|Work Life||Free Time||Accommodation||Wages & Perks|
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
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
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.
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
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
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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
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.
were usually paid quarterly, although by the early 1900s, house servants at
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
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!
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