Designs for living

Home Up Contents Search


"The maid-of-all -work has to do in her own person all the work which in larger establishments is performed by the cook, kitchen-maid and housemaid, and occasionally the part of a footman's duty, which consists in carrying messages."

Mrs. Beeton - Book of Household Management (1861)


Typical artisan house of the period

By the end of the 19th century, over one million people were engaged in domestic service in private homes in Britain. One in three were young women under the age of twenty of whom the majority were aged between 13 and 15.

They were expected to work 18 hours a day with just half a day off once a week for wages as low as 3 a year. They were fed (just about) and given one or two items of cast-off clothing occasionally. Some found good places where they were treated kindly; many were less fortunate and were beaten and starved by their employers - kept in place by the constant threat of being turned out without a reference.

Typical artisan house of the period 

front view


Floor plan of the house above

(Not to scale)


This site slopes from front to back. Similar houses occur throughout  Devon and, on level sites, the basement area (shaded on the plan above) becomes a large cellar with a grill outside, under the front bay window, covering a coal delivery chute.


The roof ridge between the chimneys shows how narrow the houses really are. Gas was added to most at the start of the 20th century; this meant that the coal-fired kitchen range could be replaced by a gas-heated wash boiler (for hot water and boiling linen) and a gas cooker. Gas lighting was installed in the main rooms at the same time.  Electricity came along much later with meters and connections being installed outside the front door - even then, many houses retained gas lighting in some parts of the house because it was cheaper to run. Bathrooms were a very recent addition and most resulted from government grants given in the 1960s and 70s.



This house is typical of many built in Devon in the 19th century for what were called "artisans" - tradesmen and craftsmen with skills and ambitions to live in a better way than did their forefathers. The builder of this pattern of house appealed to that desire for improvement by designing the house with the assumption that there would be a domestic servant (known then as the maid-of-all-work) to run the house and attend to the needs of the family. In a sense, it was like incorporating a refrigerator or a washing machine in the design - the necessity for a servant was implicit in the layout of the lower ground floor and if you were not ready for this, then you did not give any consideration to this type of home. Incidentally, very few were sold; it was the custom of that time for the builder to lease out houses for set periods of time as an investment, so most people paid rent instead of repaying a mortgage or loan.



The artisan way of life in England mimicked the lifestyle of the middle and even the upper classes. The design of the house, with its entrance hall, separation of the servant's quarters from the family part of the house, together with front and rear entrances approached through tiny areas of garden, aped details of much grander designs as did the little projecting bays tacked on to the main rooms. 

Equally, the manner in which the family occupied the house copied details of a grander lifestyle. No matter that they could not afford a retinue of servants - the inhabitants of these houses heartily agreed with Mrs. Beeton that "one must do the work of all" even if that "one" was only a half-starved 13 year old from the local workhouse.

Rear view of house

Rear view of house


The Milkman

Postmen, coalmen, milkmen - all trade callers to the house used the lower ground floor kitchen entrance at the rear, accessing each house along what was the called the "back lane". Any rubbish which could not be burned, including cinders from the fires and house dust, was stacked outside each garden gate to await the intermittent arrival of the dustman.

The Milkman*

From a Victorian Scrapbook by courtesy of Steve Johnson


Unusually for the times in Devon, the outside privy of this house, which is in a seaside town, was connected to a main sewer so ashes were not used in the disposal of waste as was customary elsewhere. The coming of Brunel's railway line raised the hopes of the local town council that the place would become a resort, with visitors pouring in to increase local prosperity. There had been serious outbreaks of cholera in Devon in the 1830s and 1840s so they realised that nobody would want to visit unless they took drastic action. The sewer pipe was laid throughout the little town before being taken out on to the seashore just beyond the low-water mark - not very satisfactory by modern standards but a great deal better than the ash pit** sanitation then widely in use in Devon.

The outside privy consisted of a wooden box. A hole in the top formed a seat and a handle on one side of the box, when pulled, opened a trap at the bottom directly into the sewer pipe. A large jug of water was kept in the privy to rinse it after use and once a week, the servant scalded it with hot water and soda. Another of her duties was to cut up the weekly newspaper into small squares and thread these on a string to hang in the privy and later, in the upstairs water closet when that was added at the turn of the century.


*Milkmen called twice a day. Ladles were used to measure the milk which was poured into the customer's jug and covered with a bead-edged net to keep out flies. Unused milk was scalded at the end of each day for use at breakfast.


 **Ash pit or earth closet sanitation is still around - the National Trust has holiday cottages available in 2003 if you feel the need to sample this particular blast from the past!

Click here to continue


Send mail to  with questions or comments about this web site.
  Last modified: