What were Georgian and Victorian servants’ rooms like?
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.
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.