The Role Of A Regency Housekeeper
By Jessie Lewis, author of Unfounded
Mr Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, is seen only once in Pride and Prejudice—when she shows Elizabeth and the Gardiners around Pemberley. But giving visitors tours of the house was a tiny part of a nineteenth century housekeeper’s duties, and in Unfounded, we see a lot more of what this redoubtable overseer of the household actually got up to on a day-to-day basis.
At this time in history, estates as large as Pemberley would have required an army of servants to maintain the house and grounds. Exact numbers varied significantly, but historical records for some of the largest houses in the country list servants in their hundreds. By far the greatest proportion of employees for most stately homes worked outdoors, chiefly in the grounds and stables. There was no shortage of work to be done inside the house, however, and a large roll of servants was required to do it. The largest houses employed a steward to oversee the whole enterprise, just as Darcy does in Pride and Prejudice. Beneath him, the running of the house was the responsibility of the butler and housekeeper.
The butler was the most senior member of household staff, and he had authority over almost all the indoor male servants, including under butlers, footmen, porters, and hall boys. The housekeeper had jurisdiction over most of the female servants, from the housemaids and stillroom maids at the top of the ladder, down to laundry, kitchen, dairy, scullery, and all other ilk of maid beneath her. Exceptions to this hierarchy were valets, lady’s maids, nursemaids, governesses, and chefs/cooks. This group of servants were employed directly by and reported directly to the family, though where there was a steward in place, they would likely have received wages from him.
The Woman Herself
It was rare—though not unheard of—for housekeepers to be married. The distraction of childbearing and motherhood was considered incompatible with the commitment to the work required of a housekeeper. These women worked incredibly hard, with very little time off, and had barely any time for family—but there were some perks to the job, which made it a highly desirable position to obtain. A steady and not inconsiderable income, often a pension and estate cottage when she retired (though many worked until they died), a guaranteed roof over her head while she was still working, and hot food every day were the minimum she could expect. Unlike the maids, who more commonly had to share accommodation—or the lower servants, who were sometimes required to bunk down in the servants’ hall—the housekeeper had her own rooms, which she was permitted to furnish quite comfortably. The gift of leftover luxury items from the family was not an unusual show of esteem, and she was given first pick of any gowns the mistress was passing on to charity. (Housekeepers in the Regency era did not wear the stereotypical black garb the Victorians later took to wearing. They wore their own clothes, though they were of course required to dress appropriately for their station and with practicality in mind.)
It was a highly respected position, and regardless of her marital status, the housekeeper was always referred to as ‘Mrs’ by both the servants and the family as a mark of respect. She was paid well; the housekeeper at Dunham Massey in Manchester received a £35 annual salary in 1819. It will surprise no one to discover that was less than half what her male counterpart, the butler, was paid, but it was a good deal more than the £10 a year her housemaids received. Since the housekeeper was provided board and lodging, she would have been able to save most of her wages, or send them to family if she desired. She would also have received tips from her employers or their guests if she ran errands or did favours for them, and visitors to whom she gave a tour of the house would invariably leave a tip. The housekeeper of Erddig Hall in Wales left £1300 in her will when she died in 1875. For context, that amount has an equivalent purchasing power of about £190,000 in 2023. This was over half a century after the end of the Regency era, but it still gives an idea of how much a housekeeper’s minimal expenditure would have enabled her to save.
A Housekeeper’s Duties
The role of a housekeeper was essentially one of management. It was for her to ensure that every maid knew her duties and performed them well, and to dismiss those who did not; to write character references for those who moved on to other employment; to interview replacements, train new recruits, and to resolve any interpersonal issues that arose between the incumbent servants. Like all good managers, she would have been required to understand how every job was done in order to know whether it was being done correctly, thus her familiarity with the work her maids were doing was extensive. She would know the workings of the laundry, the timings of the dairy, every cleaning method employed by her housemaids, and which tool should be used for every job from the cloths for the silver to the scourers for the pots.
The housekeeper would have overseen the paying of her maids’ wages, as well as those of any day labourers or external help brought into the house. Often, when the family was hosting large house parties, extra maids would be hired to make up numbers—and always, specialist jobs such as chimney sweeping, curtain-washing, pot mending, and many more, would have seen local craftspeople brought in for ad-hoc work. The housekeeper would have known precisely whom to summon for which job and had all the necessary contacts, often exchanging names and information with the housekeepers of nearby stately homes. It was not uncommon for housekeepers to receive gifts from local suppliers and tradespeople—a large country house could provide a great deal of regular work, and the housekeeper was the gatekeeper to that income stream. Staying in her good books was always a good idea!
Many large houses kept a peripatetic body of servants who moved, along with the family, between properties. The housekeeper would not have been one of them, always remaining in residence at ‘her’ house, but she would have been responsible for managing the itinerant maids. Constant communication with the housekeeper/s at the family’s other house/s was essential to ensure the family’s plans were efficiently facilitated. Even when the family was not moving about, belongings and supplies would still have been regularly transported between residences as and when required. A favourite pair of gloves, left behind at the London house when the family retired to the country for the summer, or a request for produce from the country residence for the family to enjoy while they were in town, an order of sheet music from a London shop—these sorts of things would all have been for the housekeeper to arrange.
The housekeeper was also in charge of all stores—and in a house the size of Pemberley, these would have been extensive. Every item in the house, from boot polish and candles to tea leaves and whale bone, needed to be ordered in, and she needed to ensure there was always enough of everything. When it came to food, she liaised with the family and the cook to plan the menus and order in the necessary produce from the local vendors or in some cases, the estate’s own manufacturers. She had to ensure there was the necessary equipment available, meaning she must procure the pots and pans, arrange for the knives to be sharpened, buy the polish for shining the silver, have the ovens cleaned and the chimneys swept. She must ensure all servants had the provisions they required to do their jobs in the house—and, for those who lived on the premises, to look after themselves. That meant soap for personal use must be dished out as often as blacking for polishing the grates, and hair combs as often as broom heads.
The housekeeper was in charge of ordering, inventorying, budgeting, and settling bills for everything in her stores, often placing orders and settling bills for things the family had ordered, too. This meant she was entrusted with huge sums of the family’s money, not to mention their reputation. Stately homes were essentially big, stone declarations of affluence and consequence; a well-presented, well-run house could be the key to convincing the world its owner was to be taken seriously. If the housekeeper managed her business badly, money and good names could be irredeemably lost. If she managed it well, she gave the family’s reputation a solid foundation. For this reason, loyalty and devotion were prized virtues in a housekeeper.
Mrs Reynolds, Pemberley’s housekeeper, considers Mr Darcy “the best landlord and the best master that ever lived,” and she has his best interests at heart in all that she does. Nevertheless, in Unfounded we see that all the devotion in the world is not necessarily enough, and a housekeeper’s intimacy with the family makes her uniquely placed to do as much damage as good to the family she serves.
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