Domestic Servants in Kemnal Road

It has been calculated that in 1891 there were nearly 1.4 million domestic servants; in London one person in every 15 was in domestic service. This was probably the apogee of the domestic servant population, and at this stage, the supply was such that most middle class housewives were able to hire enough servants that they need not do any menial work themselves. Indeed, the number of such servants in a home was an indication of its social standing. In Kemnal Road the occupants of the new houses would certainly be able to afford the servants they needed.

DomesticsIn 1891, there were 84 domestic servants living in the 13 houses in Kemnal Road (the three ladies on the right worked at Woodlands). This does not include the many gardeners and grooms who lived in the road, but who generally lived in the separate lodges or stables. The names, ages and places of birth, of the domestic servants are shown in the separate chapters on each house, but since they constitute the largest group of people who lived in Kemnal Road at that time, it may be useful to consider their lives in a little more detail.

They came from throughout Great Britain, but not Ireland, and from 24 counties in England. 13 came from Kent and 12 from London. If they are representative of domestic servants generally at that time, most will have been from poor working class families, and some even from the poor houses; the exceptions will have been ladies maids, who generally came from poorer middle class homes, and as a result were often seen as 'snobbish' by their fellow maids.

It is likely that Kemnal Road will have included some good caring employers - Agnes Tiarks appears to have been one - but many will have treated their servants strictly, which was the advice given by Mrs Beeton and other publications at that time. Some will have treated them badly, as Mrs Jones at Holly Bowers obviously did in the extract from Joanna Colenbrander's book on page 120. It was becoming customary for servants to be given a half-day a week off duty, but otherwise they were regarded as on duty 24 hours a day. They would also have been subjected to the strict hierarchies which operated below stairs. They were not well paid, but their pay was usually on top of food and accommodation, and many were able to save much of their pay. To put this in perspective, according to the National Archives, £20 in 1891 would have the same purchasing power of £1,200 today.

Foxbury staff 1891

Foxbury staff in 1891

What did they do?

In 1891 there were four butlers (and one under-butler at Foxbury) in Kemnal Road. The average pay would be £65 a year. The butler was responsible for making sure everything was in order for the master and mistress of the house, and for maintaining the beer and wine cellars ('insobriety is a very common failing amongst butlers'). He was responsible for the safe keeping of the silver plate, which would be kept in his office (if he had one, which Foxbury and Kemnal Manor did). He was also responsible for greeting visitors to the house.

Every house (except Woodlands) had a cook. This was the most important position below stairs, even if less senior than the butler. Not only did the cook run the kitchens, she was responsible for agreeing menus for meals with the mistress of the house, for the quality of the food for the whole household, for the punctuality of meal times, and for buying the produce from local suppliers. This last responsibility meant she was often offered inducements to buy more than was needed, and many cooks took a percentage of the total bill from the suppliers, without the knowledge of the mistress of the house. ('Some ladies stand very much in awe of their cooks…and are inclined to let her have her own way') A cook was paid £60 a year on average at this time.

Ten houses had a kitchen maid, assisting the cook with the preparation of meals, and responsible for washing utensils and china and for the cleaning of the kitchen. They were paid on average £20 a year.

Ladies maids were relatively rare in Kemnal Road, with only Foxbury and Wyvelsfield hiring them. They were not well paid, at an average of £25 a year, but they had less arduous work than other servants, and would often accompany their ladies outside the house.

Nurses were paid about the same, at £25 a year. There were 10 in Kemnal Road in 1891, together with 3 nursery maids (who were paid £12 a year). Children would be with their nurses much more than with their parents, and while nurse was responsible for washing, clothing, entertaining and feeding the children, taking them for walks outside, and some basic education, they would often have an important impact on their lives; the hiring of of a good nurse was a particularly important matter for young families. ('The nursery is oftener than not the children's world; their mother is to them the beautiful lady whom they see ten minutes during the day').

Eight houses had parlour maids, who, in the absence of a butler, would be the most visible of the domestic servants. They would serve food, greet visitors, and ensure that everything was in order in the house. A parlour maid would be paid £20 a year. ('In the morning she wears a light cotton dress, apron, and cap; and a black merino dress, white bib apron and cap, collars and cuffs in the afternoon').

Every house had at least one house maid, responsible for cleaning, lighting fires, taking charge of the house-linen, ensuring a supply of hot water for the household, and doing everything else that is not done by other servants. The average pay for a housemaid was £20.

Foxbury also had a footman, a housekeeper and three laundry maids, and Wyvlesfield had a governess.

Estimated wages costs

An estimate of the annual servants' wages for each of the houses in 1891, based on the census returns for that year, is as follows:

Observations from 'The Duties of Servants', published in 1894.