Housemaids rose with the lark at 5.30 or 6am, 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 8am, 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 midday 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 tea at 4pm to the mistress in the drawing room. At about 6.30pm, she prepared the dressing rooms prior to the lady and gentleman dressing for dinner, and while dinner was in progress she again

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 10 pm, in order to get enough sleep before her early start the next morning.  



Advertisement in the Leinster Express

December 1876



Housemaids at Dawson’s Court

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,

          I am out of all patience with the slovenliness and dirt of the people in Ireland, and I have just been hiring a housemaid who is an English woman, in the hopes of getting my house kept clean.” (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, I.167)


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!



Housemaids at Emo Court

We know the names of some of the housemaids at Emo Court thanks to the 1901 and 1911 census records, and a servants’ wages book which has survived for the years 1914-20.



Housemaids listed in the 1901 Census

In the 1901 census, two housemaids are listed at Emo Court: Annie Collins, aged 27, from Meath, and Ellen Whitehorn, age 20, from England. However, as the Dawson-Damer family were away from home at the time of the census, only a skeleton staff remained at the house. It is therefore possible that other housemaids were employed at Emo, who were away with the family on census day. 

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 Emo Court upon retirement. In the 1900 Inventory, her room is specifically named as ‘Anne Conway’s Room’ suggesting that she had long been a fixture at the house by that time.


Housemaids listed in the 1911 Census

The 1911 census lists eight servants at Emo Court, including three housemaids and a scullery maid. Once again, the family were away on census day, so this list does not represent the full house staff. The head housemaid Margaret Wilson, aged 38, was from Wicklow. She would have supervised the work of the 2nd and 3rd housemaids: Sadie Williams, aged 20, who was also from Wicklow, and Annie McKeown, aged 18, who was from Tipperary. All three maids worked under the watchful eye of the housekeeper, Edith Adams. Meanwhile, in the kitchen an 18 year-old local girl named Brigit Fitzpatrick served as a scullery maid, while another maid, Annie White, a 17 year-old from England, worked exclusively in the nursery, where she assisted the nurse, Annie Turrell. Each of the housemaids was single and Protestant. The scullery maid, Brigit Fitzpatrick was Catholic and came from the Emo area.



The Servants’ Wages Book

A single servants’ wages book, covering the years 1914-20, survives from Emo Court. From this we know the names and rates of pay of some of the housemaids who worked there. Two housemaids seem to have been employed most of the time, under the supervision of Edith Adams, the housekeeper. The upper housemaids were Florence Page (1914-17) and Jesse Smith (1917-20). Under housemaids included E. Bingham (1914), Mary Ransome (1915), E. Elliott (1915), Martha Hempenstall (1917-20), Dorothy Buckley (1919) and Rose Cardigan (1919).


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.