What were Georgian and Victorian servants’ rooms like?
- Expert curated
Servants were a vital part of every country house. Our image of them is dominated by their work, based on the kitchens and other service rooms opened up in National Trust houses, and from period dramas such as Downton Abbey. Yet both provide a partial and sometimes distorted picture. We rarely consider the places where servants lived and slept, partly because these rooms are rarely open to visit.
Making room for servants
Servants often started their working lives as young children; they lived some distance away from their families and needed to be accommodated within the country house.
Servants’ bedrooms and dormitories were pushed to the margins of the house: in garrets and occasionally basements. In newly built or extended houses, wings were created in the main house that offered separate accommodation for indoor and outdoor servants, grooms for example often sleeping above the stables.
How household status decided where servants lived
Most servants would have had their own box. They carried this with them as they moved from one house to the next and used it to keep personal items. All other furniture was provided by their employer.
The hierarchies created by status within the household and signalled by differences in pay were also apparent in the accommodation and furniture provided to servants.
Maids and footmen
Servants at the bottom of the hierarchy were provided with the basics, but little else: a bed, a chair, perhaps a table, a small mirror or a piece of carpet. Mattresses were filled with wool or horsehair, or very occasionally straw; beds and pillows were usually stuffed with feathers, and all had the standard set of sheets and blankets. Many servants had to share their rooms and few had fires.
Housekeepers and stewards
Senior servants in larger households were much better off. Their rooms could resemble those of their employers, in part because they frequently contained unwanted furniture moved from family rooms.
Many had carpets, easy chairs, tea sets, and desks (their rooms were often places of work), and some had pictures on the walls and books on shelves. They invariably enjoyed a fire and a room to themselves.
Servants’ rooms today
All too often, servants’ bedrooms are inaccessible in historic houses today. Many have been converted into offices or are used for storage. Others – like those at Tatton Park and Upton House – remain off-limits other than on special tours.
Servants’ rooms and furniture at places in our care
Servants’ lives at Erddig
Erddig, near Wrexham in Wales, was the seat of the Yorke family, who created a unique record of their servants in paintings, photographs and poems. This record is matched by extensive ranges of indoor service rooms and outdoor workshops showing the variety of work undertaken by the Yorke’s servants. You can visit a number of garret bedrooms, furnished as they would have been in the 19th century.
This article was written by Jon Stobart, a historian at Manchester Metropolitan University specialising in various aspects of consumption, from shopping practices to the repurposing and resale of household goods. Jon’s recent research has explored what made country houses comfortable in a physical and emotional sense, including ideas of home and the provision made for servants.
Find out more about our Trusted Source articles, which were created in partnership with the University of Oxford, and explore topics related to the special places in our care.
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Learn how innovations in country house communication technology, from sprung bells to early telephones, transformed the ways servants could be summoned.