Servant Life

Work Life Free Time Accommodation Wages & Perks

Work Life


Long Days and Tiring Work

Life in the Irish country house was strictly regimented for both family and servants. The Victorian obsession with timekeeping and efficiency meant that servants had a tight work schedule. Lower servants normally arose at about 6am to prepare for the upper staff as well as for the family. They worked a long day, finishing at around ten pm, or later if the family was entertaining. After dinner parties, for example, all dirty dishes had to be cleaned before morning to avoid disrupting the following day’s schedule.


Indoors, the work of female servants was often more physically demanding than that of the male staff. While the butler, valet and footman had light duties, such as waiting at table, dressing the master or accompanying the carriage, laundry-maids, for example, had notoriously arduous work, scrubbing and lifting wet washing, and ironing with heavy irons in hot, steamy rooms. Scullery maids spent their day slaving in the hot kitchen, while housemaids carried heavily laden trays and scoured floors until their hands and knees were sore.



The Advantages of Servant Life

Despite long days, physically demanding work and few opportunities for socialising, there were, however, advantages to living in a great country house. Servants were often better fed than at home, given four ample meals a day with beer, and their job offered security and relatively good living conditions. As the Earl and Countess of Portarlington spent a great deal of time at their other houses in Dublin and London, some servants were lucky enough to be chosen to accompany them on these trips. For those that remained at home, ‘board wages’, which could be saved up, provided some compensation, while the absence of the lord and lady of the house often allowed for a slightly lighter workload.



Pride and Praise

Many servants took great pride in their work, particularly ‘career servants’, who aimed to go up in the world. Skilled servants were sometimes rewarded with praise and recognition: in 1911, for example, when 300 guests were entertained at a ball at Emo Court, the Leinster Express praised the head gardener for his “tasteful” floral decorations and the steward and housekeeper for “the excellent manner” in which they carried out the arrangements. Equally, the 3rd Earl of Portarlington’s gardener, Edward Ennis, was often mentioned by name in the newspapers on the many occasions at which his fruit, roses or vegetables won top prizes at horticultural shows.
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Free Time


The little spare time servants had was often spent in the servants’ hall or going out for walks on the estate. The servants’ hall was usually located in the poorly-lit basement, and at Emo Court, the 1900 inventory of the house reveals that it held little more than tables, chairs and a clock, no doubt lest the servants got too comfortable! Upper servants usually gathered in the steward’s or housekeeper’s room.


While official free time was few and far between, there were, however, other opportunities to chat and exchange local news and gossip. Tradesmen and casual labourers called in from the neighbouring villages, while estate workmen, blacksmiths, carpenters and other artisans often did work on the house and gardens. For some servants, there was the opportunity of trips to the races or abroad, if chosen to accompany the family to London or the Continent. There was also the occasional Servants’ Ball, which afforded servants a rare opportunity to socialise openly within the house. Under the 3rd Earl of Portarlington, for example, the servants’ ball became an annual event, eagerly looked forward to.


While segregation among staff was strictly enforced and relationships generally forbidden, it was not unknown for romance to blossom among the staff of a country house like Emo Court. Employers, however, preferred their servants to be single, and housemaids generally left employment when they married. Marriage could also jeopardise the careers of the upper house staff, although at Emo, we know that at least one butler, Edwin Bailey, was married.
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While the rooms of servants were often cold, dark and draughty, for many this accommodation was vastly superior to what they had at home. Many of the female servants at Emo Court would have slept in the attic rooms, which were undoubtedly too hot in summer and too cold in winter. While the valet’s room was in the Bachelor’s Quarters (the building which now houses the tea-rooms), the other male servants seem to have lived in the main house, most likely in the basement, where the butler could also guard the valuables in the strong-room.


The lady’s maid and governess usually had rooms on the 1st floor. Upper servants’ rooms were often strategically positioned so that they could monitor the comings and goings of their charges. Their rooms were generally more comfortable than those of the lower servants, which were sparsely furnished with an iron bed, lumpy horse-hair mattress, and a simple table and wash-stand.


An inventory of Emo Court taken in 1900 shows that servant quarters were relatively standard for the time, with basic furniture and a carpet and curtains, although some servants had a luxury or two, such as paintings or an old card-table. The footman’s room, for example, had a hearth-rug, dressing-table, pictures and 2 mirrors, while the house steward had 9 pictures, 4 tables and a bookcase. The visitor’s maid, on the other hand, enjoyed the rare luxury of a feather mattress.

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Wages, Tips, Perquisites and Annuities



Servant’s wages were usually paid quarterly, although by the early 1900s, house servants at Emo Court were paid by the month. Invariably male servants were paid more than females. While a good butler might receive as much as ₤100 (as at Carton), housekeepers wages were usually much lower. At Emo Court, servant wages books for the years 1914-20 show that the housekeeper, Edith Adams, received ₤65 per annum. The housemaids under her charge earned between ₤20-40 a year, and some received pay-rises of up to ₤10 over the period covered by the books. In contrast, the charwoman and laundrywoman, Mrs Tinkler, was paid per day’s work, and earned only 2 shillings a day (increased to 3 shillings in 1920). This was the same amount earned by the highest paid agricultural labourer on the estate, John Dowling.



Tips and Perquisites

In addition to wages, many servants received money allowances for tea, sugar, washing or beer. When the family was away, the house staff who remained often received ‘board wages’ in lieu of food. Some servants managed to supplement their wages with ‘vails’ (tips received from departing guests), and with perquisites. Butlers were entitled to empty bottles and candle-ends, for example. Lady’s maids and valets received their employer’s cast-off clothing; gamekeepers got skins, horns or rabbits; outdoor men were often allowed firewood, vegetables and coal, while enterprising cooks often sold the dripping and kitchen waste for a profit.




Loyal servants might also be left money in their employer’s will. The 3rd and 5th Earls of Portarlington each left money in their wills to members of their staff. The 3rd Earl was particularly generous. He left large sums to his house steward, agent and valet, as well as annuities of ₤20-50, payable for life, to his valet, coachman, head gamekeeper, gardener, old house-maid and to the wife of his late butler. Tax returns show that these annuities were indeed paid until the death of each servant, which in the case of the valet, Godfrey Müller, was some 29 years later! See Wills of 3rd & 5th Earls



In general, pensions were not provided for house-staff, who were expected to save providentially for their old age. However, long-standing servants were sometimes kept on at a house after retirement. An example at Emo Court is Anne Conway. Aged 80, she is listed in the 1901 census as a retired housemaid. As she never married, she was given her own room in the Dowager’s House in old age. In the 1900 inventory, it is specifically listed as ‘Anne Conway’s room’, suggesting that Anne had long been a fixture there and was well-treated in her retirement.

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