The Housekeeper, Good or Otherwise. And a competition

Just a note that the competition is now closed – but do please, keep reading!autumnal trees

So here we are again, at the beginning of another November. At this time of the year the winter sun shines directly into my kitchen window. It acts as a spotlight to any dust or marks that I have missed.  And I miss a lot.

house cleaning cartoon

Oh dear, I do not think I would make a very good housekeeper! I would much rather be reading a book.

And talking of books, at the end of this piece there is the chance for you to win a few (four!) plus extra goodies.


The Highborn Housekeeper by Sarah Mallory coverWith The Highborn Housekeeper so recently published, I have been thinking more about the other side of living in a big house. The below stairs bit.

By the Regency, “downstairs” was becoming a completely separate world. It had a hierarchy all of its own. The lady of the house was supposed to control the staff. But in some cases they controlled her, bullying her into keeping them on, even though they were insolent, dishonest and lazy. The housekeeper would be the middle manager between the mistress and most of the staff. She could be worth her weight in gold.


In Tudor times, large houses were staffed by male servants with women working in the laundry and the dairy. Servants and master shared much of the same space. Women worked as housekeepers in the smaller households of bachelors, or widowers.

Henry VIIi and his children

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the servants moved into their own part of the house. The writing was on the wall as early as 1660, when Sir Roger Pratt built Coleshill (originally in Berkshire, until boundary changes “moved” it to Oxfordshire).

1818 sketch of Coleshill, courtesy British Museum. Built c.1660 it was destroyed by fire mid-20th century.

1818 sketch of Coleshill, courtesy British Museum. Built c.1660 it was destroyed by fire mid-20th century.

He wrote: “the kitchen and all its offices to lie together and the buttery and cellar with all theirs, etc and all these to be disposed of in a half ground story with their backcourts convenient to them; in that no dirty servants may be seen passing to and fro by those who are above, no noises heard, nor ill scents smelt.” (The Architecture of Sir Roger Pratt, ed. R. T. Gunther, 1928)

The show and ceremony of the great houses was disappearing. Women could be employed to fill many roles – and paid less, too. In the early 18th century, the Duke of Chandos paid his female housekeeper £10 per annum. That was less than he paid his other (male) senior household servants.

Many of these women were intelligent and energetic. For example —

Elizabeth Raffald : Housekeeper turned entrepreneur

She was a housekeeper who turned into something of an entrepreneur. I read much of her cookery book, The Experienced English Housekeeper, when I was researching recipes for Nancy, my Highborn Housekeeper. I think Elizabeth  would be an excellent role model for a Georgian heroine.

Elizabeth Raffald, Housekeeper turned Entrepreneur

Elizabeth was a domestic servant for fifteen years and ended up as housekeeper to a family in Cheshire. She left when she married the head gardener and the couple moved to Manchester. There she opened a register office (i.e. an employment agency) for domestic servants. She also ran a cookery school and sold food from the premises. She published the first Manchester Directory (listing local businesses and civic leaders). With her husband, she went on to run two successful posting houses. Her husband’s heavy drinking might have caused financial troubles, after which Elizabeth began a business selling strawberries in season. When she died suddenly in 1781, she was still publishing updates of her trade directory. After her death her cookery book was still printed and much copied.


By the end of the 18th century, the housekeeper was equivalent in seniority to the butler or steward. She was addressed as “Mrs Smith, Mrs Brown etc,” or even “Mrs Housekeeper” by the lower servants. She was in charge of all the female staff except the lady’s maid, cook and nurse, often kept the household accounts and purchased all the supplies.

writing with quill pen by candlelight

The housekeeper might also be in charge of showing visitors around her master’s house – and receiving a generous tip for her trouble. However, not all housekeepers were allowed to keep this money. In the early 18th century the Duke of Chandos had so many visitors to his magnificent new house in Middlesex (Cannons) that he used the money collected from sightseers to defray the household expenses!


Originally, the still room was used by the lady of the house tostill room bottles make cordials (medicinal or otherwise) and to prepare the fancy dishes for the last course of dinner (the “Banquet” or “dessert”). By the 18th century, this room was the domain of the housekeeper. It was here she prepared breakfast, tea or coffee (with the help of a maid), possibly nursery meals, made preserves and ices and supervised the washing of the finest porcelain or china.

The housekeeper also had charge of the storeroom, china closet and linen cupboard, as these were separate. Alternatively, these might be incorporated into her own “housekeeper’s room” as at Erddig, Clwyd, which has large cupboards for storing linen and dry goods.

Often the housekeeper looked after the house while the family was away. During this time she and her maids would clean the rooms and protect the furniture with white cloth covers, place wooden covers over glass table tops and cotton blinds over the windows.

housekeeper greets visitors

Until the 19th century female servants had no real uniform. Maids often had their mistress’s cast-off gowns but it depended on the lady of the house to lay down a dress code. This was usually plain, tidy clothes and possibly an apron.

Nineteenth century maids might wear print dresses with a cap and apron for the morning, and change into black dresses with a clean apron and frilled cap for their afternoon and evening work. A  housekeeper usually dressed in black or dark colours with a white lace cap and apron. She had her bunch of keys on show like a badge of honour.


…had to be an accountant, HR manager, tour guide and an excellent administrator. Sarah Wells (mother of  the author H G Wells) became housekeeper at Uppark, in Sussex in 1880, but her son was less than complimentary about her abilities. He called her “the worst housekeeper that was ever thought of”. And as if her incompetence at her job was not enough, she was turned off in 1893 for gossiping about her employers.

Of course, every household was different. Much depended on the master and/or mistress, on the staff available and the circumstances of the time. Many servants were loyal to “their” family, some were not. Employers might be benevolent, some tyrannical. As writers we can incorporate all types in our books, but it is good to have some  knowledge of what it could be like before we start. I am thankful to all those servants and employers who kept accounts, wrote journals or even wrote to their friends complaining about their dirty servants!

*We have now chosen a winner – Ira, congratulations! Thanks to everyone who took part.*


Dark, chilly nights just cry out for me to curl up in a comfy chair with a bar of chocolate and a good book. How about you?
Sorry, I can’t post the chair, but I am giving away four signed copies of the latest Mills & Boon historicals (including The Highborn Housekeeper) plus a stylish notebook, a bar of chocolate, small purse and a handy tote bag to carry everything!


All you have to do is sign up for the Libertà newsletter and comment on this blog. One lucky  winner will be chosen at random and announced after 10 pm on Wednesday.

Good luck!

Sarah x

28 thoughts on “The Housekeeper, Good or Otherwise. And a competition

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I find housekeepers tremendously useful in stories. The provide a bridge between upstairs and downstairs when you need to move between the two in the story. I haven’t used a slovenly or useless one yet, but I have had one who tippled. Another has an important role in a mystery but that would be telling. Your entrepreneurial one here is fascinating.

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Thanks Liz, Nancy, my Highborn Housekeeper, is a big hearted woman and first appeared as a mother hen figure to my fallen women of Compton Parva (in The Ton’s Most Notorious Rake). Having given her a foothold, she refused to go away, and eventually I jut had to write her happy ending. Don’t you just love it when characters are that real to you?

    2. Sarah Mallory

      AND – Elizabeth Raffald is an extraordinary character – a real one, this time. I am sure she could well inspire another story from me at some point 🙂

  2. lizharriswriter

    Thank you, Sarah and Libertà, for a really interesting article. Having to hand over the money that came in the form of tips from sightseers is sadly not so different from the situation today in those restaurants where waiters have to hand over their tips to the management.

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Sometimes it seems very little has changed over the centuries, Liz! However, writing romance gives me a chance to redress the balance, and make sure some of my characters have happy endings (and Elizabeth Raffald, the real-life housekeeper, does seem to have had quite a successful time of it as a businesswoman).

  3. Liz

    So interesting, Sarah A lot of my aunts were “in service” in the early part of the last century.- I grew up listening to their stories!

    1. Sarah Mallory

      How fascinating, Liz! One of my great aunts was in service, but that was before my time. However, there is a legend that the china serving dishes I inherited were a “thank you” from her employers when she left them. They aren’t Royal Doulton or anything, but I loved them and used them for years!

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this post, Sarah. Elizabeth Raffald’s story is very interesting and it sounds as if it was one of the few ways a woman could make some money – perfectly legitimately. Exactly which shops the housekeeper chose to supply the Big House with various provisions, was up to her and, of course, it could include a small commission for herself. She’d have to be careful, though, being too greedy could bring disaster.

  5. Ira

    It was the giveaway that lured me to this blog but I absolutely love what I found here! Thank you for an amazing content!

    1. Sarah Post author

      You are our winner, Ira, congratulations! Hopefully you have received our email by now and the goodies will soon be winging their way to you. Happy reading!

  6. Dawn Keith

    I guess I assumed the servants were always separate and they always wore uniforms. I loved reading about the history of the Housekeeper

    1. Sarah Post author

      Thanks for dropping by, Dawn. I am constantly learning more and more about the past and always find something new that surprises me. I have read journals of ladies who were bullied by their servants as well as learning that some employees were treated very badly. Also, in some instances, a lady’s maid or man’s valet might be a close friend. Such variety makes for some interesting plot lines for an author!

  7. Lisa Sargent

    I am sure being a housekeeper had its ups and downs, but still hard work. I would rather be the lady of the house!

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