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Who is going to empty the chamber pot?

Washstand, note candleholders and towel rails

Life below stairs was no picnic in the Georgian and Regency era. Up with the lark, your average servant toiled throughout the day with very little time off. Each had their tasks to perform, but were required in addition to be on call when the bell rang to service whatever whim or fancy attacked their employers.

The higher up the hierarchy you were, the more chance you had to shuffle off extra jobs onto your juniors, with the result that the menials at the bottom got all the horrible tasks. It was a huge operation to run a house in those days.

Consider the lack of amenities. No running water or electricity, so the kitchen fires and stoves were lit first thing, urns then heated in good time for jugs to be hauled up to the bedchambers for the gentry to perform their ablutions. Water was constantly on the boil for tea or coffee, along with pots and pans cooking the next meal, ovens filled to bursting with baking goods, not to mention a roasting spit over the open hearth fire. The kitchen was a sweat-inducing area.

Kitchen, note platewarmers, spit and water urn

Candles supplied lighting at dusk, so chandeliers, candelabra and wall-sconces had to be refreshed every day, half-burnt candles taken down for use below stairs. Ironing clothes meant heavy irons with hot coals inside; ditto warming pans to run round the sheets before the gentry got into bed. Open fires needed clearing of ash and re-lighting in every room before the gentry got up, and the main living room fires kept going through the day in inclement weather.

Maid ironing with coal iron.

All washing was done by hand, put through a mangle to get the water out and dried on racks hauled up to the kitchen ceiling. In town at least the housekeeper could send sheets out via the laundry woman.

Wash day in the kitchen

There was no vacuum cleaner, so maids had to sweep by hand, and take carpets outside and beat them every so often. They also had to dust and polish while the rooms were not in use, which meant early morning for the downstairs accommodation.

Waste disposal came high on the list of domestic duties. The gentry might have a water closet, but they were unlikely to use an outside privy like the servants. But even water closet refuse, along with that from the chamber pots all over the house, had to be disposed of somehow. Cess pits or tubs served the purpose, situated down in the area outside the basement, ready for the night soil men to come and take the stuff away for recycling as manure in country vegetable farms.

Guess who had to empty the chamber pots? Every bedroom had one. The gentlemen used one in the dining room when the ladies retired after dinner. The retiring room had one for the ladies, who went there to relieve themselves before going to the drawing room to await the gentlemen who came in to drink tea before bed time.

The unpleasant task fell to the lady’s maids or other maids, the valets and possibly the footman. One or other also had to throw away the dirty washing water from the basins, usually into the back yard, clean up after the gentry, make the beds, put away discarded clothes after helping them to dress, and in general do much of what a modern mother does with a houseful of children, only without the benefit of modern conveniences.

A warming pan, filled with coals and passed over the sheets

On the plus side, your hard working domestic had a job for life if they wanted it, or a stepping stone to a higher position. In a world of general hardship for the lower classes, they were clothed, fed, housed and paid, if poorly. They might not share the privileges of the upper classes, but they lived amongst them and were privy to their intimacies and secrets. They ate well, and could even forge friendships with their masters and mistresses, especially with children.

Despite its disadvantages, domestic service in the Regency was highly desirable employment. Better by far than toiling in an occupation with no live-in facility, scraping a meagre existence in an overcrowded hovel in a noisome area of town, prey to thieves, marauding predators, and the demon opiate of blue ruin (gin to you and me).

There was security in working in a good home in the best part of town, with the chance to earn tips, inherit cast off clothing and on occasion receive generous gifts.

Emptying the chamber pot was a small price to pay.

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