Monday, February 25, 2013

17th-Century Servants

As I write about my family of 17th-century Irish Quakers, supporting characters keep popping into scenes — I have to imagine and keep track of how many servants John Clibborn would have had. The only direct reference I’ve found comes from a list of Sufferings: In 1687 he took his son “and servants” on horseback to confront tithemongers who were stealing crops. Clibborn instructed them not to strike back if anyone hit them, so I can infer these servants were men. They must have been in or near the house, available to leave in a hurry.

A couple of years ago I watched the miniseries Berkeley Square iconand learned that a footman does a lot more than ride on the back of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage. He serves at table, carries all kinds of things from food to packages, runs errands and delivers letters. Last year I watched Downton Abbey, the addictive show that highlights the life and hierarchy of servants in a wealthy English home.

Susan Ardelie wrote these great posts about domestic servants in the 18th century, one about women and one about men. A lower-income family would hire an all-purpose maid who (I shiver to think of it) empties the chamber pots in the mornings and cooks the food afterwards.

Finding detailed information about life in 17th-century Ireland has been more difficult. MacLysaght’s index is less than comprehensive. Quennell’s index also ignores servants. I skimmed through and found only one image of a country milkmaid. I checked other social history books, but they describe indentured servants and slaves, not domestic employees.

I finally found answers in the Diary of Samuel Pepys. This abridged version starts in 1660, the perfect time frame for my novel. There would be similarities between the practices of the English in England and the English settlers in Ireland. The differences are that Pepys was an upper middle-class city boy who kept a small household and no stables or farm. John Clibborn was also well off — at least, before the Jacobite-Williamite war — and needed enough people to maintain his large country household with lands.

The Scullery Maid by Giuseppe Maria Crespi
In regard to his own household, Pepys mentions “the wench,” who is probably the same as the “chamber mayde,” “my boy,” the “cook-mayde,” an upper maid, and a short-term companion for his wife. The companion could dance and sing. She didn’t stay employed long, however, because after they hired her Samuel Pepys started staying home more often and his wife took notice.

Pepys’ household of servants, usually three, gave him a lively time. One time he lowered their wages and they cursed him. He had constant trouble with his boy, whom he whipped at least once. After struggling with his conscience about firing the boy, Pepys finally found out he was a thief. Pepys hired his own sister as an extra maid, on condition that she act like a servant and not a family member. They couldn’t stand each other and within a few months, Pepys sent her back home to their father.

Pepys mentions other servants among his wealthy acquaintance: a sword bearer, the king’s footmen, the duke's pages in opulent livery, a drayman, a coachman, “his man,” “the boy,” “her wench,” “the girl of the house,” the Master of the Horse, “his girl” who was cleaning, countrymaids milking, a guide (in the city), a porter, labourers, and the queen’s “maydes of honour.”

Since Clibborn was a Quaker, he would not have had fancy livery for his servants. Pepys’ wife got her hands dirty, working with the maid to do the laundry and sometimes cooking. I can see Dinah English Clibborn, who grew up a farmer’s daughter, doing the same. So maybe the Clibborns had one or two chamber maids (no housekeeper needed to manage a large staff), the cook and a kitchen wench.

As for the men, there might have been a steward to manage all the servants, although I can also picture someone like Clibborn being hands-on and managing many things himself. As landlord and farmer, he needed someone to manage the household, either a steward, or his wife Dinah. MacLysaght lists several sources that show the Irish people living at a slower pace of life — in other words, perceived as lazy by the busy, industrious English. I can't decide between the diplomacy of an Irish steward over Irish servants, or an efficient English steward with the friction of a house full of Irish servants who didn’t live up to his pace of life.

Would Clibborn have managed the stable hands and field hands himself, or was there an overseer for the outdoor staff? Clibborn himself (whom I’ve fictionally given a great affection for horses) would be his own Master of the Horse.

Let's add them up: in the house, a steward, one footman and a boy (to run errands and work) or two footmen, an upper chamber maid and “a girl” or all-purpose maid, and a cook. Oh, and a nursemaid. Outside, one or two stable hands including a driver, a gardener, a gardener’s helper or general handyman, and a bevy of seasonal field hands.

Next time: Where did they all sleep?


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your blog anniversary. love what you have chosen to do. I chose to comment here because it is so close to what I have chosen to blog about myself. i know the struggle of trying to write about the peasant class in Germany in the 1900s by reading obscure books and articles - and in German. It's comforting to know that there is the same head-banging problem even if you are writing about English speaking people. Keep up the good work

Elizabeth Saunders said...

Kudos to you for research in another language! I wish you would have shared your name. MacLysaght's book has such good information because he understood gaelic, so he had access to Irish history that English-speaking historians had overlooked.