Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

female servant in Regency costume

A Regency housemaid

Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.

What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter.

Samuel Pepys pestered female servants

Samuel Pepys by Sir Godfrey Kneller


In 1660s Restoration England, Samuel Pepys pursued his wife’s companion Deb Willett. When Mrs Pepys caught him with his hand up Deb’s skirt, the woman was dismissed — of course! — in spite of Samuel’s professions of remorse. His remorse didn’t stop him continuing to pursue Deb, though. And quite a few others, besides.

Female servants: ideas above their station?

Jonathan Swift had advice for female servants

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s satirical Directions to Servants (published 1745, after his death) included maids as well as footmen:

Never allow [my lord} the smallest liberty, not the squeezing of your hand unless he puts a guinea into it; … never allow him the last favour under a hundred guineas or a settlement of twenty pounds a year for life.

In the light of what happened in the Pepys household, we may agree that Swift’s advice — even though never meant to be taken literally — was wise.

Swift cautioned especially against trying for marriage with my lord’s eldest son;

if he be a common rake (and he must be one or t’other) … after ten thousand promises you will get nothing from him, but a big belly or a clap, and probably both together.

Swift was probably right there, too. Most of the time.

Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole

But marriages between employers and their servants did take place. Gossipy Horace Walpole delighted in reporting that Lord Rockingham’s sister, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, had married her footman in 1764.

In 1785, the Earl of Berkeley tricked a young lady’s maid into a sham marriage. She bore him seven children before he was pressured into marrying her for real. It did nothing for her children, of course, who remained illegitimate and could not inherit the earldom.


Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

Dr Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

Dr Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

In 18th century England, James Boswell describes how he put the female-servant conundrum to Dr Johnson:

What is the reason that women servants, though obliged to be at the expense of purchasing their own clothes, have much lower wages than menservants to whom a great proportion of that article is furnished and when in fact our female house servants work much harder than the male?

Dr Johnson, Boswell reports, was quite unable to provide an answer. For Dr Johnson, that may have been a first!

Who would choose to be a housemaid?

female servants included a barefoot cook

Disgruntled cook — with bare feet

Housemaids started work early, usually well before six. Female servants were supposed to finish their chores and be out of sight before the gentlefolk rose. After all, it would not do for a gentleman to see a young girl lugging heavy buckets of coal up flights of stairs, would it? What if his notions of male chivalry  came to the fore? He might even — heaven forfend! — feel the need to relieve a servant of her burden. And what if she were carrying smelly chamber-pots?

Society dealt with those risks quite simply.
By arranging that the two would never meet.

female servant, a housemaid in 1906

Housemaid 1906

Housemaids performed a huge range of tasks during their long day. One of those was to wash windows, inside and out. Some fell and suffered injury or death from area railings. But what about the outrage to public morals in the days of crinolines? In 1853, a Mrs Lowe of Kensington was prosecuted for permitting her housemaid to “stand on the sill of an upstairs window in order to clean it, whereby the life of the servant was endangered and the public decency shocked.”

But if housemaids were really lucky in their place, they might get one full day’s holiday every three months. Provided, of course, that they were back in the house by ten o’clock.

Female servants and the idle gentlewoman

In earlier centuries, the mistress of a house had been occupied with the dairy and the still-room and the kitchen. Such a mistress could not despise the female servants whose tasks she shared. The Industrial Revolution changed the position of female servants. Now urban middle-class employers had no need to be involved in such work, since provisions could be bought easily and did not have to be created in the home.

female servants - a late 19th century lady's maid with her mistress

A late 19th century lady’s maid

A gentleman’s success came to be measured by the number of idle women he could maintain. It would have reflected badly on him if his wife or daughters were performing household tasks.

Remember Pride and Prejudice? Think how indignant Mrs Bennet became at the suggestion that any of her daughters might have been responsible for cooking the dinner set before Mr Collins. She told him, in no uncertain terms, that she was “very well able to keep a good cook” and her daughters had “nothing to do” in the kitchen. She did not say so explicitly, but the Bennet girls were clearly idle gentlewomen.

female servants - a Parisian maid in 1906 with brush and lace cap

A Parisian maid in 1906. With feather duster and lace cap


The gulf between idle mistress and toiling female servants became wider and wider as the 19th century progressed. Who knows how things would have worked out for the underlings if the First World War — and women taking previously male-only jobs — had not intervened?

2 thoughts on “Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I feel so sorry for the poor things. What a life! Though it makes for interesting novels if the downstairs individuals are not quite as subservient and invisible as they probably were in real life. The maid’s work was certainly never done, just as (when I was young) the housewife’s work was never done. You note that it was only when women had to do it themselves that labour saving inventions began to be invented!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I do agree with you, Liz. An incredibly hard life. But what other choice did you have if you were from a poor family? You worked or you starved.

      Agree about labour-saving devices, too. When there was a plentiful supply of cheap female domestic labour, it wouldn’t have been profitable to produce labour-saving devices. But “ladies” were prepared to pay more to have a means of replacing the skivvy they could no longer employ.

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