Thursday, September 10, 2009

Regency Domestics - A Good Life?

During the Regency, all domestic—household—work was labour-intensive. Household servants were commonplace; every home with any claim to gentility had at least one servant. According to Samuel and Sarah Adams (see below) with an income of one hundred pounds per year, ”a widow or other unmarried lady, may keep a Young Maid Servant, at a low salary; say from five to ten guineas a year.” With an income of one thousand pounds per year, expectations increased. Such a household would employ “A Cook, two House-Maids, a Nursery-Maid, or other Female Servant; a Coachman, Footman, and a Man to assist in the Stable and Garden.” Every extra hand lightened the work load, and incidentally increased the prestige of the household—to everyone’s satisfaction.

Guidebooks for domestic servants were available. Elizabeth Hammond’s Modern Domestic Cookery of 1819 contained a section headed “Directions to Servants”. In its introduction, Mrs. Hammond advises “The principal qualification in all servants (but especially in females) is a good disposition, which naturally urges them to anxiously endeavour to give universal satisfaction;...”

For a further three pages, she admonishes and counsels upon the following suggestions:

“Be particularly careful what acquaintance you form;...”

"Invariably speak the truth...”

“Be humble and modest...”

“Never speak lightly of your master and mistress...”

“Carefully avoid quarrels with your companions...”

“Endeavour to acquire the habit...of being contented with their homes.”

Good advice no doubt, but also fostering and reinforcing a certain sort of subservience.

In 1825 after a lifetime of service Samuel Adams, a butler, in cooperation with his wife Sarah, a housekeeper, produced “The Complete Servant”. It was their opinion that such a handbook had never before existed-- “The want of such a manual of duty and practice having often been noticed in servants’ halls,...”. As both Sarah and Samuel had started in service at a young age and ‘risen through the ranks’ as it were, they knew whereof they spoke, and offered all their experience to newcomers.

The Adamses’ in their Dedication “Respectfully Addressed to the Heads of Families in the United Kingdom” go so far as to make suggestions to the master of the house regarding costs and economies of the household, and to the mistress of the house regarding handling of servants.

Nevertheless they too, in their “Advice to Servants in General” lapse into a sort of moral admonishment that sounds patronizing to modern ears. It is sometimes difficult to remember that the Regency was a different time, with a unique world view and ideas now foreign to us. That an employer or a contemporary could advise another with such arrogance is a strange idea to us. Yet the education level and the naivety—the innocence and the ignorance--of many of the servant class must have made these instructions seem necessary and right to their ‘superiors’. As with Elizabeth Hammond, the Adamses' heap advice upon counsel:

“Your wages are the yearly pay for your honesty, and your time;...”

“Dress as becomes your station, if you desire to please your employers,...”

“Be very careful of your reputation for virtue and discretion in regard of the other sex;...”

“Intemperance or excess is a pleasurable evil,--it...enchants and destroys.”

“The virtue of silence is highly commendable,...”

The role of the domestic servant in the English home had a long, long history. During the Regency, no one could have foreseen that in one hundred years the institution of ‘service’ would be threatened, and that in one hundred and fifty years it would all but have disappeared.

Another time we will discuss the individual duties of the various servants. The amount of work they were assigned was as staggering as the moral precepts heaped upon them. The Adamses’ lists of servants’ duties and their instructions on careful and proper fulfilment of the tasks are thorough and complete. In the end analysis, with so much advice, how could a servant ever go wrong?

Til next time,



Patricia Barraclough said...

Nice exposition on the hiring and behavior of servants. It would certainly be nice to have them, even today when we have so many appliances that make them less necessary. Look forward to the next article.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks for the kind words, Patricia! The subject of servants is so interesting, and I agree it would be nice to have them, although the lack of privacy would be another issue entirely. It's unfortunate that the idea of 'service' is so unpopular in our world. And it's odd in a way, because we all 'serve' in one way or another.