Country house servants had their origins in the soldiers and retainers who formed the medieval households of lords and landowners. These households were a socially diverse community centred on the lord who looked after all their interests. The whole household would eat and sleep together in the great hall, with just one separate chamber for the lord himself. As the rule of law prevailed these households lost their military basis but service in a lord’s household still provided a valuable route to education and advancement for the sons of aristocrats and for the middle classes.

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The housemaids at Setley House. Even within the housemaids there would be a hierarchy, with the third housemaid doing the worst jobs such as cleaning the grates.

However, as the centuries passed the traditions changed. There were better ways to get on in the world and the status of servants was reduced. In the same way and by no coincidence, the domestic household turned from an almost totally male preserve to a largely female domain. Families also began to value their privacy and gradually servants were more and more excluded from the life of the owners until the 19th century when they were meant to be ‘invisible and inaudible’ with their own separate quarters.

estate servants
Miss Fasham, the nurse at Setley House who was a much loved and valued member of the staff, 1909.
estate servants
John Whitlock, Chauffeur at Priestlands. At Pylewell in the 1930s the family employed a Head Chauffeur, Under Chauffeur and an odd job man who helped out.

The number of staff needed to service the large houses varied considerably but in the 19th century the larger estates had a staff of over 20. While many servants were well treated by their employers, with pensions and legacies to see them into their old age, others were not. Clearly too, while some servants were excellent loyal workers, others had a great time and took advantage of their employers. However, it was certainly the case that until the 20th century, a job as a servant brought a roof over your head and plentiful food so was worth having. At Pylewell in 1841 Joseph Weld had 22 staff to look after 12 people. At Stanleys in 1891 there was a staff of six consisting of two ladies maids, a cook, butler, housemaid and kitchen-maid.

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