maid O'Brien is a complicated and interesting creation who reflects many of these elements but has a few saving graces. However the
role of a lady’s maid was an exacting one.

 The maid of all work

 Margery, the heroine of my latest book, Forbidden, was a
lady’s maid when her life was turned upside down with a sudden and unexpected
inheritance. It was interesting to study the sort of work Margery did and the
way her life had progressed up until that point in order to see how
dramatically it would change with her elevation to the Ton.

Margery’s story is fictitious, of course, but it is based on
the kind of life any number of women might
Laundry duty have had in service at the turn of
the 19th century. She started her working career at the age of
twelve as a maid of all work in a modest household in a small country town.
(Her back story is given in an earlier book in the Scandalous Women of the Ton
series, One Wicked Sin.) Her employer, Mrs Goodlake, was the wife of a
successful tradesman. As such Mrs Goodlake had a small staff, much smaller than
one would find in a grand country house. Rather than having a specific
function, such as scullery maid or housemaid, Margery had to turn her hand to
most jobs, from working in the kitchens to carrying the water up to the
bedrooms. These “general maids” played the part of housemaid, parlour maid and
cook as the need arose. Whilst a nobleman and his family might employ twenty or
more indoor servants (there were, for example, twenty eight indoor servants at
Ashdown House in the Regency period) a gentry or middle class household might
be able to afford only two or three.

The fact the Margery could turn her hand to anything came in
useful when she went to work for Lottie in One Wicked Sin. Lottie had a small
cottage and only one female servant to answer the door, do the cooking and take
care of just about everything else. Margery performed much the same role for
Susanna in Notorious. The benefit of such a role was that she became close to
her employers and was warmly appreciated, as much a friend as an employee. It
was through the connections of these ladies that Margery progressed in her
career because next she went to be lady’s maid to the Marchioness of Darent and
then to Lady Grant and so became a senior servant in a large household at the tender
age of only twenty three, with the potential to become a housekeeper in good
time. This was a huge leap for maid-of-all-work.

The Senior Servant

The lady's maidA lady’s maid was a personal servant and as such was senior,
highly-prized and comparatively well paid. One of the perks of being a lady’s maid was that you received your mistress’s cast off clothes to wear or sell as you pleased (which gave Margery the original idea for exchanging her confectionery for cast offs in the bawdy house.) A noblewoman of the highest rank
might in fact possess several personal servants. In 1772 the Duchess of Marlborough had a lady’s maid, three housemaids, two footmen and a male French
hairdresser in her personal entourage. The hairdresser was very skilled and
earned £42 per annum, almost at the top of the servant pecking order, but more modest households than Blenheim Palace would expect the lady's maid to pick up the hairdressing responsibilities. 

So what were the requirements of a good lady’s maid? She had
to be discreet, cheerful, obedient, healthy enough to be able to work long
hours, considerate enough not to fall asleep on her employer in the carriage,
virtuous enough to withstand the attention of male servants, honest enough to
care for the jewellery, educated enough to read to her mistress, and have an expert
knowledge of needlework, hairdressing and fashion. In return she would be rewarded with a room of her
own, she would take her meals with the housekeeper and in a superior household
she would be expected to attend only one lady. 

Contemporary opinions on the nationality of lady’s maids are
very amusing. French maids were considered to be the height of chic for their
fashion sense and their skill with a needle and comb. However in times of war
they were a liability in case their loyalties were compromised. Swiss maids
were considered safer and more trustworthy but were criticised for lacking

The lady’s maid had to dress, undress and re-dress her
mistress as many times as was necessary during
Tight_lacing the day. She would lay out her
mistress’s clothes in the morning and tidy the room after the mistress was
dressed. She would then occupy her day with sewing and ironing unless required
to accompany her mistress on an outing. She repeated these activities during
the day as required until it was time for her mistress to retire to bed,
whereupon she would brush her hair for a half hour as well as help her undress.
It doesn’t sound very exciting unless one was maid to a lady who travelled a
great deal, in which case you would get to see the world.

One aspect of the maid’s work that did sound rather more
interesting was the creation of various concoctions to help a lady with
problems such as freckles and sunburn. These potions would be made in the
stillroom using anything from herbs such as lavender and rosemary to milk,
lemons, lard and bullocks’ gall, which the housemaids also used to clean

A lady dressingA rather sad reflection on the role of the lady’s maid comes
from one contemporary writer: “Your elevation into comfort and luxury – your
better clothes, your seat in the dressing room and in your master’s carriage –
are only circumstances in your service and are not given to you to last…” It is
a clear indication that as a lady’s maid got older not all could rely on the
loyalty of their mistress in keeping them at her side.

Some lady’s maids did become housekeepers but this was not common
and it was a promotion resented by the housemaids who felt that they had more
appropriate experience. Some also married above their station but again they
were warned on the dangers and temptations: “If you have any personal
attractions, beware of the least familiarity with any of the gentlemen of the
family. Anything of the kind will lead to improper consequences.”

AbigailI have collected a pretty extensive collection of books
about life below stairs and it was fun to be able to draw on this for the
background to Forbidden. It was such a different world from that of high
society and to explore it gives a very different perspective of Regency
society. It also emphasises how different life was with servants in the sense that there was a lack of privacy that was taken for granted at the time whereas these days many of us would shudder at the thought of a personal maid who had so much intimate knowledge about persons and our lives! I think I would much prefer to have been an outdoor servant (if only they had employed women gardeners) or perhaps the stillroom maid!

Do you think you would you have enjoyed any of the roles in the Servants' Hall? Do you have the skills – or the patience – to ba a lady's maid? Would you have preferred living in a large aristocratic household or a small one?

The Servant’s Directory

WomonbookHi, here's Jo.

No, that's not me, but it's a cheeky bit of clip art, isn't it? It seems to be my season to revisit or buy research books. I can't remember where this one was mentioned — it might have been here — but I purchased The Servant's Directory, or House-Keeper's companion etc by Hannah Glass. It's a POD facsimile from ECCO, the Eighteenth Century Collection Online. Glasse

I can't recommend buying this book for two reasons. One is that it throws little light on the roles of servants in the 18th century, being mostly recipes and instructions for cleaning. The other is that in 400+ pages only about 80 are useful text. The rest of the pages are blank forms for various household records. These may well have been useful for an 18th century housekeeper, and if they had been filled out, could be interesting now, but as it stands, not.

I complained to the Book Depository  (an exellent place to buy books, and which ships around the world for free) saying I was returning it for a refund. They made the refund and told me to keep it, so I still have it to comment on.

As a side note, I think ECCO should take a little more care with their cover illustrations. I bought an 18th century travel book which had a Victorian illustration. This one has what looks to me like a 16th century Dutch picture.

However, here are notes on the servants.

The Chamber-Maid

I thought a chamber maid was closer to the house maid below, but I found some clarification in Swift's satirical description of servants' duties. Apparently if working for a family of considerable estate the duties differ from those of the house maid. I wouldn't have thought Glasse was writing of such a family, but it's another puzzle from the past.

This section is mostly instructions for caring for her lady's clothing, some of which could be useful to an author when it comes to washing silk stockings and such.

You might be interested in this warning about hair. "If you cut it in the decline of the moon, it will all come off your head, and on the contrary, cut but the ends of your hair in the increase of the moon, and it will grow thick and prevent its falling off."

The House-Maid.

An odd thing here is the instruction to have very clean feet, "that you may not dirty your rooms as soon as cleaned, nor make any noise…" The house maid went barefoot?

There's quite a bit of detail about lighting fires and cleaning and caring for hearths followed by a routine of cleaning carpets, curtains, woodwork, stairs etc etc. No rest for the house-maid!

The Landry-Maid (sic)

Mistress Glasse says that every girl knows how to wash, being taught by her mother, but does give some suggestions for improving ease of washing.

The Nursery-Maid

Glasse says that the care of children requires a book, and recommends The Young Married Lady's Companion, or Nursery-Maid's Directory. I can't find this on line.

The Scullion

There's no description of duties at all, but instructions for cleaning pewter, tin, copper etc. There is a long section on collecting the drips cleaned off candles and making cakes of them to sell to the tallow chandler. We should remember how little waste they tolerated back then.

Thus ends the servants' section on page 67.

At the end, we have calculation tables and details of weights and measures, which illuminate how complex and variable the 18th century world was. For example, a firkin of butter is 56lbs, but a firkin of bacon is 64lbs.

These days a stone = 14lbs, but in these tables a stone of iron is 14lbs, but a stone of butcher's meat is 8!

At the very end there are some details of charges for traveling on the river, and some on coach routes, but these pages aren't well copied and the coach routes would need a lot of extra study to really understand them.

As with most primary sources, the useful pages of this book raise questions, but they also give a window into the organization and complexity of life in the past.

Do you like much attention paid to servants in a historical romance? Do you enjoy a book where a principal character is a servant, or is pretending to be one?

My taste is for servants to be portrayed accurately, but I'm happy enough for them to be well in the background in most fictional creations, with the exception of the sort of lady's maid or valet who is also a close companion, as many were.



It’ll all come out in the wash!

Pavilion Nicola here. I’m on my travels this week, staying in an 18th century pavilion! It sounds idyllic – and it is except for the lack of facilities! All of which led me to wonder what it would have been like living and working in a place like this in the centuries before labour-saving devices were invented. In particular I’ve been doing some research into laundry and the care of clothes and thought I would share some of my findings with you.

Passing the Buck

The phrase “to pass the buck” is commonly thought to derive from poker, but long before the game wasWasherwomen  invented there was another buck, a wooden tub for the laundry. Washing clothes was a very long and time-consuming business so when you got tired you needed to pass the buck on to someone else. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare uses the “buck wash” for comic effect when Falstaff is bundled into the buck basket along with all the “foul shirts and smocks, socks, stockings and greasy napkins.”

 Another phrase deriving from the washing process was “to wash your dirty linen in public.” Until the 17th century the most common way to wash clothes was to beat them clean in a stream or lake as in the picture above, or in a communal washhouse. Greasy dirt such as tallow from candles or fat from cooking required a more thorough process though. Clothes were first soaked in an alkaline solution called lye, which was prepared several days before the laundering began. Lye was made from the fine white ash collected from ovens and furnaces. This was placed in a sieve and water was poured through it and stirred so that it became infused with the alkaline salts from the ash. Greasy clothes would be left to soak in the lye for a number of hours and were rinsed and re-soaked until the water was clean. It could be an incredibly lengthy business; In January 1660 Elizabeth Pepys woke the maids at 4am to start the wash and by 1am the next day they were still hard at it! The more well to do paid a “whitster” (one who whitens things) to do their washing for them and you can see why.

Moorfields The open spaces around London were at a premium when it came to drying clothes. At Moorfields, which you can see in the map on the left, the washing was attached to hooks on posts and was wound tightly around them until the water had been squeezed out. It was then laid out to dry on the ground or hung from clothes lines. Some things haven’t changed that much!

Slaving over a hot Copper

Laundry in country houses was dealt with in a similar way. At Ashdown House the laundry, pictured Laundry right, was a quarter mile from the main house, adjoining the stables, so that the noise, steam and smell of the process did not intrude on the Craven family and their guests. More than one illicit liaison between the grooms and the laundry maids was the result! At Ashdown there were three laundry rooms. First was the washhouse, which held wooden washing boards and troughs and a huge copper with a fire constantly burning beneath.  There was a drying loft or closet in case clothes had to be dried indoors on rainy days and there was also the pressing room, home to a range of box and flat irons.

 The clean laundry was laid out in a walled drying area (so that again the family did not need to see their linen drying in public!) A special touch was to scent it by drying it over lavender bushes or rosemary hedges, but theft was a constant problem. It was easy to snatch a sheet that was drying in the breeze! Drying clothes indoors was a last resort because it was so slow, took up a great deal of room and required complicated arrangements of racks and pulleys to air it properly.

Flat iron Ironing was also a complicated business. An inventory from one stately home in 1726 lists four box irons and seven pairs of flat irons. In country houses there was a demarcation between the senior laundress who was entrusted with all the delicate laundry and the maids who did the household washing and servants’ clothes. As households were frequently very large, a careful record was kept of all items before they were sent to the laundry so that when they were returned they could go to the correct person or be stored appropriately. This was the housekeeper’s responsibility and in the grandest households she had a special sorting room set aside for the process.

Cleaning Remedies

Soap was also used for laundry but it was a great deal more expensive than lye and extremely complicated to produce. At the end of the 18th century Nicolas Le Blanc discovered a way to mass-produce soda from salt but soap was taxed up until 1853 so it was still a product that could only be afforded by the rich.

The first book of cleaning remedies was published in 1583. It was called “A Profitable Boke declaring dyvers approved remedies, to take out spottes and staines in silkes, velvets, linen and woollen clothes.” Pretty comprehensive. It recommended grease and oil be treated with ground sheep’s hooves, warm cow’s milk to remove wine and vinegar stains and that gold and silk embroidery be washed in urine, strong beer or ale.

The Early Laundrette

By the middle of the 18th century there were a number of specialist cleaning shops established in LondonThe Strand  where you could take your clothes to be treated. In 1742 Jane Franklin of Maiden Lane placed an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser offering to clean “silver and gold laced cloth, buttons and buttonholes.” Dry scouring was an option – an early form of dry cleaning. The material was rubbed on both sides with a mixture of turpentine and fuller’s earth and then the mixture brushed off with a hard brush followed by a soft brush and finally a clean cloth. In the early 19th century Thompsons in The Strand (pictured) provided a comprehensive mending, dyeing and cleaning service for shawls and fine muslins from India. An impoverished heroine might well have taken her clothes there for a spot of refurbishment!

Dyeing for a change of clothes

Jane Austen At the beginning of the 19th century it cost between 3 shillings and six pence and five shilling to dye a gown, and 2 shillings and six pence to dye a pair of breeches. This was a relatively cheap and useful way to refresh one’s wardrobe but the process was an uncertain one. In 1808 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye… That is four shillings thrown away!” Blue dye came from woad or indigo, yellow from saffron and weld, and red from various different roots and also from cochineal, though that was more expensive as it was imported from South America. There was no fixed green dye until 1809, green gowns being made from covering blue dye with yellow.

Banishing the Moth

Moths and fleas were the greatest enemy of clothes that were kept in storage and there were many recipes and methods suggested to deal with them. Powdered elecampane root and orange peel were considered very powerful in banishing the moth. The lighter summer clothes could be scented with herbs; lavender, bay, thyme, rose and tansy. Heavy fur-trimmed outdoor and winter clothes were treated with benjamin and storax. Linens were kept in special bags of violet or damask. It’s rather nice to think of our heroines wafting around in clothes scented with herbs!

Which labour saving device of the modern day could you simply not manage without?


Charliefirst Hi, here's Jo, with on of Charlie's baby pictures, talking money.

Georgian money.

Last Friday the Wenches talked about our writing process, which is a complex medley. Getting words down is crucial, but it's not the bulk of the work. Thinking is extremely important, as is reading of all sorts and, of course, research. I've been trying to pin down the right amount per month for a lady to be reduced to true poverty, and it's not easy. In the process I've dug into various sources, and I thought I'd share this one.

What wages did servants get?

These figures are from The Domestic Servant in the 18th Century, by J Jean Hecht, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956. This is a fabulous book that gives a real insight into the Georgian world and the structure of the lives of both servants and employers, including the great estates which had people like the Land Steward.

The Land Steward would be responsible for the estate, including the home farm, which provided food for the house. He could be responsible for other estates as well. He would usually have his own home, but provided by the employer. However, most of the servants below would get room and board and many would get clothing, especially if they wore livery.

The book gives a range taken from actual examples. I've picked one figure that seems to me to be typical, but of course a lot depended on the size of the place and the duties involved. There was plenty of room for haggling, for in the eighteenth century, especially in London, servants had a very clear idea of their requirements and rights.

The figures following are pounds per annum

Land Steward 200
House Steward 100
Clerk of the kitchen, 100
Clerk of the stables 50(The clerks were left over from the middle ages and became rare in the 18th century.)
Man cook 30
Confectioner 50
Valet 14
Butler 20 (The butler later took over the house steward role.)
Gardener 25
Coachman 20
Footman 8
Groom 10
Footboy 2
Lady's maid 10
Housekeeper 12
Cook 8
Housemaid 6Gshill
Maid of all work 6
Laundry maid 7
Scullery maid 6  

To the right is a shilling of the period.

Wages were generally lower in the country than in London, but as some servants in larger establishments were taken to London with the family, in that situation the differences would be smaller.

For more pGquartergictures of coins of the period click here. Note the divisions of the guineas — this is a quarter guinea — showing how much they were worth, day to day. 

Board Wages.

You might have read in a book about the servants in a house being on board wages because the employer wasn't in residence. This meant that their wage was increased, but they had to find all their food themselves. The rationale was that they wouldn't be living high at the employer's expense. The servants might pool the money to buy food to cook, but mostly it meant eating out in a chop house or tavern, or buying from street vendors such as piemen. Board wages varied between 5-10s, which I have to assume is per week.
So that was the amount seen as necessary for a person to live for a
week on bought food.

Sometimes staff were employed "on constant board wages", again to try to prevent them living well at the employer's expense.

Board wages could be liberating for the servants. They had to be given time and liberty to go out for food, and if they were canny in how they spent it, they could end up with extra money in their pockets. For this reason, many in the employing classes saw constant board wages as undermining social order.

Tea Money.
By the mid eighteenth century, tea had become central to decent life in England, and the servants demanded their tea. Some servants included daily tea in their contracts, and many employers gave money in lieu. It usually came to about a guinea a year.

The Perks of the Job.

Perks are, of course, perquisites, including vails, or tips.

For example, the butler was entitled to candle ends and bottles, the cook to dripping, bones, extra fat etc which would be sold. We have to remember that fat was crucial for people working hard in all weathers. (Side issue I heard on the radio recently. During WWII, Britain bought in a law mandating a high sugar level in soft drinks as the easiest way to get necessary calories into children during rationing. It was only repealed in 1996!)

Footman1612 Footmen were entitled to his livery, and to card money — that was money for the cards used in an evening of play.  The going rate was 1 shilling for one pack, 18d for two, and the coins were generally slipped under the candlestick on the table. There was a bit of sense to this as the cards of the period were much flimsier than cards today. They were literally card, much like the thickness of a business card, and soon were mangled. That made it easy for the quick of eye and wit to tell what cards an opponent held, even without marking, which was also easy. Therefore, people preferred to at least start the night with a fresh pack, and I assume (though it wasn't stated in the book) that the footmen provided them. Even so, they'll have made a profit and doubtless sold on the used packs to poorer people.

(This picture is from this site which is about a film called The Highwayman. I hope it's not based on the poem, and thus ending badly. Oh dear. I quote from the site. "Synopsis:    In 18th century England, a young farmer finds his world falling apart
as he discovers a tangle of past lies and betrayals when his father dies. He is evicted
from the farm he thought was his and turned away from the woman he loves. First in desperation,
then for revenge, he becomes the highway robber of the poem and fulfills its horrific conclusion." Sounds like Braveheart in wigs!

The sloppy fitting livery in the picture was probably true of many footman of the time, though often they were turned out splendidly to reflect their master's glory. Especially the running footman, but that's a subject for another blog. However, they generally powdered their hair rather than using ill-fitting, flossy wigs.

There are interesting stills from the film here.)

Upper servants received cast off clothing, either to wear or sell. (In a couple of my books I've had characters go to a "rag shop", or used clothing shop, when in need of instant clothing. We all know they're not going to get something new at the snap of the fingers. This was a considerable perk. The Duke of Kingston's valet complained "During the sixteen years that I served the duke, I had but two lots of clothes given me, the first amounting to fifty, the second to near ninety." We can see that the amounts are many times his annual wage, so no wonder he was miffed.

On to vails, or tips, from the word avail, or
benefit.  In a quiet household, a footman would expect higher wages because he wouldn't have much in the way of vails from guests. The amount to be expected might be specified in advertisements for servants.

Vails were not voluntary but, rather like tips in many situations today, expected. Not paying them in the first half of the eighteenth century would result in rotten service if the guest returned, and sometimes assault. They were paid by visiting guests upon departure,  The higher servants lined up to receive them and then usually (again as with most restaurants today) part was shared with other staff. In some households, the total was given to the employer who then distributed it according to rank.

The amount in proportion to wages varied by household, but it was not uncommon for vails to equal the wages, that is double the stated amount of wages per annum.

Employers increasingly disliked vails because they made their guests uncomfortable, especially foreign ones who didn't understand the system. Accepting an invitation to dine was generally more expensive than eating in  a tavern. Even Queen Caroline complained of the expense of visiting her friends in London. There's a story of a nobleman encountering an acquaintance in the park and chiding him for not accepting any of his many invitations. The other gentleman apologized, but said he couldn't afford it. The nobleman completely understood.

In 1759 employers in Scotland gradually resolved not to allow vails and passed laws to ban them.

it took longer in England, but spread county by county until the nobility and gentry met at Almack's in 1764 "unanimously resolved neither to give nor allow any vails to servants." Servants fought back with rudeness, poor service, and by leaving to go to places whece vails were still allowed. Some went as far as damaging the property of guests, and Sir Francis Dashwood was threatened with death. In 1764 servants rioted at Ranelagh, but most employers and guests held firm and by 1767 the practice seems to have gone in most places. I haven't yet found out if wages went as a consequence, but I'd think so.

(As a writerly note, this was all going on during my Malloren books, and is the sort of furore that would be fun to include in a book, but the system would have to be set up and explained before the action and drama could really make sense, and that could clog up the book unless it was a core issue. And it never has been.)

There's plenty more in the book, and I strongly recommend trying to find a copy, or getting it through your library on inter-library load. I remember my thrill when I found a copy of my own a while back in a bookstore in Brighton.

Do you have any 18th century financial details to toss into this pot?

There's an interesting page here about the servants' world. The site is about Jane Austen, but this article goes well back into the eighteenth century. This site also linked to an interesting list of servants at Emo Court in Ireland.  Click here.

Do you like these sorts of details? 

Do you like to have a lot about servants in a historical romance?Tsdbroch

I only include servants when they have a particular part to play because I'm in the heads of my characters, who are mostly so accustomed to servants that they don't pay them much attention unless there's a lack.Or if there's something in particular. For example, in my MIP the hero notices the way the lower servants treat him differently because he's changed from scapegrace younger son to earl. It's part of the huge changes in his life. At the same time, we see how little he knows about the inner workings of the place that's been his home all his younger life. Taken for granted, as we take our service-filled world today.

When we go into a building, we don't think about the people who were there earlier to clean it — unless it's dirty. When we take something off a store shelf, we don't think about who put it there — unless the shelves are badly stocked. When we take public transportation, how much time do we spend considering the private life and concerns of the driver.

For this reason, as a reader I get twitchy about upper class characters who are much engaged with the servant world unless it's clearly motivated. Do you?

If we look at the past from the lower angle, a poor person might hardly have anyone outside their family and friends do anything for them.They'd grow, make, mend, cook and clean everything from scratch, and of course, nothing would be wasted. Do you think we appreciate these sorts of things as we time travel into the past in historical fiction?

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