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The Butler Did It

This is another in our occasional series on servants young ladies of the upper classes would have encountered in the 19th century. We have already discussed nannies here and governesses here and here.

So what did the butler do?

Perhaps a better question might be, what didn’t the butler do?

In a 19th century household, the butler was often the chief of staff. In extremely grand and important families, especially where several houses were owned, there might be a house steward or comptroller whose job it was to supervise all household staff including hiring and firing and take care of all household accounting. But in an average wealthy or upper middle class household, the chief servant was probably the butler.

Looking back in history, the butler’s job revolved around the keeping of the household’s beverage supply and dishware, and in the 19th century, these would still be among his jobs. It was up to the butler to maintain the household wine cellars (including beer, ale, and other spirits, as well as the wine) and choose and serve wines for the family table…no small job, when you think about the quantities and sheer number of different wines that were served at meals as well as the fact that wine was purchased by the barrel or pipe and had to be decanted into bottles and properly recorded and stored in the correct part of the cellar for its type. Some butlers might actually be brewmasters as well, and brew the household’s beer, ale, or cider. Needless to say, alcoholism was considered to be an occupational hazard of butlery. The butler also oversaw the household plate: it was his job to keep any silver (or gold) gleaming when in use, and safely stored under lock and key when it wasn’t.

The duties of a butler, as laid out in the fascinating book The Complete Servant, published in 1825 by Samuel and Sarah Adams, a married butler and housekeeper, were quite specific: he aided in the setting of tables, supervising the under-butler and footmen in laying out dishes and utensils, and remained in the dining room during meals with footman or two or three to assist in serving food and wine, direct clearing of the table between courses, and assist in any way needed. He also would bring tea trays in at tea time and hand round cups…and it was his job to make sure there were sufficient candles in each room where needed.

But the butler was also, as the Adamses state, “supposed….to represent his master”, which meant he also might be occupied in hiring and firing lower servants, keeping accounts and paying household bills apart from those which fell under the housekeeper’s purview, and generally keeping the household in order in addition to his wine and serving duties. Supervision of all male indoor servants (under-butlers, footmen, “boys”, and porters) was generally up to the butler, if the household did not have a comptroller. He was where the buck stopped; a good butler who could keep a household running smoothly would be treasured by his employers, and be more or less assured of a job for life, with a good pension when he retired. Butlers often rose through the ranks to achieve their positions: they started out at an early age “in service” first as boot boys or pages, then progressed to footman, then first footman or under-butler, where, if they wanted to, they could train specifically in a butler’s duties.

Because of his responsible position, a butler could earn as much as ₤50-80 per year, according to The Complete Servant—not a bad salary in 1825. Just as ladies’ maids could supplement their salaries with the cast-off clothing of their mistresses, butlers could supplement theirs by selling candle ends (Yes, really! Beeswax candles were very expensive)…and a great many must have received nice tips from the wine-merchants and other tradesmen they dealt with.

So that’s what the butler did.


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