Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry - Servants - wages

see also James Grant in Lights and Shadows of London Life - click here


see also Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management - click here


see also Guide to the Unprotected in Matters Relating to Property and Income - click here


Servants vary even more than most commodities. The best way to get one is to select from the advertisements in the daily papers. The next best, to advertise your wants (see ADVERTISING), though this will expose you to the attacks of a consider able class who will call simply for the purpose of extorting their “expenses.” In either case insist upon a personal character. Written characters are not worth reading. It is not a safe plan to go to a Registry unless you know all about it first, though there are some which are really trustworthy. But a servant who once finds his or her way to a Registry Office is almost always unsettled, and no sooner in a place than looking out for another. The average London wages may be set down as: Butlers, £40 to £100; Footmen, £20 to £40; Pages, £8 to £15; Cooks, £18 to £50; House. maids, £10 to £25; Parlour-maids. £12 to £30; “General Servants,”  Anglice Maids of all Work, £6 to £15. A month's notice required before leaving or dismissing; but in the latter case a month's wages (and board wages if demanded) will suffice. For serious misconduct a servant can be discharged without notice. When left in town, additional board wages will be required at the rate of about 10s. per week. If economy is necessary, bear in mind that the payment of commissions from tradesmen to servants is an almost universal London custom, and a fruitful source of deliberate waste. “Kitchen stuff” is another expensive institution, specially designed to facilitate the consumption of articles, on the replacing of which cook may make her little profit. Dripping, perquisite for which all cooks will make at least a fight, not only means a good deal more than its name would imply, but leads to the spoiling of your meat by surreptitious stabbings that the juice may run away more freely. This ingenious arrangement is also much favoured of late years by the butcher, who nowadays in “jointing” always cuts well into the meat. Give good wages, and let it be clearly understood before hiring that no perquisites are allowed. A serious mistake, and one too often made, is to lay down the hard-and-fast rule “no followers allowed.” Servants always have had and always will have followers, whether their masters and mistresses like it or no. It is much wiser to recognise this fact, and to authorise the Visits of the “follower” at proper times and seasons, first taking pains to ascertain that his antecedents and character are good. Police-courts will convict for the annexation of “perquisites” which have not been sanctioned. The giving a false character to a servant is an offence against the law, and can be prosecuted as such.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879 


     ‘Thrift,' said Sir Philip Sidney, ‘is the fuel of magnificence' and it is ever so many things besides. We do not all care about magnificence. Our ambitions run more towards nearer goals, ease from money cares, comfort for our old age, opportunities for travel, facilities for reading the best of current literature, for hearing good music and enjoying good pictures, to say nothing of the delightful capacity to help others a little bit when they droop and fall by the wayside, fainting on life's toilsome journey. Thrift helps us to all of this, and delivers us from the perpetual struggle of carking care, which darkens life for those who live up to and beyond their income. 
    But by thrift we do not understand anything approaching parsimony, do we? Not in the least. Enough for everybody, but nothing wasted is what we mean. Not even time! Early breakfast, for instance, economises the time of the whole household to an astonishing extent. No one could conceive how much without practical experience. And there are methods of economy that initially cost more, but eventually save surprisingly. Take the cheap servant girl for instance. We can get her for £10 a year, perhaps, whereas an experienced maid would cost at least £17. So! We save £7 a year. But, if you please, how much do we lose? Let anyone who has leisure try to estimate what that ‘cheap' girl costs us in pounds, shillings and pence, irres­pective of worry of mind and irritability of mood.
    The Cheap Girl dabs down a very dirty duster on a clean quilt, wipes the looking glass with a greasy cloth, hangs up one's best gown somewhere by the back of the neck, thrusts a black hand into the boots she cleans, leaves pails on the stairs for people to fall over, smears the cups and saucers instead of washing them, leaves empty stew pans and kettles on the range, and consequently burns the bottoms out of them, puts saucepans away dirty, gets the sink stopped up, sets the dustbin on fire by putting hot cinders into it among the waste paper, leaves strangers in the hall while she searches for her mistress, and thus gives them opportunity for theft, forgets to give letters and messages, and in a score of ways worries and irritates her unfortu­nate employer. Her breakages too are a serious matter to the mistress of a small establishment and a narrow income. All these things make the cheap girl a remarkably expensive addition to the household. Far better to give higher wages and secure one who has been in some degree trained, who knows how to handle glass and china, and will not treat them as if they were lead or brick, and understands how to take care of pretty furniture, and to be neat in her dealings. Far better have one good experienced servant, even if her wages come to as much as those of two cheap girls. Suppose that a young wife is fortunate enough to get a thoroughly competent young woman to do the whole work of the house. To pay her well is an incentive to remain, and if she is economical and trustworthy, she is well worth £25 a year. She cannot eat as much as two would, and if she is well paid she soon settles down, and makes her mistress' interests her own.
    When one comes to reckon up the cost of burst boilers, cracked kettles and stewpans, broken china and crockery, food ruined in the cooking, repairs to cisterns, taps and furniture, necessitated by clumsy handling, the £7 a year we are supposed to save in wages are soon swallowed up. And there is another item to be included in the charges against the ordinary low-waged girl. She eats enormously; seems never satisfied; and the cost of her food is much greater than that of the full-grown domestic whose growing days are over. Consequently, she is by no means an economy, notwithstanding her low wages. Her consumption of food combined with her lack of exper­ience render her an extremely costly addition to the household, and after three months of her there is hardly a whole teacup or saucer and scarcely an undamaged teapot left in the place.
    I have always found that the poorer a woman is, the more wasteful are her ways. The best servants come of thrifty, well-to-do families of the tenant farmer, or small shopkeeping class. They have been taught economy in little things all their lives and the lesson has sunk deeply in. The daughters of the very poor, on the contrary, have lived from hand to mouth, with never a sixpence in tenure beyond a day, and no settled income or expenditure— such as these are the most wasteful of human beings.

Mrs Humphrey, The Morning, 1897


see also Mrs. C.S.Peel in "Homes and Habits" (article) - click here