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Servants

This is a rare group photograph of the servants at Government House in 1869. Their clothing identifies their roles within the household. The three men in uniform were orderlies or guards. The seated group of women were housemaids with the Housekeeper standing beside them to the left. The young man to her right is a footman and the older man is the Butler or House Steward.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The daily operations of Government House required an extensive support staff. A largely anonymous team of cooks, cleaners, butlers, footmen, maids, nurses, coachmen and stewards worked behind the scenes to keep the House running. Class divisions of the time are highlighted by the contrast between the comfort of the House’s vice-regal residents and the hard life of the people who waited on them. A formal dinner for 18 distinguished guests meant the scullery maid had to hand-wash up to 500 individual pieces of cookware and crockery.

Though they were vital to the daily functioning of the household, few records exist detailing who the servants were or exactly what their work entailed. What is clear is that the bulk of their chores took place ‘out of sight’ in the rear service wing of the House. Staff only ever entered the main domain when summoned by the governor or a member of the vice-regal family – and only ever through the back door.

Servants were differentiated by task and title within a hierarchy. The Butler or House Steward was head of the male servants – the hall porter, the valet and the footmen. The Housekeeper was second in charge and part of her job was to be ‘constantly on the watch to detect any wrong-doing on the part of the female domestics’, including the cook, the nurse and the laundry-maid. Up to 40 people were employed at Government House at any one time.