The Hierarchy of Servants

I’m still fascinated by this book I’ve read, Frank Victor Dawes’s Not in Front of the Servants, although I’m slowly starting to run out of blog-able material. Just a few more posts before I move on to something else!

Today we’re going to talk about how fiercely proud servants were of their place in the hierarchy. Dawes writes of the Duke of Portland’s establishment around the turn of the century:

“The upper servants were called the ‘Upper Ten,’ comprising the steward, the wine butler, the under-butler, the groom of chambers (whose main function was to look after the furniture in the great house), the duke’s valet, the housekeeper, head housemaid and ladies’ maids” (66).

I imagine the ‘Upper Ten’ name came not only from the fact that there were around ten of them (depending on how many ladies’ maids there were), but also because it played on the name the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ which was used synonymously with ‘aristocracy’ in the Victorian era, because there were roughly 10,000 arisocrats who ran in the social circles that defined High Society.

In the ‘aristocracy’ of New York, the term for the upper class was known as the “400“, because society grand dame Mrs. Astor had a ballroom only big enough to fit 400 people, and therefore the guestlists for her parties determined who was of fashionable society and who was not.

But I digress.

“The lower servants, who for some inexplicable reason completely unconnected with their numbers were known as the ‘Lower Five,’ were never allowed to mix socially with the upper servants except at the annual Christmas ball for the domestic staff.

“The Upper Ten took their meals separately in the steward’s dining room, waited upon by the steward’s room footman. The Lower Five ate their meals in the servants’ hall, served by the hall porter and the hall boys.

“The Upper Ten had white wine and claret with their meals, while the Lower Five had only beer. The Upper Ten used fine china and glassware at their table. Their napkins, neatly rolled in silver rings, were changed every day. The women wore dress blouses and the men smoking jackets to late supper. Visiting ladies’ maids and valets were expected to dress similarly.

The superiority of the Upper Ten over the rest of the servants was taken very seriously indeed by everyone concerned because the duke always promoted from within. Every young servant in the house could aspire to a place at the steward’s room table, and his own napkin neatly folded in a silver ring” (66).


That’s not true. They have actually implied very heavily on that show that it was not the most formal or strict of places to work, so it’s hardly surprising that there wasn’t quite the same stratification of servants.

Of course, the poor beleaguered kitchen maid, Daisy, seems to be based on the real experiences of kitchen/scullery maids. Cooks were stereotyped as tempermental and domineering perfectionists (and they still are characterized that way, in fact–just watch Hell’s Kitchen).

“The Victorian cook held total sway over the kitchen staff. Many were tyrants and it was not unknown for an entire household, staff and employers alike, to be utterly terrified of a domineering cook. Mrs Beatrice Gardner, of West London, recalls one she served at the age of fourteen who required the kitchen range to be polished with a piece of black velvet to obtain the exact gloss so necessary to her culinary art. In a letter to the author, Mrs Gardner writes, ‘I used to run and hide in the coalhouse if I upset any milk or gravy. Her rage had to be seen to be believed'” (68).

Footmen, of course, had their own special point of pride within the hierachy. When housemaids were hired, it was best if they weren’t excessively pretty (lest they ‘tempt’ the men of the household), but footmen were another thing. You could tell the wealth and prestige of a household based on the handsomeness of its footmen. There was even–and I kid you not–a certain amount of bodice-ripping at the idea of a footman’s calves. Big muscley calves were the best, since they often had to wear breeches in their livery.

“Tell me, Jones, have you had any experience being a footman before?”
“None, ma’am.”
“But are you plump of fetlock?”
*reveals robust calf*

Like they were damn horses.

Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that good-looking young footmen got big egos. In an advertisement in The Times in 1850, one such unemployed footmen sought a master, describing himself as “‘tall, handsome, with broad shoulders and extensive calves.’ He goes on to state that he prefers Belgravia, or the north side of the Park. Another footman offering his services specifies ‘six month a year in town and if an inconvenient neighbourhood, five guineas extra salary” (123).

The cheeky buggers.

Although I must say . . . extensive calves . . . oooer. My corset is heaving.

Some employers even went to extreme lengths to keep their employees sexy. “The Duchess of Portland insisted on her footmen exercising so that they wouldn’t get too fat from all the beer they drank, and presented each of them with a bicycle and a set of golf clubs. She also engaged a diminutive Japanese judo expert, who used to throw a six-foot flunkey around the gymnasium with the greatest of ease” (142-43).

Guys. I think this is the note that Downton has to end on. In the final scene, Maggie Smith hires a judo expert.
There’s really no place for the show to go except there.

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5 Responses to The Hierarchy of Servants

  1. Jophan says:

    My grand aunt, a cook, supposedly hated the American families she worked for because they did not recognize class difference among servants. She returned to Europe for the rest of her life.


  2. Becky Black says:

    I’ve read somewhere that it was especially cool to have identical twin footmen. (Tall and handsome identical twins of course!) Like they were a set like a couple of vases or matching chairs.


  3. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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