England Occupations, Domestic Services (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Domestic Service[edit | edit source]

Economic Contribution of Women[edit | edit source]

The changing role of women as part of the household economic unit has been considered by Charles and Duffin as part of the Oxford Women’s Series, and in a succinct article by Wilson (Not Just Our Grandfathers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 5 #2, 1988). Ordinary women were excluded from public life up to the 17th century but they played an important economic role in the household. They produced much of the food and clothing the family needed, and were frequently in charge of the retail side of their husband’s business. Many also undertook paid work done in their homes such as spinning (wool and woollen cloth constituted 80-90% of Britain’s exports), brewing, laundering, retailing, growing and preparation of food, and taking in lodgers. In rural areas women were agricultural labourers with many skills, and in cloth making districts often did out-work for clothiers. Their labours were very poorly paid compared with men’s wages, and were considered an adjunct to the man’s economic contribution to the family, the type and amount being determined by the husband’s situation. Since there was a surplus of women many supported themselves and their choice of occupation could vary from their married sisters; service in larger homes was a frequent necessity in order to provide both room and board.

During the period 1650 to 1850 the role of women changed as many traditional female occupations disappeared and those needing work had to find it outside the home. Large scale farming edged out small independent farmers and developments in mechanized industry forced craftsmen out of business. Men were forced to take waged jobs working for others instead of for themselves and this frequently took them to the towns. Women who had assisted their husbands in their independent farms and businesses could no longer do so, and thus needed paid work. Concomitantly the growth of factories removed many of the household production out-worker tasks to the factories.

Further changes came about during the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th. The effects of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, and the burgeoning government bureaucracy opened up opportunities for women. The Compulsory Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 meant that vast numbers of teachers were now required, and the nursing profession had become respectable through the efforts of Florence Nightingale. These three avenues were eagerly adopted and have the added benefit of leaving relatively good records. Compulsory Education also meant that the next generation of women were better qualified for clerical jobs and to assume more responsible positions.

Homemakers[edit | edit source]

Batchelor (Wives, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters: Finding out about Women in Local and Family History in The Family and Local History Handbook. 6th edition, page 116-118. Genealogical Services Directory, 2002) has provided a guide for researching ordinary women’s lives emphasizing these important issues:

  • Since women were traditionally defined in relation to males, then use the latter as your starting point.
  • Women often played an important role in their local church and charities, and female relatives may have been educated in religious institutions or been nuns there.
  • Contemporary books and magazines on household management as well as old catalogues tell much about grandmother’s world.
  • Private writings such as diaries, letters and wills need to be searched for, not only for ancestors but for their friends, neighbours and employers.
  • Local history collections can provide much information on women because they have often stayed in one place over long periods and were active in the community.
  • Fiction written about women and by women may provide a way to find out about contemporary conditions, but has to be interpreted with care.
  • Unusual or less-used sources need to be explored thoroughly; oral history, local newspapers, artefacts and crafts.

Since the 1960s a large number of books have been written about women’s lives and these can be found in local libraries. Recent illustrated sources for the 20th century include one on the 1930s home by Stevenson (The 1930s Home, 2000), and another on life on the home front in WWII by De La Bédoyère (The Home Front, 2002).

Royal Warrant Holders and Royal Household Servants[edit | edit source]

Royal Household servants fell into two departments:

  • The Lord Chamberlain was responsible for the above-stairs staff comprising Chambers, Wardrobes, Office of Robes, Ceremonies, Revels, Musicians, Chapels, Housekeepers, Messengers, Yeoman of the Guard, Watermen, Physicians, artists, craftsmen and sundry others ranging from the Poet Laureate to the Keeper of Lions at the Tower.
  • The Lord Steward, and after 1854 the Master of the Royal Household, had responsibility for the below-stairs staff comprising all the Kitchen offices, Counting House, Wood and Coal Yards, porters, waiters and sundry others from the Keeper and Repairer of Buckets to the Cistern Cleaner.

The Royal Archives has wonderful records with a comprehensive card index to persons employed by both the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Steward from 1660. The archivist is very helpful as I found out when researching Queen Victoria’s housekeeper Mrs. Grundy, who turned out not to be the prototype of the saying “Whatever would Mrs. Grundy say?” The records of the Master of the Royal Household are not public ones. Useful sources are the Public Record Office leaflets D26 and D27, Bevan (Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office. 5th edition. Public Record Office, 1999), Camp (My Ancestors Moved in England or Wales. Society of Genealogists, 1994) and the two volumes by Sainty and Bucholz.

Since 1830 the Lord Chamberlain has granted warrants allowing tradesmen supplying the Royal Household to display the Royal Coat of Arms with the phrase By appointment to [member of royal family]. There are systematic records of these and also of suppliers of goods from 1199 at the PRO and their leaflets D27, D98 and D2 should be consulted for details.

Servants[edit | edit source]

The census of 1851 showed the presence of over a million domestic servants in Britain, which made the occupation the second most common after agricultural labour. The number rose to 1-1/2 million by 1891 partly as a result of population growth and partly because of the growth of the middle classes who aspired to at least one maid-of-all-work. There have been numerous books written about their work and life and two successful television series Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1977) concerning a family and The Duchess of Duke Street (1979-1980) depicting an hotel’s staff arrived at the right time to fuel the interest of family historians.

In a large establishment the hierarchy of servants below stairs was just as rigid as that for the family upstairs. No matter the number, they were divided into the upper ten and the lower five. The upper ten were headed by the house steward, who even had his own servant, the steward’s room man, and was responsible for other male staff. Second to the steward was the groom of the chambers, who supervised the under-butler and the footmen. The butler, valet, and cook completed this upper group of indoor male servants. The senior female was the housekeeper, and the only other females ranking in the upper ten were the ladies’ maids and governesses.

The lower five were more numerous and comprised the other indoor staff - the head footman (also known as the under-butler), footmen, under footmen, pages and the bootboy. The young ladies’ maid, upper and lower housemaids, still-room maid, kitchen maid, upper and lower laundry maids down to the lowly scullery maid made up the remainder of the lower five.

There was frequently a host of outdoor staff such as gardeners and various under-gardeners, coachmen, grooms and postilions, the gamekeeper and his assistants, carpenters and sundry others. All of these servants wore distinctive clothes befitting their positions, and the footmen and coachmen on larger estates would be splendidly outfitted in livery.

The duties and lifestyle of the various servants have been described by Ledwith (Old Occupations: Life below Stairs. Family Tree Magazine Vol 12 #9, page 8), Horn (The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. Gill and MacMillan, Dublin. FHL book 942 U2h, 1975), May (The Victorian Domestic Servant . Shire Publications, 1998), Wilson (Not Just Our Grandfathers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 5 #2, 1988 and Old Occupations: Domestic Service. Family Tree Magazine Vol 7 Part I in # 10; Part II in #11; Part III in #12, 1991) and Dawes (Not in Front of the Servants. At least 3 publishers - Wayland, Century and Taplinger, 1973), whilst Waterson (The Servants’ Hall. Pantheon Books, New York. FHL book 942.93/E1 H2w) relates the story of the staff and restoration of Erddig, a modest estate in Wales. The experiences of staff at the family’s annual seaside outing have been given by Weeds. Families employed by the great landowners were often moved around the country to their different estates, thus estate records can not only give useful employment and salary details but may indicate where the servant family came from or disappeared to.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.