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Everything you ever wanted to ask a housekeeper, but were too afraid to ask

Everything you ever wanted to ask a housekeeper, but were too afraid to ask

By Georgia Tindale

If you were to close your eyes and visualise a housekeeper, I would imagine this would look something rather like Phyllis Logan from the beloved British TV series Downton Abbey. Down-to-earth, at least middle-aged, and someone whose family has been part of the stately home furniture for decades. 

Countering these expectations, however, is Alice*, a 26-year-old whose career journey included waitressing, luxury retail, customer service and sales administration until she finally landed where she is today, as head housekeeper at a private residence in the north of England. Here we get Alice’s take on what day-to-day life is really like in one of England’s stately homes, discover the best and worst bits of her job, and find out what qualities you need to succeed in this challenging but rewarding role. 

How did you become a head housekeeper and was it something you always wanted to do?

I started as an assistant housekeeper working under a very experienced, knowledgeable housekeeper. I had previously tried to pursue housekeeper jobs after A levels, having worked as a Mother’s Help during the holidays from the age of 14, but I wasn’t considered to have enough experience.

I gave up once I was no longer able to afford to job hunt and took a summer job as a waitress. The job lasted a year in the end, then I forgot about my housekeeper dreams and explored other career options until 6 years later when I realised I wasn’t happy with my life working in office admin so I decided to have another go.

Describe a typical day in your life

Every day is so varied. The house is not my principal’s main residence so some days I will spend the entirety of the day deep cleaning or polishing, or I will spend the day answering emails or making enquiries for the principal’s next visit. If he is here, I am up early to make breakfast, turn down his bedroom, clean the house, do laundry, prepare lunch, perhaps have a couple of hours to myself then I’m back in the kitchen making supper.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your role?

Working in such a beautiful place. I feel so lucky to work in such a fantastic, historic property. I am fascinated by the history and I adore the location and the grounds. The house is not open to the public but it is the sort of property that people would pay to see. Also, the day to day of this role is so varied: there’s never an opportunity to get bored!

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?

The long days. When the principal is here I work any and all hours which is physically and emotionally exhausting. My life stops when he is here. However, he is the most appreciative and kind man so this is also the time when my job satisfaction is highest.

What are the main differences between how people perceive your job and the actual job?

People seem to think I’m just a cleaner: I am so much more than that!

What qualifications/experience do you need for your role and how do you train?

There aren’t really any qualifications relevant to housekeeping. But my experience in my previous jobs helped me enormously. My CV includes luxury retail, mother's help, customer service, waitressing, kitchen porter, sales admin and analyst. I have often heard of housekeepers starting out as hotel housekeepers. 

What three qualities do you need to succeed in your role? 

Patience, adaptability and discretion

Who else do you work with within your house and how would you describe the working dynamic?

In terms of permanent staff, I have one assistant during downtime or low key visits (just the principal and one or two guests). The dynamic we have is fantastic. At times our work environment is very stressful so we need to be able to rely on each other, which we can! If we are hosting a shooting party then we hire a temporary chef and butler.

How would you describe the dynamic between yourself and your principal?

Personable but not personal. It is important to maintain a professional relationship with the principal. You’re their staff, not their friend. How I explain it to other members of staff is: “If he tells you a joke, laugh. If he tells his friends a joke, don’t laugh.”

How is the gender balance in 2021? Is it still primarily women who work as housekeepers?

Yes, housemen are rare. It is quite an archaic industry in that respect.

How is the supply and demand for housekeepers in the UK, and are there particular geographical areas/cities in which there is more demand? 

I’m not sure about supply and demand but in terms of geography, these roles are more popular nearer to London or in Cheshire or Scotland. The jobs are better paid in the south.

Do you see this as a career for life? Explain your reasoning.

I see this as a long term career. The job is more of a lifestyle than a job and it’s hard to imagine life not in this industry.

Do you have any particularly memorable moments you would like to share?

My fondest memory would be eating leftovers in the pantry with my assistant after a long day while our principal and his friend were eating pudding. We were so tired but we were so happy, it was the last night of the first visit with me as head housekeeper and her first-ever visit. We did so well and we were both so proud of ourselves! It seems silly and small but it’s the little moments like that we will always remember.


Want to discover more?

The housekeeper role is varied, challenging and hugely rewarding for the right candidate. If we’ve caught your attention, take a look at our Villa Recruit jobs listings today.

*Not her real name, so as to respect the privacy of her current employer. 

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