House stewards were at the pinnacle when it came to servants. In large and wealthy families, they were responsible for several important jobs: They hired and fired staff, and they purchased and paid for all the bills related to the household. With such responsibilities, it was easy for unscrupulous stewards to take advantage of their positions and fleece their masters to supplement their own income.
One writer noted that unscrupulous house stewards were methodical in their fleecing methods. One way was by holding regular luncheon meetings with other disreputable stewards where they would share their tricks and schemes and discuss ways to “oust all tradesmen who … [would] not fall into their views of robbing [their masters].”
One typical fleecing scheme was the unspoken practice of collecting a percentage from tradespeople. In fact, the practice was so common tradespeople automatically added the stewards percentage to the price of their goods “over and above their own profits.” With tradespeople padding their bills this allowed stewards to justify their deceitful actions because they claimed that because the “tradesmen are made the means of robbing their masters … [the stewards were] not guilty of dishonesty — that is, they do not actually put their hands into the master’s pocket to take the money out.”
The practice of fleecing the master was so frequent and common, one nineteenth-century person noted that “stewards … are so much on alert, that they do not allow a bottle of eau de Cologne or a pot of pomatum to be brought into the family without laying an impost on it.” In fact, it was said to be so common, it was never even discussed. Tradespeople and stewards just automatically fell into the practice and never questioned it partly because many thought “the practice [was] legalised by custom.”
Although tradespeople and stewards may have automatically understood how this fleecing worked, many lords or master did not. They did not realize that tradespeople automatically padded their bills to accommodate their stewards. In fact, when masters checked their bills they usually looked only to see that the bills paid by their stewards to tradespeople corresponded to the receipts the tradespeople gave them. Masters were blind to the fact that stewards collected an extra benefit and that this benefit was collected whether the master or the steward paid the bill.
If stewards couldn’t skim enough through deals with tradesmen, they could always overcharge on bills. One lord noticed the high prices he was being charged for fish, and “bethought himself that he might as well inquire the price of fish at the shops.” He was surprised to learn the cost of the fish was one-third less than what he was being charged. When he inquired as to why there was such a price difference, the tradesman told him, because it “passed through the intermediate hands of the steward.”
Wine was another way stewards cheated their masters. For example, one Lord was highly pleased with some wine when he was first introduced to it, but soon “every bottle of wine brought to his lordship’s table was found to be of an inferior quality.” It seems that the steward demanded the wine supplier share part of his profits, and when the wine maker refused, the steward got even with the help of the butler: All the bad cellar wine was decanted and the obstinate wine maker’s label applied to the bottles. Then the wine maker’s good wine was sent to a wine merchant, “who made handsome and proper allowances [to the steward and butler].”
Another case of thievery involved a house-steward and a brewer. The steward and the brewer had a deal where the brewer delivered seven barrels of beer but charged the master for eight. The money received for the eighth barrel was then pocketed by the steward, and, in return, the brewer maintained an exclusive contract with the family through the steward. When the brewer’s bill went unpaid for a time, the brewer balked and refused to deliver the eighth barrel. This so upset the steward, he went to another brewer, obtained an advance from the second brewer to pay the first, and then installed the second brewer as the new brewer for the family.
There were several other ways for house stewards to cheat their masters. One involved stewards becoming tradespeople themselves. This scheme was successful if the steward worked for a large family as they could force tradespeople to deal with them for the purchase of certain goods, and, in return, they would buy the tradesman’s goods. There was also a scheme involving stewards creating their own partnership with other stewards in different households. However, steward partnerships relied on stewards pilfering extra goods from their masters. They accomplished this by double ordering goods and then the extra goods (either new or used) were sold or traded with other house stewards within the partnership.
These methods of stealing from masters proved a sweet deal for stewards who went undetected. Stewards could easily supplement their incomes and raise their standard of living through deceit. However, whether such deceit occurred indirectly or directly, when caught, most masters punished their dishonest stewards: They lost their job and received no reference, making it impossible for the steward to get another job. Sometimes the punishment was even worse, because in a few extreme cases, some house stewards found themselves dangling at the end of a rope.
- Fraser’s Magazine, Vol. 8, 1833