Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. Originally published by University of London, London, 2006.
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Promotion and Tenure
Promotion within the household was rare. (fn. 1) There was little opportunity for servants in the public rooms, artistic, trades or stables personnel to rise. Most household departments and subdepartments were too small or too fragmented to have a clear ladder of promotion. Some groups of officers did have a principal: one musician rose to be master of the music, one waterman to be master of the barges. The eldest gentleman usher daily waiter usually officiated as black rod. Later in the period there existed places for first footman, first groom, body coachman and head postilion. Obviously, only one individual could fill each such position at a time.
Only in the lord steward's department were there regular opportunities for promotion, but these tended to diminish in the course of time. There were two ladders, one for clerks and one for menial culinary personnel. In theory, a clerk of the pastry could rise through the clerkships of the scullery, woodyard, bakehouse, poultry and acatry to that of the kitchen or spicery or avery, in turn. The last three clerks rotated in filling vacancies among the clerks comptrollers and clerks of the green cloth. The senior clerk of the green cloth was supposed to rise, in turn, to the cofferership of the household. Within each catering subdepartment, menial servants rose via seniority from child or page through groom and yeoman, to master cook, sergeant or gentleman, depending upon the subdepartment. (fn. 2) However, the `Ancient Order of Succession' was never entirely reliable (fn. 3) and became less so as the period wore on. In fact, the cofferer's place was never filled from below during the period, Sir Stephen Fox failing to enforce his reversion. By the reign of George I, the clerkships at the board and even inferior subdepartmental clerkships came to be filled by the well born and well connected. (fn. 4) As for the other ladder, the retrenchments of the periods 1660–1702 and 1782–1820 played havoc with it, lessening chances for promotion among the menial servants below stairs. (fn. 5)
Fortunately, retention of a current position seems to have been something upon which the vast majority of household servants (that is, those below the politically sensitive echelons of the highest ranking officers) could count within a reign, barring periods of retrenchment. Officially, offices held for life or during good behaviour had always been a small minority in the royal household, and most were reduced to tenure during pleasure under Charles II and James II. (fn. 6) By the early eighteenth century, only the masters of the great wardrobe and revels, the knight marshal, the sergeant surgeon and the housekeeper at Whitehall held for life. With the exception of the knight marshal, life tenures had been eliminated entirely by the end of the century. (fn. 7)
However, because many household officers, at the beginning of the period, at least, had purchased their places, there was a strong contemporary tradition that office was a freehold, subject to the same rights as other forms of property. (fn. 8) Despite the official proscription of purchase at the beginning of the eighteenth century, this tradition had not died out by Burke's time. As a result, even the most dramatic retrenchments of the household, such as James II's in 1685 or Economical Reform in 1782 made provision for displaced officers. In the seventeenth century, they became supernumeraries at half-pay, with the promise of reinstatement to ordinary status at the departure of an incumbent. (fn. 9) After 1782 servants whose positions had been abolished were entitled to compensation at rates very close to the annual established value of their offices. (fn. 10)
Moreover, successive royal regimes provided superannuation to old or decrepit menial servants and, often, their dependants throughout the period under a variety of titles. (fn. 11) In addition, towards the beginning of the eighteenth century particular societies, such as the yeomen of the guard, the messengers of the chamber and the gentlemen of the chapel, began to establish their own contributory schemes. However, these were rarely able to do more than provide a lump sum to survivors on the death of an incumbent; they could not fund a pension upon which to retire. (fn. 12) Arrangements for superannuation to middling as well as menial servants became formalized after 1809 when a Treasury inquiry was launched in response to the suggestions of the Third Report from the Commission on Public Expenditure. (fn. 13) In 1822 an order in council pursuant to the Treasury minute of 25 February directed a 10% deduction from the salaries of all high and many middle-ranking officers to supply a Superannuation Fund. By 1833 a pension fund for widows had been set up under the lord steward, and a suggestion had been made for similar arrangements in the lord chamberlain's department. (fn. 14)
Because these initiatives were in most cases too little or too late in the period to be of much use, many household officers and servants elected to stay on for as long as they could, which was often until death. It was notorious that, for example, members of the King's Band continued in that employment well past prime or even possible playing age. In 1735 the lord chamberlain asked Maurice Green for `the Names of such who by Old Age or other Infirmitys are unable to do their Duty, and of those that are excused'. (fn. 15) The most recent study of officeholding at court finds that for Anne's reign, the average length of career was almost 22 years; `service of 40, 50 and even 60 years was not unknown'; and a remarkably high number of servants remained in harness into their seventies, eighties or nineties. (fn. 16) During the course of a reign, removals for political reasons were rare below the level of the highest ranking officers; (fn. 17) those for disciplinary reasons were even rarer. A change of reign or a major retrenchment was more difficult for an incumbent to negotiate, but, in the absence of a quantitative analysis for the whole period, cursory examination of the lists printed herein suggests that what previous work has found for the early eighteenth century applies across the period: de facto life tenure was a near certainty for most household servants. (fn. 18)