The History of Household Staff



History of household staff

From the Middle Ages, Royalty and the landed gentry have enjoyed being cosseted by household staff. In the earliest days, the upper echelons of the household hierarchy were drawn from the local landowners and the minor members of the master’s family. The highest ranking household staff were often of noble birth, they were both attendants and companions, and in being attached to a wealthy and powerful family, enjoyed privileges and learned skills otherwise unavailable to them. In return they added prestige and allegiance to their master’s household. The British Royal Household is the last example of a household supervised by persons of rank. 

From the early eighteenth century, with the country’s wealth beginning to slowly seep through the classes, more household staff were engaged. They came from humbler origins, and for the first time women were able to take positions that afforded them responsibilities hitherto unimaginable. By the end of the eighteenth century a number of books had been written that focused on the newly created middle classes who had no experience of employing household staff. These books became the best sellers of their time. They educated employers on household management, and advised ‘how to handle staff’. They also taught servants the correct execution of their duties.

By the Victorian era, female servants had increased in number and importance. New technology and manufactured goods were being introduced; the first mechanical carpet sweepers and knife sharpeners were enthusiastically embraced. This however, did not decrease the number of household staff required, it merely meant that the standard of living was raised… Curtains were still drawn in the mornings and fires lit, luncheon and afternoon tea were served as the norm – each new fashion only increased the workload and pushed standards yet higher.

The importance of having good household staff was recognized in ‘The Servants’ Practical Guide, a handbook of ‘Duties and Rules’, published in 1880 where it was observed: ‘that the manner in which servants perform their duties’ greatly influences the smooth working of the household machinery, without the constant co-operation of well-trained servants, household bliss is at risk of being thrown out of gear, leaving the best bred household hostess at a great disadvantage’.

Interestingly, the legendary Mrs. Beeton, and other authors, based their descriptions of the duties and practices of servants in middle class homes, on the example of what servants performed in aristocratic residences. The readers were thus unknowingly educated in the ways of the British upper classes.

And so it reached the point that every fine home in central London had at least one servant; most had dozens. Including, grooms and stable boys, housekeeper and a team of maids, chef and her team of helpers, along with footmen and houseboys, all managed by the Butler.

The huge team was necessary because of the sheer amount of hours required to complete each task. There were no electric gadgets to assist with daily cleaning chores; laundry was a slow and laborious chore, chef worked without the aid of refrigeration or food processors! Certain ‘dips’ hadn’t been invented, so the silver took days to clean. Gas and paraffin lanterns, along with coal burning fireplaces maintained a monumental workload for the shoulders of our bygone contemporaries.

Today, in the very largest homes of London there might still be a dozen members of household staff, but today’s household is far more likely to have 2 or 3 multi-talented, multi-skilled and well-paid employees. However, household staff have needed to evolve quickly. Jeeves must still be able to lay a table and serve beautifully if he is going to succeed. However, with cities becoming even bigger melting pots of cultural diversity, Jeeves is often required to speak two or more languages, be a wiz on the laptop, be able to locate ‘anything’ using established contacts or those well branded ‘search engines’, manage people with the diplomacy of an angel, be up-to-date on the latest security issues whilst keeping ‘Sir’ informed of what’s new in the fashion houses...     How things have changed!



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