Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Butler Did It!

Since most of us don’t have servants, it’s sometimes tough to picture what people in service in the grand houses of the past actually did all day. If you've read my post on the housemaid’s job, you may have concluded that the upper servants had a far easier time of it. And that’s true, though it depends on how large the household actually was.

In the grandest of houses, the head of the staff would be a house steward who was in charge of hiring and firing servants and paying the tradesman’s bills, but in the merely grand houses, those duties would be split between the butler – assisted perhaps by an under-butler – and the housekeeper.

While the housekeeper is (naturally) in charge of the house, the butler is in charge of the dining room – including protecting, polishing, and counting the silver and maintaining the wine cellar – and overseeing all the male servants. If there was no valet to wait on the master of the house, the butler took care of his clothing and dressing room.

While the pattern of a butler’s day varied greatly depending on the size of the household and the activities of the family, here’s a pretty normal pattern for the butler in a medium-sized house:

It is the butler’s duty to set the breakfast table, bring up the food and drink, wait on table, and clear after the family has finished – a pattern which is repeated at luncheon, dinner, and with the evening tea tray just before bedtime. After each meal he supervises the cleaning of all the silver, china, glasses, and serving dishes and makes sure they are put away in their proper places.

Between meals, he takes up his other duties. He take care of the master's clothes, laying out what he'll need next, cleaning or brushing or mending, and straightening the dressing room. He checks the wine cellar, tending to any wines which may be off in taste or color, or bottling wines which were delivered in casks. He polishes the silver (no tarnish-proof strips in those days!), and he’s on duty to answer the door from morning till night. After the household has retired, he makes sure all the menservants have gone to bed, then locks up the doors and windows before (finally!) retiring himself.

By the Victorian era, when paying calls over tea became a standard afternoon activity, the butler had it a bit easier. The fashion for Victorian ladies was to have a very attractive parlormaid who would answer the door and wait on the ladies and their afternoon callers at tea time. Since the butler was not required, he could rest for an hour.

Pay during the Regency period? From 30 to 80 pounds sterling per year – depending on the size of the family and the household staff. But he also received his master’s cast-off clothes, as well as the leftover pieces of the wax candles, once they were too short to burn! 

Sources: The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams, published 1825
Etiquette, by Emily Post, published 1922


  1. Hi, Leigh, I look forward to reading your new material. (I'm not really anonymous; I'm Vicki Bendau and I have such trouble using my name to comment here!)

    Your posts (I also looked at 'a day in the life of a housemaid') reminded me of a 2001 Robert Altman film 'Gosford Park.' A whodunit ala Agatha Christie, it takes place at a country manor in the 1930s, depicting the decline of the Empire and its peerage system.

    The visuals and the motion in the film are stunning. It shows the busyness of the servants as they perform their myriad and endless tasks; their nearly constant movement up and down staircases, traversing hallways, and in and out of rooms.

    Contrast that with the leisurely patronizing of the elites to their inferiors. Imagine a dowager Maggie Smith ordering her next day's breakfast in bed to a young girl brand new to the household and barely out of her teens.

    A couple of darker themes explored in the movie are the expectation of the young maids to provide sexual favors to the master of the house and his male cohorts. Also, it is brought out that the demands of the job made it impossible for man and woman servants working in different households to marry each other.

    I have not read much Regency romance, except for yours, and I wonder if those themes are ever explored. It's okay with me if they are not because I definitely prefer my entertainment on the lighthearted side, and I like to see my characters survive their tribulations at least until the end of the book!

  2. Gosford Park did an excellent job of portraying the life of an English country manor in the years between the wars. The contrasts between upstairs and downstairs are harsh.

    Some historical romance does explore the darker side of society, but I think we're more likely to see that side of things in Victorian-era stories than in the Regency (though I'm not sure why). I think we're likely to see more of it in future books -- partly because readers tire of themes and so authors move on to explore new areas which are often edgier and darker.

    Though there will always be Regency enthusiasts like me who enjoy reading and writing about dukes and earls and viscounts (and have created so many fictional ones that England would actually sink under their weight if they were all real!), there's room for the darker side as well.