Story: Household services

Page 1. Servants in the 19th century

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Servants made up a high proportion of New Zealand’s women settlers in the 19th century. Following the English middle-class model, most affluent settlers in New Zealand expected to pay servants to do the domestic work around the house and garden. Because of this servants were among the most sought-after immigrants, and some wealthier settlers brought their own. Most servants who came to New Zealand did not plan to be servants for long. There were never enough servants to meet the demand.

‘Of good character’


In the early 1860s the Otago provincial government offered assisted passages to ‘eligible SINGLE FEMALES above Twelve and not exceeding Thirty-Five Years of Age; who must be sober, industrious and of good moral character’.1


Māori generally did not take work as servants for Pākehā; if they did it was usually on a casual basis in country districts.

Subsidised immigration

Subsidised or free passages were offered to single women prepared to work as domestic servants. About 12,000 female assisted immigrants arrived in the 1850s and 1860s when provincial governments organised immigration. Around 20,000 arrived under the central government’s scheme in the 1870s.

Serving in paradise


On his 1872 visit English writer Anthony Trollope expressed a common view on servants in New Zealand: ‘In such a town as Christchurch, a girl of 20 or 23 can earn from 30 to 40 pounds a year and a comfortable home with no oppressive hard work; and if she be well conducted and of decent appearance she is sure to get a husband who can keep a house over her head. For such persons New Zealand is a paradise.’2


General servants

Most households with a servant had just one – a ‘general’. As well as cleaning and washing, her work often included looking after children, chickens and the vegetable garden, shopping, hand-sewing clothes, making soap, and even milking the cow.

Being able to say: ‘We keep a servant’, was a status symbol, but the ‘mistress’ usually worked in the house as well, often doing the cooking while the servant did the other work.

Bad pay and long hours

A servant had to be physically strong, and have a sense of subservience, as she was at the beck and call of her ‘mistress’. Her employers might even make rules about how she should spend any time off.

The working hours were long. A ‘general’ might work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with half a day off on Sunday to attend church. Many lived in.

Tyrannical mistresses


A Wellington woman told the 1890 Sweating Commission (which investigated working conditions) that she worked a 16-hour day, from 6.30 a.m. to 11 p.m., with one night off a week and a weekend night off every fortnight – for 9 shillings a week. ‘I have been in service at four different houses and three of the mistresses were tyrants. I consider the hours of domestic servants should be regulated the same as those of humpers on the wharf.’3


Domestic service was badly paid. Servants earned 10–12 shillings a week on average, plus full board. At the top of the scale, a female cook could earn 20 shillings a week – about the same as a farm labourer, but less than many shop assistants.

Big houses

Some of New Zealand’s ‘big houses’ had about a dozen servants. Most had a permanent staff of four: cook, parlour maid, kitchen maid and gardener, while a laundry maid might cover three or four big houses. Only about a dozen houses had a butler.

Most servants lived in. They ate their meals together in the kitchen, not with the family. The exception was the governess, who often ate with the family and was addressed as ‘miss’ or ‘mrs’. Other servants were called by their first names. Few families had governesses, though wealthy families living away from main centres often did, sending their children to boarding school when they were older.

A plain, dark dress and a white apron, usually with lace trim, were standard, but parlour maids, who waited at table and opened the front door to guests, usually wore a white cap.

Holiday trouble


Some members of Parliament treated the 1896 bill that aimed to give domestics a half day off per week as a huge joke. One alleged that those in favour of the bill intended to spend the afternoon with their servant girls while their wives stayed home and did the work. The Dunedin Women’s Franchise League also opposed it, saying it would drive girls out onto the streets in all weathers, ‘thus compelling them by law to seek shelter in the huts or tents of men, not notorious, perhaps, for their moral control’.4


No union or days off

There was legislation governing wages or conditions for servants. Attempts to form unions for domestic servants in the 1890s failed. So did an 1896 Parliamentary bill for a half day off a week for servants. The Eight Hours Act 1901 gave them their holiday but, in spite of its name, it did not stop servants being called on to work 12 hours or longer per day.

  1. Charlotte Macdonald, A woman of good character: single women as immigrant settlers in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Historical Branch, 1990, p. 1. Back
  2. Quoted in Desmond Stone, ed., Verdict on New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1959, p. 198. Back
  3. Quoted in Julia Millen, Colonial tears and sweat: the working class in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984, p. 75. Back
  4. Quoted in Herbert Roth, ‘The story of Amelia Anne.’ Here and Now 4, no. 4 (March 1954), p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Household services - Servants in the 19th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010