Upstairs Downstairs


Broadgreen’s Domestic and Ground staff of the 1860s

As was befitting an affluent middle-class family such as the Buxtons of Broadgreen House in Stoke, paid staff looked after domestic and ground work in the 1860s and beyond.  The family may even have brought a female servant or two with them when they emigrated from Lancashire in England in 1851 to start a new life in New Zealand.


Broadgreen about 1890. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Edmund and Martha Buxton completed building Broadgreen on Nayland Road about 1855 and settled there with their family of five daughters, Martha, Adeline, Cordelia, and Everhilda (already adults) and Alice, aged 15 and Matilda 11.

In the 1860s domestic staff remained highly prized amongst new immigrants and were often hard to retain. Many young women were quickly snapped up for marriage in a country with far more men than women, and others were lured away by promises of higher wages or to jobs in hotels or factories. There were never enough servants to meet demand.1


Mr Buxton. Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 18614

As the wife of Nelson’s first Anglican Bishop, Mary Hobhouse, wrote in 1860: “Girls cannot be found, even in the rawest state, at a moment’s notice”.2

Paid domestic servants, possibly just one or two, a housekeeper and a general maid or maid-of-all, would have looked after most of the day-to-day domestic chores at Broadgreen. As Edmund Buxton owned a merchant company, E. Buxton & Co., which sold everything from firearms to sausage skins, it is to be hoped he provided his own household with some of the labour-saving devices and modern implements he sold. Such things would have helped ease the load of his domestic staff as they undertook the day to day drudgery of domestic cleaning, washing, ironing and cooking.

Broadgreen domestic servants

NZ. High Commission (GB). New Zealand wants domestic servants; good homes, good wages. [ca 1912].  Ref: Eph-A-IMMIGRATION-1912-cover. Alexander Turnbull Library.

It is likely at least one maid lived in the house, sleeping in the loft above the scullery, accessed by a retractable ladder, but any other staff, such as a housekeeper, gardeners and labourers, are more likely to have been day workers, arriving for work each morning and returning to their own homes around Stoke at night.

Resident domestic staff worked around 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, for very low wages, plus full board.

Early starts ensured the kitchen fire was lit so breakfast could be made and served to the rising family. Open fires in the dining and drawing rooms, the study and the upstairs bedrooms, would be cleaned, set and lit, and candles, or later, kerosene lamps used to light the house.

Water was hand pumped from outside in the kitchen yard and brought into the house to be heated for cooking and ablutions. Hot water was carried by hand upstairs to the bedrooms for washing and bathing, and also to rinse out chamber pots, which were emptied into lidded slop buckets.  Finally beds would be made and rooms tidied.

Feeding the family was an ongoing responsibility, with menus probably planned in consultation between the housekeeper and the lady of the house, Martha Buxton.  It required strong arms to lift and move the array of heavy cast iron pots and cooking implements, such as a griddle, cauldron and kettle, from the hearth to the fire or into bread oven. The cook also needed intimate knowledge of the intricacies of cooking over an open fire, in and on the range, and in the bread oven or Dutch oven. Out in the cool, cob-walled and tiled-floor dairy, butter would be churned and stored with milk and cream, bacon cured and cheese made.

At night, there would be beds to turn down and in winter, copper bed warmers to fill with hot embers before being placed between the sheets. Only when all the chores had been done and the household settled for the night, would the maid be freed from her duties and able to retire herself. It would have been a tough, thankless life, especially perhaps at Broadgreen, where Edmund Buxton was known to be a stern and short tempered man who fell out with a great many people.3

Each day of the week was likely to have a particular set of chores assigned to it. Monday may have been wash day, possibly the most physically tiring activity in which clothing was boiled in a copper and agitated by hand using an implement known as a Dolly. Delicate items such as lace, were washed by hand. Once the washing had been rinsed, wrung and blued (a blue coloured agent which counteracted the yellowing of ageing fabrics and made them appear whiter), it was hung on long lines, where it could take days to dry, especially during winter.


View of a dining room, thought to be Broadgreen. Nelson Provincial Museum. FN Jones Collection

Next came ironing and starching day. Irons were heated on open fires or on the range, or filled with charcoal and hot embers. Each method carried the risk of burnt fingers and cloth, or the spoiling of freshly laundered items from ash residue from irons not wiped properly before use.  This was also a day in which any mending might be carried out as required.

On Wednesday, the household’s carpets may have been rolled up and taken outside to hang on the clothesline and beaten of every last speck of dust.  Meanwhile all the wooden and tile floors would be swept before the maid got down on her hands and knees to wash the floors with a scrubbing brush and bucket of water. This was often repeated on Saturday, along with the cleaning of different rooms.

Thursday may have seen the kitchen and scullery cleaned from top to toe, including cooking implements, work surfaces and cupboard shelves.  Another job was washing and polishing all silver and copper implements and items.

Friday may have been baking day, where all the tins were filled with sweet and savoury foods ready for the week to come. An ongoing job throughout the year was the preserving of fresh produce, resulting in jars of jams, preserved fruit, pickled nuts, and salted vegetables, as well as the cellar storage of root vegetables such as potatoes and surplus apples and pears. Some of the fruit may also have been made into cider or wine.

Only on Sunday was there a day of rest and, for the live-in maid, half a day off to attend church. Come Monday, it started all over again.

The Buxton’s maid may also have been expected to help care for the oldest daughter, Martha, who was an invalid.

It wasn’t only domestic chores that required paid help.  Broadgreen was 100 acres in size, much of which was crop farmed. It had its own granary and is known to have employed at least one gardener and several farm labourers.4

Although Edmund founded Buxton & Co. in 1855, his great love was farming and he was particularly fond of pigs, which he bred and raised at Broadgreen.  Along with a few milking cows, he may also have kept some sheep (he originally ran 2,000 sheep on a 30,000 acre farm in Waiau, North Canterbury), and even some rabbits, bred for fur and meat. Stables behind the house had stalls for four horses, pairs of which pulled the buggy that took him into Nelson on business each day.

Stoke Broadgreen house

Broadgeen House and garden. Nelson City Council

It is likely Edmund had help to plant the many specimen trees around the house, including oaks, English beech and walnuts, some of which still exist today.  Employing a gardener, perhaps formally trained, was expensive and many made do with farm labourers who could turn their attention from farm work to garden work as required. Amongst their tasks would have been digging, fertilising, planting and tending of productive gardens; raising seedlings and cuttings; planting and maintaining windbreaks, shrubberies, ornamental gardens and flowerbeds; maintaining the orchard of stone, pip and citrus fruit trees; tending glasshouse crops; constant weeding of gardens, paths and driveways; and the seeding and maintaining of lawns.5

A large lawn took a lot of upkeep and was something only those with money could hope to achieve. English grass seed was expensive but something Edmund Buxton had easy access to in his own shop. Away from the house, grass could be kept low by grazing animals such as horses, cows or sheep, but a house lawn would have been controlled with scythes and rollers.6

There was a clear social demarcation between staff and their employers and it would have been a scandal when the Buxton’s second oldest daughter, Adeline, was discovered to be secretly liaising with a gardener employed by the family. Thomas Chisnall was a member of a Stoke orcharding family and in Edmund Buxton’s eyes, a completely inappropriate suitor for his daughter, even though Adeline was 31-years old at the time. 

As the story is recorded,7 for months the enraged father locked Adeline in her room each morning before heading off into town for business. He eventually relented and allowed her and Thomas to marry in 1861.  There was to be no church wedding however. The couple was married in the parlour at Broadgreen and Buxton installed them in a cottage built for them at the southern gate of the estate, still standing on Nayland Road and known as Adeline’s Cottage8 or Broadgreen Cottage.

It truly was a case of upstairs meeting downstairs.


Sources used in this story

  1. Tolerton, J. Household services - Servants in the 19th century. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed 29 December 2016).
  2. Tunnicliffe, S. (1992) The Selected Letters of Mary Hobhouse. Wellington: Daphne Bresell Associates Press., p.74.
  3. Le Cren, H. (1977) Broadgreen Historic House. Nelson: Broadgreen Society Inc, p.3.
  4. Le Cren, p.2.
  5. Dawson, B. (2010)  A History of Gardening in New Zealand. Auckland: Godwit, p.153.
  6. Dawson, p.147.
  7. Le Cren, p.6.
  8. Le Cren, p.6

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