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13 May 2021

A day in the life of a servant

Written by Catriona Bellis, Visitor Services Supervisor
Two women in Georgian servants' costumes stand by a laid table in a grand Georgian dining room.
Living history at the Georgian House, Edinburgh
In Georgian Edinburgh, while the families of the grand New Town houses slept soundly in their beds, below stairs the servants would be busy preparing for an arduous day’s work ahead.

Morning

A typical day in the life of a servant at No. 7 Charlotte Square began at 5.00am and could end up to 16 hours later. A servant would be no stranger to tiredness and hard work, often working up to 112 hours in a week. A team of five to seven servants supported the affluent lifestyle of the Lamont family, the first owners of the Georgian House. Living there would have been considerably less comfortable without the servants, who were always at the service of the family upstairs.

The housemaid was first to be up and about, as many of her jobs had to be completed before the family were awake. Making her way between the upstairs rooms, she would open the shutters, flooding the house with the morning light; she would then clean and re-lay the fires. The housemaid was responsible for fulfilling all the general household duties and earned around £10–£12 per year (£7,500–£9,000 today).

Once the family had risen, the housemaid would busy herself making the beds, and fetch water for them to wash and bathe. She would have to be strong – there was no running water, so hot water was heated up by the fire in the kitchen and had to be carried upstairs in jugs by the housemaid. She also had the unpleasant task of emptying the chamber pots from the bedrooms! Daily cleaning of the upstairs rooms and furniture would then commence, making sure that her work was invisible to the family. Amongst her many duties, the housemaid was also responsible for making and repairing all the household linen, bed and table linen, napkins and towels. The Georgian House may have had two housemaids, the senior of the two also acting as a lady’s maid.

A Georgian kitchen, with lots of kitchen implements on the table in the centre of the room. There is a large range behind.
The kitchen

The kitchen maid, at just 10 or 11 years old, was the youngest and lowest-paid servant. She earned £6 per year (around £4,500 today). She too would be up early to add more coal to the kitchen fire, which was kept permanently alight to heat the water for cooking and washing. After breakfast was served, the kitchen maid would accompany the cook to the food market to replenish the fresh supplies. It would seem like a long walk back from the Old Town, lugging baskets full of local seasonal produce including fresh fish, game and vegetables.

In Georgian Edinburgh it became fashionable for wealthy households to employ a housekeeper, who earned around £18 per year (approx. £13,500 today). The housekeeper oversaw the female servants and was the most important member of staff below stairs apart from the butler. She kept the household accounts and made sure that the tradesmen’s bills were paid, which she would then settle with Mrs Lamont.

If there was no housekeeper, these duties would fall to the cook, who held a position of great trust with the family. As the family’s health, money and reputation as good hosts were in her hands, the cook had the enormous responsibility of purchasing supplies and preparing meals for the family, guests and all the servants. This responsibility was reflected in her salary and she earned around £15 per year (£11,000 today). The cook’s hours would have been long, but not as long as her kitchen maid, who was expected to stay up late to ensure the pots and pans were shining and prepared for the next day.

The afternoon

As morning turned into afternoon, there would have been a constant stream of servants dashing to and from the basement, busily supporting the luxurious lifestyle of their employers upstairs. It was very rare for the family to venture downstairs to the basement. Instead, the servants were summoned upstairs using a bell pull. Each bell was connected by wires to the bell board in the basement and each bell was a different size to create a series of tones, to indicate which room required attention. The servants’ ears quickly became accustomed to the different sound of each bell. They had to be constantly alert, ready to attend to requests from upstairs.

Close-up of a servants' bell for the Dressing Room.
The servants’ bells in the basement

If time allowed and all their tasks were completed for the afternoon, the housemaid and kitchen maid were able to sit in the servants’ hall, where they would continue their reading and writing lessons.

The main focus of the basement was of course the kitchen, where the cook and kitchen maid would be busy preparing the evening meal. The basement corridor is lined with doors leading to other useful rooms, such as the wine cellar, the china closet, the pantry and the linen store. At the front of the house, steps lead down to the basement and coal cellar. The door at this level is the ‘tradesman’s entrance’, intended for deliveries and the comings and goings of the servants, who were not allowed to use the main front door.

The bell would ring from the parlour on the first floor of the house, usually at around the same time every afternoon, signalling that it was time for tea. The butler would carry the tea tray upstairs to the family, before heading down to the dining room to start setting the table and cleaning the silver in readiness for the evening meal. These jobs would often take a while as the butler, assisted by the housemaid, would be meticulous in the detail of table setting, making sure that everything was done to the highest standard. As the sun set outside, the housemaid would hurry around the house, lighting the candles and drawing the thick curtains which were intended to keep the heat in.

Evening

When it came to the hierarchy below stairs, there was no one more important than the butler. For the family, employing a butler was a sign of their status and wealth as male servants were paid more. The butler earned £20 per year (roughly £15,000 at today’s values). At No. 7, he was a general manservant, whose duties also included those of footman and valet. The butler supervised the other servants and hired additional ones when required for a large dinner party. He monitored the supply of wine and ale, held the key to the wine cellar and chose which wines to serve with meals – a very important task! As footman he cleaned the cutlery, Sheffield plate and shoes. As well as waiting at table, he was expected to answer the door and run errands. As valet, he helped his master wash, shave and dress and kept his clothes clean.

A man in a Georgian butler's costume is sitting at a table in a room with an open fireplace.
The butler in his room dealing with his daily accounts

The evenings were a very busy period of the day for everyone below stairs. As the family changed for dinner, Mr Lamont would require the butler’s help to dress and shave, while Mrs Lamont would call on her lady’s maid to assist with her hair, make-up and putting on that evening’s dress. It was all hands on deck for dinner service, as kitchen and serving staff worked together to serve dinner for the family and guests. The servants waited at table, with the butler in charge of the wine and meat, while the carving was done by the host.

A butler and a housekeeper in Georgian costumes are laying a table for dinner in a grand Georgian dining room.
​The butler and housekeeper setting the dining table for the evening meal

Once the main courses were finished the table was cleared of all dishes, the tablecloth removed and the table reset for dessert. The delicious desserts may have been placed on dumb waiters, small round tables which were placed at either end of the table, for the family and guests to serve themselves. They were called dumb waiters because, unlike the servants, they could not overhear gossip! Discretion was an important part of a servant’s role.

With the end of the day in sight for the servants, before they could turn in for the night they first had to clear up after dinner, washing all the pots and pans, and finally put the house to bed. As she did first thing in the morning, the housemaid would attend to the shutters in all the rooms, this time closing them for the night. After a very long and tiring day of work, the servants finally got to bed for a few hours sleep before they did it all again the next day.

Servants in Edinburgh

In the second half of the 18th century, there was a shortage of servants in Scottish towns and cities. As a result of this, servants’ wages doubled between 1750–90. Servants for Edinburgh households increasingly came from rural areas of Scotland, where poverty and the Highland Clearances forced thousands of people to migrate to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Living standards for the poor in cities had improved in the late 18th century, but much less so than for the rich. In houses like No. 7 Charlotte Square, most servants would have lived in the tenements of the Old Town and travelled over to the New Town for work, although some servants may have lived-in. We believe that when working late for important occasions in the house, servants would have slept in the servants’ hall on fold-down beds. The butler also had live-in accommodation, as well as the cook, who would have had a small ‘parlour’ next to the kitchen.

Despite the strenuous work and the exhaustingly long hours, a servant in the Edinburgh New Town enjoyed a much better working environment than those working in growing industries such as cotton mills, coal mines and breweries. In addition to their wages, they were provided with meals and clothes, and accommodation was often given. Working in service did provide opportunities for servants to progress professionally, through hard work, thrift and a little luck.


We look forward to welcoming you to our elegant Georgian House at No. 7 Charlotte Square, where you can see and experience at first-hand where the servants lived and worked.

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