Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wages
The hierarchy of British domestic
servants in a large manor in 1890 and their wages
During the 1990s and early 2000s Hollywood and Britain released several successful movies about life in the 1800s. Public interest in these films prompted BBC to produce made for TV reality shows showing what life was like during this era, notably The 1900 House and The Manor House. These shows got me wondering about the hierarchy of British domestic servants at the turn of the last century and how much they earned. This webpage is a condensation of what I learned from several written and Internet sources (notably: Daily Life in Victorian England by Christopher Hibbert, The Victorian Household by Marion Lochead and the website Victorian Servants at www.ourwardfamily.com/victorian_servants.htm as well as material gleaned from a dozen other lesser sites.
The chart that follows shows the hierarchy of the servants of a major manor house in 1890. Such an estate would consist of a family headed by a gentleman of titled nobility, such as a duke, or an extremely wealthy business man, such as the president of Lloyds of London or the Bank of England. Men of this level would have incomes of at least 10,000 pounds sterling a year, equivalent today after adjusting for the 1890 exchange rate of $4.87 US dollars per pound and a century of inflation to $1,200,000 per year. If this amount seems too small to support at large household of servants (around 1890 the Duke of Westminster had a staff of 50 indoor and another 50 outdoor servants) it has to be acknowledged that the disparity between the rich and the poor was much greater then than now. The average servant earned a mere 25 pounds a year or $2,700 in today's economy. Cheap labor is what made large staffs possible.
It was impossible to categorize every type of servant at the turn of the century. Many great houses had specialty niches into which they placed a servant that might not fit in any other house. While the basic structure of the servant hierarchy was similar from house to house, the complexity of the great houses was such that a one-size-fits-all approach was not possible. The following chart focuses only on the principle servants.
Two salaries are listed for each position. The first is what the position paid in 1890 pounds, the second is what that salary would equal today after adjusting for the 1890 exchange rate and inflation to 2005. These values are based on the averages cited in several different references and should only be considered as approximations. Individual salaries varied significantly depending on the servant's appearance, attitude, capabilities and the size of the house in which they worked.
Responsible for managing the farms, collecting rents
and undertaking all those activities associated with
making the estate profitable. This would be a highly-
educated gentleman who was regarded not as a
servant but a professional employee with a status
higher than the family lawyer. In addition to an
annual salary of 100-300 pounds ($11,000-
$33,000) he would have a private house on
Responsible for all purchasing, hiring, firing and paying
the servant staff. He would not be considered a servant
but a professional man like a lawyer. Fifty to 100 pounds
($5,500-$11,000) per year.
The highest ranking official servant. Responsible for running
the house. Forty to 60 pounds ($4,300-$6,400) per year.
He also received considerable "gratuity" money from venders
selling goods to maintain the house. In smaller estates the
butler assumed the house steward's responsibilities.
Responsible for the female staff and maintaining the house's furnishings.
Her salary was usually 5 to 10 pounds less than the butler's
($3,700-$5,400) per year.
Cook or Chef
In charge of the kitchen staff and responsible for preparing
the family's meals. (An under cook would prepare meals for him
and the staff.) Because food quality was an important method
for impressing guests, chefs often earned more than butlers even
though they ranked below them. A cook for a modest house might only
make 30 pounds ($3,200) a year while a famous chef for a royal family
might earn as much as 300 ($32,000.)
Lady's Maid and Valet
Their main job was to be a private servant for the lady or master
of the house: assisting them with dressing, caring for their cloths, being a
general companion and even performing secretarial duties. They were hired
by the Lady and Master of the house rather than by the butler, housekeeper
or house steward. Typical salaries were 20-30 pounds ($2,100-3,200) per year.
Next in line to replace the butler. His main job was to be tall, handsome
and represent the estate's grandeur. He accompanied the lady of the house
on shopping expeditions, served the family meals and assisted the butler
in his duties. Oddly, his responsibility did not include heavy work such
as carrying coal or water. These were left the the female staff. His salary
was around 30 pounds ($3,200) a year. Many footman's salaries were
based one how tall they were rather than how well they did their work.
The taller and more impressive they were the more they received. Their
income was supplemented by 5-15 pounds ($500-$1,500) a year in tips
and other gifts from lady of the house.
Similar to the first footman but in more of an apprenticeship status.
Twenty-five pound ($2,700) per year. Premium salaries were paid
to a pair of first and second footman whose size and appearance
made them look like twins. The idea was that they were most
impressive if, like book ends, they matched.
In charge of the nursing staff in houses with
several nurses. Many of these nurses, charged with
watching over young children, were themselves
only 12-14 years old. Head nurses earned 25 pounds
($2,700) per year.
Additional male staff for opening doors, waiting at table,
assisting gentleman or accompanying ladies as needed.
Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year.
Responsible for cleaning bedrooms. Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year.
I imagine they were slightly higher than parlour maids because chamber
maids were in more intimate contact with the family, or at least the
remnants of their presence.
Responsible for cleaning and maintaining the sitting rooms, drawing rooms,
etc. of the house. Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year.
General purpose worker. Sixteen pounds ($1,700) a year
Worked in either the house or the kitchen as needed.
Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year.
Responsible for raising the babies and young children of the house.
Ten to 15 pounds ($1,100-$1,600) per year depending on
age and ability.
Apprentice to the chef. Prepares meals for the staff. Worked for low
wages to work his way up to a full chef's job. Fifteen pounds
($1,600) per year.
Assists in kitchen work. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year.
Dish washer. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) per year
Washing and ironing. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) a year.
Page or Tea Boy
Apprentice footman. Typically 10 to 16 years old. Eight to 16 pounds
($860-$1,700) per year depending on age, height, appearance and abilities.
Head Groom or Stable Master
Responsible for running the stables. Positionally he might rank
as upper staff but because he wasn't part of the inside staff
he didn't have their privileges. However, as master of his own
staff he undoubtedly occupied a similar status. Thirty to 50
pounds ($3,100- $5,300) a year.
Cared for horses: grooming, saddling, etc. fifteen pounds
($1,600) per year.
Cleaned stables and etc. Six to 12 pounds ($640-$1,300)
per year depending on age and ability. Many times they
started when they were only 10.
Like the head groom the head gardener was management and
therefor upper staff, yet his position outside the house prohibited
him from occupying a position in the house's upper
servant's. Also like the stable master his position of authority
had its compensations. Because a grand estate's grounds were
as important to impressing guests as the chef's skill, the head
gardener could earn a very high wage, as much as 120 pounds
($12,800) per year.
Responsible for maintaining the bird population of the estate
so that the Master and guests would have game birds, such
as pheasant, to hunt. Thirty to 50 pounds ($3,100-
$5,400) per year.
The general laborers under the head gardener. They'd do everything
from planting trees to cutting grass. Eight to 16 pounds ($850-
$1,700) per year depending on age and ability.
I'm listing governesses as a separate category because they
existed in a kind of social limbo. Typically they were unmarried
daughters of gentlemen who for one reason or another had to
go into service to support themselves. Because they officially
belonged to the genteel class it would be unspeakable for them
to accept service as a maid. As a governess they were able
to make use of their education and in theory retain a little of
their dignity. In reality their lives were miserable. They were looked
down on by the house's family as being from a failed family. Equally, the
staff looked down on them because they represented hypocrisy: they
worked for wages like any servant yet were supposed to be genteel.
Their job was to care for the family's teenage girls. (Teenage males
were sent off to boarding school.) Their salaries were 25 pounds
($2,700) per year. I found no references that clearly stated whether
they were considered upper or lower staff. Movies that show governesses
walking through the front door and assuming a status high above that of
house servants are not consistent with the lives described in my references.
This is another servant hard to categorize. His job was to guard the main entrance to the estate and often lived in a small house attached to the gate. Yet he would be classed as unskilled labor and as such would occupy a low position on the servant's hierarchy and receive a commensurately low salary, perhaps as little as 10 pounds ($1,100) per year.
One might wonder how people could live on such small incomes. Even when the value of room, board and clothes were added in these salaries still represent a poverty existence by today's standards. Part of the reason they were able to survive is because their lives were so simple (no car to pay off, no insurance, no phone bills, no electric bills, no water, waste and property tax bills, etc.) that they didn't require as much. Additionally, with the typical work schedule being 16-hours a day, 7-days a week they didn't have much time to spend their income on entertainment... of which there wasn't much.
Such conditions seem horrendous to us today, but it needs to be remembered that the work ethic was completely different 100 years ago. Today we work with the mind set that we do so mainly to get ahead in the world and pay for possessions and activities that bring us pleasure or satisfaction. Back then people worked to survive. Without any form of social security if you didn't earn a salary you starved to death, or froze to death in winter, or died of disease. There were no societal safety nets to catch you if you lost your job and nor unions to fund your retirement.
While the life of a servant was unbelievably hard, many nonetheless considered themselves lucky to have food to eat and a roof over their heads regardless of the pay. They had a perspective born from a desperate need for survival and this went a long way toward sustaining them. Additionally, many began service at very young ages and were conditioned to accept it as a natural lifestyle.
Victorian Servants at www.ourwardfamily.com/victorian_servants.htm is an outstanding webpage for detailed information about the duties and life styles of most of the servants mentioned on this page.
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