Hiring Servants


Girls generally went into domestic service at a very young age. Information on jobs was passed on through friends or family already in service, through visiting tradesmen, or by the local clergyman’s wife. In country villages like Emo, ladies from big houses often kept one eye on their prayer book while the other scanned the congregation for prospective staff! If personal contacts failed, servants (and prospective employers) often resorted to attending the annual ‘hiring fair’ or ‘Mop’, or placed an advertisement in the local paper. Numerous advertisements for servants can be seen in the Leinster Express, and many specify that servant girls must be ‘good, active and strong’.  Girls might also find employment via servant training schools and registry offices, which became popular in both England and Ireland in the mid-late 19th century.



Hiring at Emo Court

While youngsters on the estate might be taken on in the house as a page, 4th housemaid or scullery maid, they seldom rose to higher positions. One exception at Emo is Ned Whelan, who rose from being a farm labourer on the estate to the ranks of footman and temporary valet. More usually, the upper staff at Emo were specially sought from abroad. Letters from the 1st Earl of Portarlington to his wife mention hiring ‘a cheap French cook’ and English housemaids, who were considered cleaner than their Irish counterparts!


Many of the house staff at Emo Court listed in the 1901 and 1911 census records were not locally born - in 1911, all of the staff listed were Protestant and many were English, including the housekeeper, two nurses and the footman. Two of the housemaids were born in Wicklow, and may have been recruited by the means described above or via institutions such as the Protestant Servants’ Registration Office in South Anne St, in Dublin.   


Prospective servants were required to provide a character reference from their previous employer, and lazy or dishonest servants were often known by reputation long before they applied for a job. A handwritten note in the Servants’ Wages Book of Emo Court, for example, reads,

          “On no account employ this girl Miss May Bailey, Rectory Lodge, Glanmine, Co. Cork”.


In the early 20th century, securing good house-staff became more difficult as domestic service became less popular. Many girls resented the drudgery, regimentation and unbecoming uniforms of domestics, preferring instead to work in shops or factories. The difficulties of securing staff can be seen in the servants’ wages book for Emo Court. In 1919, for example, when the under-housemaid Martha Hempenstall left service, she was replaced by two maids in succession, each of whom stayed for just a few months. The position of under-housemaid was not filled again until March 1920 when Martha herself came back, significantly, to a pay rise!