Monday, May 20, 2013

A look at the Country House Servant by Maggi Andersen

As my new release, THE FOLLY AT FALCONBRIDGE HALL is set in a gentleman's Victorian house, I had to research how these huge houses operated. I’ve focused today on the footman, and some of the interesting facts I found. There wasn’t a footman at Falconbridge Hall – you have to read the book, to find out why!


“…Well developed calves and a supercilious expression. Several times a day he partakes freely of nourishing food, including a surprising quantity of beer,” says Lady Violet Greville in the National Review in 1892. Footmen have had bad press. Called ‘lackey’ and ‘flunkey’, ‘peacocks among domestics’ and ornamental parasites.
It was true that many footmen were heavy drinkers and liked to gamble. It didn’t get much better in the 20th Century. When Mr. and Mrs. Chichester’s household went out for the day, the moment their carriage was out of hearing, down to the cellar the butler would go and ring the bell to summon all stable hands, gardeners and workmen …And the beer would flow… both the butler and a footman died of drink. Many an insurance company then would refuse to insure a butler because of his ready access to drink. They were given beer and ale allowances as normal practice. But when you examine the kind of life they lived, it’s not hard to understand why they drank.

The life of a gentleman servant was not unlike a bird shut up in a gilded cage. They had to sit with other liveried servants in church on Sunday. They were chosen for their appearance and paid according to their height. Their livery was expensive. In 1863, a single bill for livery items bought by the 2nd Earl of Lichfield at Shugborough, totalled: 120 pounds 7 shillings and 10 pence. It was usual to provide one or two livery suits a year, plus court livery. In many houses, it was the custom to wait to see if a new footman was suitable before measuring him for livery. In some houses, a new male member of staff was shown a variety of second hand livery suits, hoping that one would fit.

Footmen had to powder their hair – a throwback to the eighteenth century when footmen wore a bag wig with queue and tail. It was universally disliked, as they believed it caused premature balding and colds. The hair had to be dampened, then stiffened with soap and powder. It was necessary to wash and oil the hair at night to prevent it turning a foxlike colour. Either the powder was provided, or the footman was given ‘powder money’ with which to buy it.

The footman was responsible to the butler. For carriage work, he answered to the coachman or the gentleman of the horse. He was expected to help out with valeting for male guests or family members. (You might have seen this in Downton Abbey) He was also expected to serve food and lay tables. He needed to develop a wide range of skills, many of which involved intricate rules of etiquette. He was also involved in menial aspects of large scale domestic management: cleaning, lighting, security and endless travelling. But the job was most closely associated with ‘waiting’. To stand on duty at a specific station waiting for his services to be required, perhaps to mend the fire, take a message to someone, or receive and announce guests.

In the nineteenth century, dormitory or single-bedroom accommodation was unusual. Footmen often slept in pull down beds in the servant’s hall. They were the last servants to retire for the night and considered it early if they got to bed at 12.15 am. Even if a footman was out on carriage duty until the small hours, he still had to get up early in order to vacate his bed when breakfast was being served in the servant’s hall.

In 1896 in London, it was usual for menservants to sleep in the basement, well away from the women in the attic.

The footman might have been called an ‘ornamental parasite’, but the footman was the mainstay of a household. They were a mark of status, and were essential in an age where male fashion was so elaborate no gentleman could dress himself; furniture was so finely wrought that it needed skilled cleaners, and even in the nineteenth century, being waited on at dinner by a  manservant carried higher status than a mere parlour maid.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, the shortage of menservants became such that in many country houses parlour maids took over many of the duties of footman.

THE FOLLY AT FALCONBRIDGE HALL - released May 8th with Knox Robinson Publishing.
Vanessa Ashley felt herself qualified for a position as governess, until offered the position at Falconbridge Hall. Left penniless after the deaths of her artist father and suffragette mother, Vanessa Ashley draws on her knowledge of art, politics, and history to gain employment as a governess. She discovers that Julian, Lord Falconbridge, requires a governess for his ten-year-old daughter Blyth at Falconbridge Hall, in the countryside outside London. Lord Falconbridge is a scientist and dedicated lepidopterist who is about to embark on an extended expedition to the Amazon. An enigmatic man, he takes a keen interest in his daughter's education. As she prepares her young charge, Vanessa finds the girl detached and aloof. As Vanessa learns more about Falconbridge Hall, more questions arise. Why doesn't Blythe feel safe in her own home? Why is the death of her mother, once famed society beauty Clara, never spoken of? And why did the former governess leave so suddenly without giving notice?

Nominated for the RONE Award.
5 Star top pick:

The author deserves high praise

for her ability to capture the

reader's attention and engage
one in both the mystery and the
romance of this delightful story!
Margaret Faria
InD’Tale Magazine
Research: THE COUNTRY HOUSE SERVANT, Pamela A. Sambrook.
Historical romance, Victorian era, Maggi Andersen, mystery, arranged marriage, English murder mystery.


Suzi Love said...

Your new book sounds wonderful and I loved reading all your research on footmen.
Thanks so much,

Sasha Cottman said...

Any wonder it was hard to get servants. Apparently it was the done thing to have a matching pair, so twins were at a premium. What a horrible life, up all day, no love life and being made to stand all day waiting for something to happen.

Maggi Andersen said...

Thanks Suzi, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. Research can reveal some interesting tidbits at times.

Sasha Cottman said...

Great post Maggi,

I promise to treat my footmen with respect in all future books.

I love the cover of The Folly at Falconbridge Hall, its absolutely beautiful.


Vonnie said...

Maggi, thank you for all the footman information. The poor devils. And your Falconbridge book sounds divine. Just what I like (I have a thing about governesses).

Christina Phillips said...

I didn't know all this information about footmen, Maggi, how fascinating!

Venetia Green said...

Wow, so much story material lurking in the personage of the footman! Chosen for their height and looks, tarted up in archaic get up, and paid to stand around waiting for the nobility to get their acts together. What a wierd life! Are there many stories out there with a footman as a hero? I think there needs to be. Great post, Maggi!

Cassandra Samuels said...

Great info. I always wondered what the staff did while the family was away.

Maggi Andersen said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting everyone!

Maryde said...

Loved this post Maggi.
Those really were extrodinary times. Work hard, play hard - drink hard.
Was it usual for a footman or butler to marry I wonder and how regular that happened.
Thanks again.

Maggi Andersen said...

Good question, Mary. I haven't found any evidence of it yet.