Thursday 28 April 2016

Domestic Servants: Victorian Women's Most Common Occupation

"Wanted:  In a Gentleman's Family, a short distance from Hastings, a good PARLOUR MAID.  She must be accustomed to the care of plate, glass and waiting a table.  There are four sitting rooms to keep with stoves.  A thoroughly respectable, steady young woman, of religious character desired." (

Domestic servants comprised the largest occupation among women in Victorian Britain.  In 1850, the city of London already employed over 120,000 domestic servants.  The wealthiest families hired butlers, footmen, governesses, skilled cooks, housekeepers, senior parlour maids, head housemaids and lady's maids.  Less well to do families hired kitchen maids, scullery maids, laundresses, nursemaids, housemaids and stable boys.  

When a family's income reached 150 p.a., it hired a young teenager as a general servant.  She was expected to work 14 to 16 hour days at tasks such as washing up, cleaning out grates, sweeping and scrubbing floors, carrying buckets of coal up and down stairs, cans of hot water and breakfasts. Houses often included several stories, keeping the servant hopping.

My great-great grandmother was a laundress in Victorian London.  In an era when families were large and technology was limited, washing clothes was a monumental task:

"The washing machine itself didn't become available until the 1880's -- and it was a far cry from today's modern electric marvel.  It took a woman with some arm muscles to work that thing all day long!  Many women forewent the machine until the 20th Century because it had a tendency to tear clothes or leave rust marks.  And the washing machine was only the beginning.  The clothes had to be soaked, rinsed several times, boiled, starched, blued or bleached, wrung, hung up to dry and ironed."

In comparison, the cook's job might be light work next to that of the laundress.

Domestic servants, whose numbers peaked in 1900, all but disappeared by the middle of the 20th Century.  According to one blogger, the two main reasons for the decline have been social and technological.  The upper classes no longer entertain at home but go to restaurants, bars or cafes. Machines (hot water heaters, dishwashers, washers, dryers, vacuums) have replaced a lot of the work that domestic servants used to do (

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