What were Georgian and Victorian servants’ rooms like?

Maid's Room at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

Servants were a vital part of every country house. Our image of them is based on the kitchens and other service rooms opened up in many National Trust houses and from period dramas such as Downton Abbey. Yet both provide a partial and sometimes distorted picture: we rarely consider the rooms in which servants lived and slept – our picture is dominated by their work, not the people.

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 on the main house that offered separate accommodation for indoor and outdoor servants, grooms for example often sleeping above the stables.

Hierarchies

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 sheets and blankets, but 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 (these 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.

See servants’ rooms and furniture at our places

The Fire Attic at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales, with the four-poster servant's bed

Erddig 

Erddig, near Wrexham in North Wales, was the seat of the Yorke family who created a unique record of their servants in paintings, photographs and poems. This visual and literary record is matched by extensive ranges of indoor service rooms and outdoor workshops showing the variety of work undertaken by the Yorke’s servants. A number of garret bedrooms are also accessible, furnished as they would have been in the nineteenth century.

A iron bed frame at Erddig

An iron-frame bed at Erddig 

Little is known about the provenance and date of this simple iron-frame bed, but it is typical of the kind of metal frames provided for servants’ rooms throughout the nineteenth century. Iron frames were often favoured because they were more hygienic – wooden frames could harbour pests such as bed bugs.

The Servants' Hall at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

Canons Ashby 

Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire was the home of the Dryden family. A modest sized house, it employed just a handful of servants in the nineteenth century when Sir Edward Dryden was the owner. The rooms of three servants can still be seen, presented as they were in the nineteenth century and clearly marking the different status of housekeeper and maids.

Bell pushes at Lanhydrock, Cornwall

Lanhydrock 

Lanhydrock in Cornwall was remodelled for the Agar-Robertes family after a disastrous fire in 1881, but much of the house dates back to the seventeenth century. In addition to the kitchens, the steward’s room remains as it was in the late nineteenth century when Silvanus Jenkin worked for the family, and there are several servants’ bedrooms to explore, including those of maids and footmen originally accessible via separate staircases – a particular concern of Victorian house owners.

The steward's room at Lanhydrock, Cornwall

Steward’s desk at Lanhydrock 

This pine desk is located in the steward’s room and was probably used by Silvanus Jenkin, who served the family as steward through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We can imagine Jenkin sitting at the desk when discussing business matters with the family’s tenant farmers.