Posted in Mrs Beeton, TV Programme

Mrs Beeton’s Advice to Cooks, Kitchenmaids and Parlourmaids

From Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1915 Edition.

This will be my last posting for today.  Tonight heralds the welcomed return of the second series of Downton Abbey, ITV1 9pm.   I couldn’t resist dipping once again into my copy of Mrs Beeton Book of Household Management to see what advice she gives to Cooks, Kitchenmaids and Parlourmaids.  I want to share with you some extracts from the 1915 edition of her book.  These will give you some idea of what life must have been like for the real life, hard-working servants below stairs.  Life was structured, guidelines strict and long hours were the norm.  Losing your job was only ever one faux-pas away.

The Cook and Kitchenmaid

‘Cleanliness – A dirty kitchen is a disgrace to all concerned.  Good cookery cannot exist without absolute cleanliness.  It takes no longer to keep a kitchen clean and orderly than untidy and dirty, for the time that is spent in keeping it in good order is saved when culinary operations are going on and everything is clean and in its place.  Personal cleanliness is most necessary, particularly with regards to the hands.

Dress – When at your work, dress suitably; wear short dresses, well-fitting boots, and large aprons with bibs, of which every cook and kitchenmaid should have a good supply, and you will be comfortable as you never can be with long dresses, small aprons, and slipshod shoes, the latter being most trying in a warm kitchen, which may very likely have a stone floor.  A maidservant’s working dress, with its neat and becoming cap, is far from ugly, and nothing is more suitable for them whilst at their work.

Economy – Never waste or throw away anything that can be turned to account…. Go early every morning to your larder and while changing plates, looking to your bread pan (which should always be emptied and wiped out every morning), take notice if there is anything not likely to keep, and acquaint your mistress with the fact.  It is better if there is a spare cupboard in the kitchen to keep any baked pastry there, and thus preserve its crispness.

Punctuality – This is an indispensable quality in a cook.  When there is a large dinner to prepare get all you can done the day before or early on the morning of the day.  This will save a great deal of time and enable you, with good management, to send up your dinner in good time and style.

Washing of Dishes – Do not be afraid of hot water in washing up dishes and dirty cooking utensils; as these are essentially greasy, luke-warm water cannot possibly have the effect of cleansing them thoroughly, and soda in the water is a great saving of time as is also a fresh supply of hot water.   After washing the plates and dishes wash out your dish tubs with a little soap, soda and water, and scrub them often; wash the dish cloth also and wring it out, and after wiping out the tubs stand them to dry.  Pudding cloths and jelly bags should have immediate attention after being used; the former should be well washed, scalded, and hung up to dry.  Let them be perfectly aired before being put away.  No soda should be used in washing pudding cloths.

Whilst a cook should be versed in all the details of her position, a mistress should never forget her own duty of seeing that the laws of economy, cleanliness and order are not neglected by her servants.  The servants who reflect that some day they will probably need neatness, cleanliness and economy in their own homes, and for their own benefit, will feel grateful to the employer who insists on the practise of these virtues.’ (1915 edition, pp.40-42)

The Parlourmaid

‘A parlourmaid is kept in many households in place of a single footman, and in these cases her duties (indoor duties we should say) are practically the same as his, with attendance on her mistress in place of that given by him to his master. 

The duties of the parlourmaid – are to open the door to visitors, show them into the drawing-room, bring up afternoon tea and clear it away, lay the table for luncheon and dinner, and wait during the latter meal, with or without the assistance of the housemaid; she keeps the linen in repair, waits upon her mistress, assisting her to dress when required, also upon any lady visitor.  She has often to help in bed making, and is generally required to dust the drawing-room, often to arrange the flowers for that and  the dining-room, to put up fresh curtains, look after the drawing-room fire, and answer the sitting-room bell.  She washes up the breakfast, tea and coffee things, and the glass and plate from dinner, and the plate is under her charge to be kept clean and in order.  She does, in fact, all the lighter and less menial work of a housemaid.

Everyday dress – As a parlourmaid, her morning attire should be a print gown, simple white cap and white apron, so that she is always ready to answer bells.  In the afternoon her dress should be a simply made black one, relieved by white-collar, cuffs and cap, and a pretty lace-trimmed bib apron.

Evening work – Dinner over, the parlourmaid will now have to remove and wash up the plate and glasses used, restoring everything to its place; next prepare the tea and take it up, bringing the tea-things down when finished with, and lastly, give any attendance required in the bedrooms.’ (1915 edition: pp.1774-1775)

At The St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, New Street, Lymington, Hampshire, SO41 9BH, there will be an exhibition between 26th November 2011 and 21st January 2012 called ‘From Parlourmaid to Peer – Life on the Country Estates’ .   On Saturday 26th November, 10am-4pm, The St. Barbe Museum have a ‘Parlourmaid to Peer’ Open Day to celebrate the launch of this community history exhibition.  The exhibition will explore life above and below stairs on local country houses and estates.  For further information, click here.



Social historian, based in the UK.

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