Housemaids rose with the lark at 5.30 or , as they were expected to sweep, dust and arrange the downstairs rooms before the family came down for breakfast. Their first task was to open the shutters in the drawing, living and dining rooms, before emptying the grates and lighting the fires. Hearth rugs were rolled up and shaken outside before the grates were emptied and the fireplaces cleaned and blackleaded. As nothing went to waste in the Victorian household, yesterday’s ashes were carefully sieved using a special contraption called an ‘ash box’ and the cinders were used to light the next fire. The maid then began her strange task of scattering damp tea leaves on the carpets before sweeping them with a carpet-broom (the tea leaves were believed to help trap the dirt). Next, the floors were swept and polished, and the house was dusted – not an easy task in the age of Victorian clutter, especially when breakages could lead to instant dismissal!
A product used by housemaids
(Leinster Express March 1892)
The maid then prepared the upstairs dressing rooms for the lady and master and their attendants, carrying up jugs of hot water, filling coal scuttles, lighting fires and replenishing supplies of soap and towels. The maid had her breakfast at , after which she attended to the bedrooms, emptying chamber pots, making the beds, dusting and cleaning. Making beds was a tiresome task in the Victorian age, as there were often three mattresses to be turned: a straw mattress at the bottom, which was turned once a week, a middle mattress of horsehair, which was turned daily, and an upper mattress of feathers, which had to be pummelled into shape until it was free of lumps and light as a soufflé. All the while, the maid kept a vigilant eye out for the dreaded bedbug, and should one be found, the bed was completely taken apart.
|In the mornings, the housemaid wore a grey
or pink-and-white candy striped dress, with a bonnet and a plain white
apron. This was undoubtedly quite dusty after her morning’s work, so after
dinner she changed into her black and white
attire, which had to remain spotless at all times. Her afternoon was spent
at needlework, under the direction of the housekeeper. She was also expected
to answer the bell whenever her employer called, and to serve afternoon
to the mistress in the drawing room. At about , she prepared the dressing rooms prior to
the lady and gentleman dressing for dinner, and while dinner was in progress
cleaned the dressing room and bedroom, turning down the bed, closing the curtains, lighting the fire and adding hot water bottles to the beds if required.
In addition, housemaids often helped the butler to lay the table, and might hand around the drinks when there was a ball or soiree. At least once a week, they also had a ‘general cleaning’ day, when curtains were taken down and shaken free of dust, carpets were rolled up and taken outside to be beaten, windows were cleaned, and floors and fireplaces were scoured and scrubbed. The life of a housemaid was by no means easy and if she was lucky she might retire, exhausted, to her cold, shared bedroom before , in order to get enough sleep before her early start the next morning.
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As English housemaids were considered cleaner than their Irish counterparts, they were usually preferred in grand Irish houses. In a letter to her sister, dated 1781, the 1st Countess of Portarlington wrote,
am out of all patience with the slovenliness and dirt of the people in
Another letter from the same year mentions an incident involving negligent housemaids during a visit by Miss Herbert, a frequent and much-loved guest of the Countess:
“Miss Herbert, who is always cobbling aprons, finished one the other day which she was mighty proud of. When the nurse brought the child into the room she said it was to beg her not to be angry with the maids, who amongst them burnt a dozen great holes in this fine apron” (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, I.174)
Thankfully, Miss Herbert saw the funny side of the incident, and the housemaids got off without being too severely reprimanded!
We know the names
of some of the housemaids at
Housemaids listed in the 1901 Census
In the 1901 census,
two housemaids are listed at
Anne Conway, a
retired housemaid of the age of 80, is also listed in the 1901 census. Anne
was a local woman of Catholic faith. She had served as the housemaid of the
3rd Earl from 1854, who acknowledged her many years of faithful
service by leaving her a generous annuity of ₤20 per annum in his will
(dated 1889). As she never married, Anne was allowed to stay on at
Housemaids listed in the 1911 Census
The 1911 census
lists eight servants at
The Servants’ Wages Book
A single servants’
wages book, covering the years 1914-20, survives from
During the period covered by the wages book, many of the housemaids received a pay-rise. While Florence Page earned ₤32 a year for the whole period of her employment, her successor Jesse Smith received two successive pay-rises, earning ₤40 a year by 1920. Similarly, Martha Hempenstall who began at ₤18 per year was earning ₤28 by 1920. In comparison to the upper housemaids, many of the under housemaids at Emo stayed only for a short time. While this was perhaps due to their more demeaning work and lower pay, it also reflects wider social trends of the time, as domestic service had become less popular as a profession in the early 20th century as girls turned instead towards other occupations such as shop or factory work.