Victorian Domestic Servants

June 5, 2017

The Victorians were very much caught up in doing the right thing, wearing the right clothes, decorating and serving meals in the proper manner. They were fanatical about keeping records and diaries. Even to the point of having "autograph books" which would be signed by calling guests, perhaps even adding a verse or two with their name. I have one such autograph book from my great-grandmother, which dates from 1882.



Autograph book of Annie Sutherland Copp c.1882

© Copyright Barry Copp 2017


It reads:


To Annie


Never let a mouse run away

from your flour barrel with

a tear in his eye


                        From a Friend


Aulac May 28th/82                Joe



In the Victorian home, the man was head of household. The woman had the duty of running the home under his directions. The husband expected to come home to perfection. A clean house, a well prepared meal, and well-behaved children - not exactly the attitude of today's modern age.


According to the Victorians, the ingredients that made up a respectable household were church, family prayer, and prompt paying of bills.


Victorians had a large array of books and magazines that would tell them how to properly set up their lives, and they read them enthusiastically. If you became prosperous, fortunate, or inherited money, and followed the how-to books faithfully, you too could climb the ladder of success.

Government House Domestic Servants in Saskatchewan c.1898

© Copyright 2006 Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina


Many large homes of the Victorian era had the services of domestic servants. The word "domestic" derives from the Latin "domus," a house, and "menial" from the Latin word "moenia," walls of a house. Many people of the Victorian and Edwardian periods worked in the domestic service industry. Families, in general, were larger than today and since many wealthy people had large homes and numerous children, they could afford the luxury of hiring servants to help with the running of a large household. A domestic servant was one who actually lived in the home as opposed to other servants in the industry who lived elsewhere.


In 1901, 38 percent of all women with paid labour occupations were servants, and the occupation attracted more women than the entire manufacturing sector. Many of the Nova Scotian servants were Irish, Scottish, and English, who were considered more respectable, though a number came from Sweden, Norway and Cape Breton. An article by Eric W. Sager entitled The Transformation of the Canadian Domestic Servant, 1871–1931  gives an interesting insight into the wages of domestics. The Census and Statistics Bulletin I: Wage Earners by Occupation (Census Office 1907), which reports numbers of workers and average annual earnings for all employees in the country in 1901, suggests a national average of $272 for men in the “domestic and personal class” and $137 for women. The subcategory “servant” is more likely to reflect the earnings of domestic servants: the average was $182 for 11,767 male servants and $120 for 70,541 female servants. Other subcategories include launderers ($193), housekeepers ($178), and cooks ($185). An unknown proportion of these would have been live-in servants. In Nova Scotia, the wages were even less than the national average.


Cook prepares a meal at the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion.

© Copyright 2016 Richard H. Driehaus Museum


In 1901 Canadian census takers took an unprecedented interest in the labour force and in wage earners in particular. Whereas U.S. census takers asked two questions relating to the characteristics and activity of the labour force, and British census takers asked five, the Canadian census asked fourteen questions. This gave a more detailed account of wage earners in Canada.


The following are some of the servants working and living in Young Avenue homes according to the Canadian Census of 1901. The Hobrecker household on Young Avenue had nine members including two domestic servants living there. Two female domestic servants, Florence Foley (single, 14 yrs-old from Nova Scotia) earned $60 for 12 months, while Cristy Collins (married, 43 yrs-old from Nova Scotia) earned $96 for 12 months. Head of household, Alexander Hobrecker, made on average $2,000 in 12 months. By comparison, J.E.G. Boulton had a household of five including domestic servants in 1901. Boulton's two single female domestic servants, Heutte Juickes (27 yrs-old possibly from the Outer Hebrides [illegible]), earned $84 for 12 months, and Annie Morrison (32 yrs-old from England) earned $84 for 12 months. Contractor John McInnes had a household of 7 including one domestic servant, Laurie Smith (21 yrs-old from Nova Scotia) who earned $74 in 12 months, while her employer earned $3,000 in 12 months. Charles MacKinlay had a household of six including two female domestic servants, Della Gates (18 yrs-old from Nova Scotia) earning $84 in 12 months and ? (illegible male name) Gates (20 yrs-old from Nova Scotia and possibly her brother), earning $84 in 12 months. Alfred Whitman, earning $5,000 in 12 months, lived alone in a ten bedroom mansion with a married couple - domestic Catherine Purcell (34 yrs-old from Nova Scotia), earned $70 in 12 months, and servant Benjamin Purcell (a 36 yr-old former carpenter from Nova Scotia) earning $70 in 12 months. Figuring out what 1901 wages would be in today's terms is difficult, as inflation calculators only start from 1914. Inflation before 1914 had huge up and down swings and was not closely monitored.

Unusually detailed former servant stairs at Floravista


The Victorian home was divided into private and public spaces. A number of Young Avenue homes had live-in servants. The servants' quarters were connected by rear stairs in the home so that they could access the rear kitchen and basement where the cold storage rooms, furnace, and coal rooms were located. According to the Victorians, it was the servants job to stay "behind the scenes" and run the daily chores of the home without disrupting the family or bothering them. "Cooking smells should not waft through the house. You should not see any part of the kitchen from the hallways. Interior doors should open out into the room, and not up against the wall. This was so that a servant entering a room could swiftly recede without seeing who was occupying the room or what they were doing."


Servants generally had a small room to themselves or shared with another servant of the same sex. The room was either on the upper floor or in the basement. Furnishings were sparse, as were the decorative architectural elements of the halls, stairways, and servant's rooms compared to the lavish detailing of the owner's spaces. More often than not, there would be a bed, washbowl, and perhaps a small table and chair. Servants had few personal possessions, and most of those came out of a personal steamer trunk. Servants usually had a small water closet (toilet) for their use located in the attic or basement and not used by the owners.


The drawing room, parlour, dining room, front hall, etc. were all public spaces that a guest would see, and were decorated accordingly. Family rooms were private.


Since these homes certainly were not on the same scale of a Downton Abbey type manor house, the staff was much smaller, and servants often had more general duties. Some homes had a coachman, perhaps a gardener, a butler, and a maid. The maid may have had double duties as a cook. Additionally, they may have hired part-time workers such as scullery maids. Scullery maids were the lowest of the low maids. They washed dishes, fired the stoves, prepared vegetables, and cleaned the kitchen. Some kitchens were on the ground floor in the back of the house while others were located in the basements.

'Laying and Lighting a Fire', Illustrated London News (1893)


The first duty of the servants in the mornings, was to make sure the house was heated before the owners arose. That meant they started work early in the morning making sure the coal furnace, and if needed, the fireplaces were fed and stoked. The more affluent homes had central heating and radiators. Fireplaces supplemented areas where heat was poor. Halls and parlour would be swept and dusted, and lower rooms opened up. The breakfast meal had to be prepared for the owners and family members.


The dinner and supper were prepared later in the day. That meant retrieving items from the cold storage rooms (also called larders) in the basement since iceboxes were small, and large quantities of vegetables and meats required larger refrigeration needs.


There were certain days for carrying out certain tasks, like laundry on Mondays, and ironing on Tuesdays, etc. In the days of dirt roads, coal dust, chimney soot, and horses, doing laundry in the Victorian era was a Herculean task compared to today, especially if a house had eight or ten bedrooms and family members of the same number. Dust and dirt was a constant problem in an era without an electric vacuum cleaner and cleaning was a constant chore.


 Parrsboro Queen Anne home, Bonnie Brae, with my great aunt, great-grandmother, Morgan the horse, and maid Gussie Martin (at rear door) c.1897-1900 © Copyright Barry Copp 2017


My great-grandparents had a large Queen Anne style home with a tower built in 1892 at the top of a hill in Parrsboro, overlooking the harbour. He was a sea captain/ship owner and was often away trading lumber or gypsum to the Southern United States, or places like Cuba and Haiti. My great-grandmother was in charge while he was away. They had a single, full-time maid, Gussie Martin (16 yrs old from New Brunswick), a part-time gardener, and two hired help to come in once a week to do laundry and iron for 75¢. That was for all the bedding, towels, napkins, clothes, tablecloths, etc.! The family never stayed in the home in winter, but rented a room at a Parrsboro hotel until springtime.


The number of male servants in a family varied according to the wealth and position of the master, from the owner of a mansion with a retinue of attendants, to the occupier of a house where a single footman is the only male retainer.


To a certain extent the number of male servants was regulated by the number of female servants and did not apply to outdoor servants such as coachman, groom, or gardener.



Occasionally a parlour-maid was kept instead of a second footman, or a kitchen or scullery maid did the work in the way of boot cleaning, etc., that would normally fall to a third footman or page according to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1907.


Victorians never trusted the help and most things were kept under lock and key - even the linens. The head of household or wife retained the keys, or a trusted butler.


Work hours were long and the only day off for staff was perhaps every second Sunday and one evening in the week, and perhaps two or three hours of an afternoon for shopping. Rules differed. The one steadfast rule: get up before the owner, and retire after the owner does (only after completing your chores). Where there was only one male servant, the parlour maid and he worked together. He had charge of the drawing room, butler's pantry, washing of china, silver, and glass, the dining room, setting the table, silver and table linen, and serves breakfast He also valets the male guests, and helps with the cleaning of the parlour floor, in charge of the wine cellar. The parlour maid assisted him at night with the washing of dinner dishes and answering the door while he was cleaning the silver. They took each others place alternating on days or nights out.


Domestic service did not decline in so much as new technology resulted in the transformation of the industry. Employers brought in electric vacuums, irons, toasters, central heating. Smaller families and World War I had a huge impact as well. The work of the paid domestic servant was gradually replaced by the unpaid housewife who then bore the brunt of the work. As a proportion of all paid labour, the decline in domestic service began in the 1890s: servants were 6.1 percent of the labour force in 1891, 5.5 percent in 1901, and 3.6 percent in 1921. Female domestic servants were 41 percent of all women with occupations in 1891; this proportion fell to 34 per‑cent in 1901 and to 18 percent in 1921 (Leslie 1974: 72).




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