The Housekeeper


[The housekeeper] “ought to be a steady middle-aged woman, of great experience in her profession and a tolerable knowledge of the world. – In her conduct, she should be moral, exemplary and assiduous, as the harmony, comfort and economy of the family will greatly depend on her example…no occurrence can be too trifling for her attention”

The Complete Servant (1825), p.27



The housekeeper was the most senior member of the female house staff. She directed and supervised the housemaids and, when no steward was employed, she was responsible for the management of the house and the accounts. Her main duty was the care of the household linen and the china closet, to which she held the keys. She was also responsible for the household stores, ordering fresh supplies of soap, oil, candles, groceries and any other products required in the house. She had to have a good head for figures, as settling bills with tradesmen and securing the best prices at the market were part of her daily routine.                                            


The housekeeper also had other talents. Her culinary tasks were mainly restricted to the more intricate items of cookery, such as pastry, confectionary, pickles and preserves, which she made in the stillroom. A knowledge of first-aid was desirable as she was expected to distil ‘healing waters’ and concoct simple remedies for the infirm, such as liquorice lozenges and ‘scurvy-grass wine’. She also made perfumes, cosmetics, pot-pourri and essential oils for the house, while in some homes, she did the bulk of the needlework.


Her formal duties included inspecting the lower staff every morning in her parlour, overseeing their work and presiding over their meals. She sat at the head of the table in the Servant’s Hall and was responsible for carving the meat. After dinner, she served desert to the upper servants in her parlour, known by her irreverent inferiors as the ‘Pug’s Parlour’. She made decisions regarding the arrangement of bedrooms, including the allocation of rooms to guests and their servants, in consultation with the mistress. In the best houses, it was her custom to receive guests and show them to their rooms, and also to receive the Master or Mistress when they returned home from any visit, by standing at the top of the main stairs. 


The string of keys at her waist was a symbol of her authority, and as a mark of respect, she and the cook were always referred to as ‘Mrs’, regardless of whether or not they were married. Dressed in her formidable black dress with an immaculate white frilled cap of lace, she was often a figure of awe to lower servants.



Housekeepers at Emo Court

The housekeeper we know most about at Emo Court was Edith Adams. She was employed from 1911 to 1920, and generally supervised three housemaids and a scullery maid, as well as the work of the charwoman and laundry-maid. From the servants’ wages book for the years 1914-20, we know that her pay was ₤65 per year, and unlike some of the housemaids in her charge, she received no pay rise during this time. She was born in England, and was 40 years old and unmarried when the census was taken in 1911.


The diary of Viscount Carlow who grew up at Emo in the early 1900s, includes a recollection of her kindness to him as a young boy:

          “Mrs. Adams, the housekeeper, made me a present of a hand painted lamp shade executed by herself. It portrayed a cluster of multi-coloured apples, of brilliant and totally unnatural hue, but to me they were a work of art, and I valued the gift above all my other possessions. While at tea, I used to gaze at this shade with pride and wonder, taking in all its detail.”


Other housekeepers included Mrs.Hughes((1860) and Mrs Slator, who helped organise the servants’ ball of 1892.



The 1900 inventory

Among the contents of the housekeeper’s parlour listed in the inventory of 1900 were nine servants’ tablecloths, numerous pairs of sheets and pillow-slips, 17 large tablecloths, over 100 towels and 240 napkins. The furniture of the room included a large mahogany table and 13 hair-seated chairs, as well as a sofa, three armchairs and six glass cases in which the housekeeper kept the family china, plate, teapots and candlesticks.