Food in the Servants’ Hall


A Typical Servants’ Hall Weekly Menu

Sunday         roast beef, potatoes, plum pudding

Monday        meat pies, vegetables, simnel cake

Tuesday       leg of mutton, vegetables, apple pudding

Wednesday   boiled beef and cabbage, porter cake

Thursday      pea soup, steak and kidney pie, rice pudding

Friday          Irish stew, fruit pudding

Saturday      leg of mutton, vegetables, apple tart


Breakfast: porridge, bacon and eggs, or bread with a slice of cold meat pie; fish occasionally

Supper: cold meat, bread, pudding and leftovers from the Lord’s table




Servants had to be well fed to endure long working hours. The first meal of the day for the servants was breakfast, which was eaten at 8am in the servants’ hall or at the kitchen table. By this point in the morning, all but the highest ranking staff had done a morning’s work and were undoubtedly ravenous. In most wealthy houses, food for servants was abundant, if somewhat below the standard served ‘upstairs’. For breakfast, the servants ate bread and meat, the meat carved by the cook from the previous day’s roast or served in a slice of cold pie. Alternatively, they ate porridge, followed by bacon and eggs. In the 18th century, servants drank beer with breakfast, a practice which continued in some houses into the 19th century.
Meat pie (Mrs Beeton)

Tea and sugar remained expensive in the mid-19th century, and were not always supplied by the mistress. If servants were not given a tea and sugar allowance, they reused the tea leaves from the pots served upstairs. Tea was, of course, poured by the cook, as a mark of her seniority in the kitchen.



The servants had their dinner at midday, in contrast to the family’s lunch served at one. This midday-meal consisted of roast or boiled meat served with vegetables, followed by a dessert of apple tart, plum pudding, or cake. In the absence of safe clean drinking water, dinner was washed down with beer, which also provided valuable nutrients. An allowance of three pints a day for men, and one or two pints for women was usual.


Roast beef (Mrs Beeton)

The servants ate their main meal in the servants’ hall, after which the upper servants retired to the housekeeper’s room for dessert and wine. Dinner was a solemn affair, presided over by the housekeeper and butler. Dinner was laid on the table by the cook, while the beer was drawn by the first footman or under-butler. Before grace, the butler carved the meat while the housekeeper or cook served the vegetables. In some houses, when the butler lowered his knife and fork the meal was officially over, so if the butler was a fast eater, the rest were forced to keep pace! When the senior staff retired to the housekeeper’s room, the lower servants remained for dessert, breathing a sigh of relief, no doubt, as the main meal had been served in near silence, the butler and housekeeper monitoring the conversation. With the upper servants gone, the rest could talk freely without watching their Ps and Qs.

In the servants’ hall, the hierarchy of the servant world was strictly enforced. Servants entered and left the hall in strict order of rank: lower servants trooped into the hall first, remaining standing until their superiors were seated. Seating was also decided by status, and naturally the housekeeper and butler sat at the head of the table. The cook sat to the right of the housekeeper, the lady’s maid to her left, while at the opposite end, the coachman and first footman had pride of place next to the butler. When guests were staying, their servants also ate in the servants’ hall, and the usual order of seating was altered according to their rank (and the rank of their mistress or master).

Boiled neck of mutton with caper sauce

(Mrs Beeton)

If the Earl of Portarlington entertained a Duke, for example, (as in 1876), his first footman gave up his seat to the first footman of the Duke. Serving was also done in order of rank, with the lowest ranking servant served last.
In some houses, the servants ate almost as well as their employers and shared some of the same courses – at Longleat in England for example, servants enjoyed sumptuous four course dinners. More commonly, however, the servants ate simply, with roast mutton, veal or Irish stew as standard fare, sometimes alternating with fish. At Abbeyleix, for example, large quantities of herrings were bought regularly for the servants’ hall. There, one wonders if the ‘poor veal for broth’ (the side, head and feet) which often appears in the account books ended up in the servants’ hall too. Certainly, poor veal was served up to seasonal workers such as shearers (who were also provided with bread and beer or whiskey). Meat was served with seasonal vegetables, drawn fresh from the gardens, and was lavishly smothered in sauce. Cooked meat which was not used up at dinner generally reappeared for the servants’ supper and breakfast.



Five O’clock Tea and Supper

Five o’clock tea was the most relaxed meal of the day, for unless there had been a special lunch upstairs, many of the servants would have had an hour’s rest beforehand. Like the afternoon tea served to the family, the servants’ tea was accompanied by bread and homemade cakes.


Simnel cake (Mrs Beeton)

Supper was generally a simple meal of cold meat and rice or suet pudding. In most houses, however, servants supplemented the food given to them with leftovers from meals served upstairs, and supper was often made up of such leftovers. The array of mouth-watering dishes served to the family for lunch and dinner must have whetted the servants’ appetites enormously. While the inexperienced maid was disappointed when dish after tasty dish returned to the kitchen almost untouched, as the family and their guests paced their way through a five or seven course meal, the experienced servant licked his lips at the prospect of a more exciting supper!


Thus, servants might pick at cold chicken, venison, or pheasant, or taste delicacies which they would never have had access to at home. They also enjoyed occasional treats of ices and soufflés or other items which could not keep after a dinner party. Such treats were a rare luxury, otherwise reserved for the special occasion that was the annual servants’ ball.


Food at the Servants’ Ball

The servants’ ball at Emo Court was an annual event under the 3rd Earl of Portarlington and this tradition was continued by his successors. Although we have no record of the food served at these events, lists of food and spirits bought for such events at other grand houses give us some indication. While the servants’ ball was a special day for many reasons, allowing servants to socialise, dance, and be merry, it was also no doubt, the culinary highlight of their year.


At the 1892 ball at Emo, the servants’ hall was elaborately decorated for the occasion and a sumptuous supper was served. At such events, beef or pork dishes came with rich, creamy sauces, while seasonal favourites such as roast goose, turkey stuffed with chestnuts, or spiced ox tongue were served along with vegetables, pies and tarts. This was followed by a dessert of jelly, blancmange, water-ices, sorbets or rich fruit cake served with cream. A large bowl of punch laced with gin or whiskey and perhaps garnished with home-grown fruit may have served for refreshment. At Abbeyleix, for example, the household accounts include entries of whiskey bought ‘for servants’ punch’.

In 1892, on that special night at Emo, the refreshments were served in the billiards room, a room usually reserved for the family. The rich food and drink supplied at the servants’ ball provided a welcome change from the usual fare served to servants, allowing them for one brief moment to live like ‘them upstairs’.

Elaborate fruit jelly (Mrs Beeton)