Ladies’ maids occupied a unique position in British households during the 18th and 19th centuries. As personal attendants to the women of the household, ladies’ maids were technically servants, yet enjoyed a closeness and familiarity with their mistresses that set them apart from other staff. This gave rise to a set of complex social expectations around whether ladies’ maids could themselves marry and start families.
While not outright forbidden, marriage was generally discouraged for ladies’ maids. Mistresses preferred ladies’ maids who were unmarried and childless, to ensure their full attention and availability. Social convention also looked down on relationships between servants and higher classes. However, there were exceptions, and some ladies’ maids did marry within their class. The rules were not hard and fast.
The Role of the Ladies’ Maid
Ladies’ maids had an intimacy with their mistresses unlike any other servant. As brushers of hair, laceers of corsets and handlers of chamber pots, ladies’ maids saw their mistresses at their most vulnerable. They helped dress them, listened to their secrets and offered counsel. Mistresses came to rely heavily on their ladies’ maids not just for physical assistance in dressing, but also emotional support.
Yet ladies’ maids were not social equals to the women they served. They came from the servant class, sometimes rising up from housemaid. The mistress always retained higher social standing.
This created contradictory expectations. On one hand, the intimacy of the lady’s maid’s role seemed to confer a special status. But on the other, they were still servants expected to remember their place. Whether they were allowed to marry reflected their uncertain position straddling the line between servant and confidant.
Mistresses Preferred Unmarried Ladies’ Maids
Mistresses overwhelmingly preferred ladies’ maids who were unmarried and without children. This allowed them to devote themselves fully to service. A ladies’ maid with a husband and family would have divided loyalties.
19th century mistresses believed that “a married waiting-woman must be plagued with cares and anxieties which would render her unfit for a situation that requires so much patience and self-command as that of lady’s maid.” Any mistress wanted to be the absolute focus of her lady’s maid’s world.
There were also practical considerations. An unmarried maid was more flexible, able to stay up late attending balls and social events. She could travel easily with the mistress on holidays without having to arrange care for dependents at home. Her time was entirely her mistresses, rather than stolen by her own family concerns.
For these reasons, mistresses generally avoided hiring ladies’ maids who were married or had young children. Some may even have stipulated that marriage was grounds for dismissal. While not a hard rule, social convention dictated that the ideal lady’s maid was unwed.
Societal Views on Servants Marrying
Broader societal prejudice also frowned on ladies’ maids marrying. Servants in general were discouraged from marrying below a certain rank or age. It was felt they should achieve a level of maturity, skill and financial independence before setting up their own household.
There were practical reasons behind this snobbery. Employers disliked losing competent servants to marriage and child-rearing. They wanted assurance that a servant could support a family before leaving service.
But the prejudice also reflected a belief that servants should ‘know their place’ and avoid inappropriate social ambitions. Ladies’ maids in particular were looked down upon if they attempted to marry outside their class. Their familiarity with genteel manners was distrusted as putting on airs above their station.
Fears of Familiarity Breeding Contempt
In larger households, ladies’ maids might form ties with other male servants. Footmen, valets and grooms were potential romantic matches. But mistresses often discouraged such relationships, lest they distract the maid from her duties. There were also fears it could lead to inappropriate familiarity or designs above their class. Affairs between servants and their masters were a taboo subject.
That said, there was probably more flexibility than openly acknowledged. Much would depend on the individual maid and mistress, and pragmatic considerations. Complete restriction of marriage was impractical. But conventional wisdom dictated ladies’ maids should remain single and focussed on service to their mistress.
While frowned upon, marriage was not outright forbidden for ladies’ maids. There were exceptions to the general preference for unmarried servants.
Some mistresses were more relaxed than others, permitting married ladies’ maids or hiring ones with existing families. This was more likely when there were urgent staff shortages. Or if a ladies’ maid had proven her competence over many years of loyal service.
Much depended on the temperament and rapport between mistress and maid. Some enjoyed close, almost familial ties, with mistresses looking fondly on a faithful retainer marrying. And a devoted maid may have put off suitors to remain in service, only accepting proposals later in life.
Retirement Upon Marriage
One compromise was retirement upon marriage. A ladies’ maid may have served unmarried for years, then retired from service when she did finally wed. This allowed her to devote herself fully to her mistress early on, without the distractions of family. She could then marry and start her own household, freed of her duties.
If she married a fellow servant, he may have remained in the same household. She benefited from staying in tied accommodation. Her former mistress may even have helped set up the new home, as thanks for years of service.
So while not the norm, ladies’ maids certainly did sometimes marry. This became more common later in the 19th century as working conditions improved. Some mistresses ultimately valued loyalty over marital status.
Duties Often Passed to Younger Maids
When a ladies’ maid did marry, she usually passed many duties on to an unmarried under-maid. The younger maid took on more of the intimate duties like dressing and undressing the mistress. The married maid took on more senior supervisory roles.
This transition aimed to maintain the mistress’s comfort with an unmarried attendant. While keeping the familiarity and experience of the married maid who continued overseeing the maids.
But managing this handover diplomatically required tact. The new maid had to show deference and the married maid couldn’t be seen to presume authority.
Balance of Power
In this way, the balance of power was preserved. The mistress retained an unmarried maid, while the married maid maintained her senior status through management rather than intimate duties.
When successful, this strategy allowed a gradual changing of the guard. But the transition had to be carefully judged or it could cause resentment between the maids. And mistresses did occasionally replace ladies’ maids completely if marriage changed the dynamic.
Class Differences in Marriage Prospects
There were key differences between upper and lower class ladies’ maids when it came to marriage prospects. Elite ladies’ maids serving in stately homes had better marriage prospects than middle or lower class maids. This was due to:
Proximity to Men Servants
Large aristocratic households employed many more men servants of good character. Footmen, butlers, valets and stewards were often polished professionals. This gave upper class ladies’ maids contact with suitable potential husbands of equivalent rank.
Smaller middle class households may only employ one man servant, limiting options. Lower class maids had no access to men servants at all.
Elite mistresses sometimes provided dowries for faithful ladies’ maids to encourage good matches. This enabled them to marry fellow senior servants or pensioners. Middle and lower class maids lacked this financial boost to their marrying prospects.
Married servants often occupied ‘tied accommodation’ – housing linked to a job. Large elite households had entire Married Quarters housing allowances. Superior tied accommodation again enabled better marriages.
Senior servants in large households enjoyed prestige and job security. With a guaranteed home and income, they were in a strong position to marry and start families. Lower maids had less security.
While few records detail the marriages of real ladies maids, some notable cases provide insight into how marital status affected their service:
Sarah Wells: Maid to Lady Elizabeth Herbert
Sarah Wells served unmarried as Lady Elizabeth Herbert’s ladies’ maid for over 14 years from 1775. She traveled extensively with Lady Herbert and enjoyed her confidence.
In 1791, Wells married the household porter, John Newill. She petitioned Lady Herbert to remain in her service, despite now being married.
Lady Herbert permitted it, on the condition that Wells pass some duties to younger under-maids. Wells continued service in the supervisory role of housekeeper and Lady’s Herbert’s death in 1828.
Ellis: Maid to Hannah More
The writer Hannah More employed a ladies’ maid named Ellis from the late 1780s. More wrote that Ellis married a footman, but was soon widowed with a young son.
Ellis wished to remain in service and More allowed it, appreciating Ellis’s competence and devotion. More helped care for the child and commented favorably on Ellis’ character as a widow.
Mary Wilson: Maid to Lady Anna Maria Stanhope
Lady Anna Maria Stanhope employed the same ladies maid, Mary Wilson, for over 30 years. Wilson married the butler John Jones after 15 years service, remaining as Stanhope’s lady’s maid.
Stanhope consented on condition more junior maids be trained up. The couple continued service at Stanhope’s London residence and country estate.
Changes Over Time
While prevailing attitudes favored unmarried ladies’ maids throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, views gradually shifted over time. Later in the 1800s, marriage became more accepted.
Improved Working Conditions
The Victorian servant hierarchy became less rigid. Servants won more concessions like fixed leave, set work hours and time off for church. Rising prosperity enabled more perks and professional development.
For ladies’ maids, this made combining work and family life more tenable. They no longer had to be available around the clock.
Shortages of Staff
The Industrial Revolution opened up more job choices. Fewer people went into service, creating servant shortages. Mistresses could not be as picky, having to accept married ladies’ maids more often.
The Victorian values of self-improvement and aspiration took hold. All classes became more ambitious for betterment through marriage and hard work. Ladies’ maids too wanted marriage, homes and families.
Ideas of female empowerment emerged. Women increasingly sought autonomy and fulfillment beyond just service roles. Ladies’ maids shared in this desire.
In summary, ladies’ maids occupied an ambiguous position where marriage was often discouraged but not outright banned. Most mistresses preferred unmarried servants to ensure their devoted service. But exceptions existed, especially later in the 19th century as attitudes and working conditions evolved.
With tact and understanding, some ladies’ maids made a success of balancing marriage with service to their mistresses. But most still faced a lifetime of spinsterhood as the price of being a ladies’ maid. The role conferred rare status and intimacy, but also forfeited much domestic fulfillment.