Downstairs at Downton Abbey
One of the most considerable advantages the great have over their inferiors is to have servants as good as themselves— Miguel De Cervantes
Life at Downton Abbey
The producers of the popular BBC series, Downton Abbey, portray daily life on an estate of English nobility as a harmonious amalgam of people who love and respect each other; some of them live "upstairs", and some live "down". They might have their little disagreements (as all families do), but for the most part it is a happy assemblage.
History would paint a different picture.
A Class Apart
The industrial revolution of the late 19th century created new wealth and, with that wealth, the ability and desire to emulate the aristocracy. Of course, large country houses and mansions necessitated the employment of staff to maintain them.
Social historian Dr Pamela Cox, who co-authored and appeared in the PBS series Servants - The True Story Of Life Below Stairs, says: "Country houses wouldn't have been able to function without a vast hidden army of servants. However the contrast between the sumptuous family areas and the dull, often squalid servants' quarters was stark. This was a deliberate ploy to demonstrate that they were a class apart."
Invisibility and separation were a part of the job. In some homes, hidden passageways kept servants apart from family members. Even in smaller, middle-class homes, servants lived in attics or dank basements. In the big country houses or the great London mansions servants were crammed into shared bedrooms and beds with no bathroom or lavatory facilities. When serving they wore white gloves to conceal their grubby hands.
In addition to wearing uniforms, servants were expected to have matching hairstyles. Believe it or not, another means of stripping away identify and dignity was the use of “generic” names. Historical records reveal that countless footmen were called William, Henry or James, which were considered "acceptable" names. A favorite maid's name was Sarah.
Despite the awful wages and conditions, competition for places was fierce. Tens of thousands of young people flocked from the countryside to work in town houses.
Going into domestic service was often the only alternative to near starvation. Girls worked part-time for two years to buy the uniform necessary to secure a job because service offered a roof over their heads and regular meals. The work was dirty, sweaty, and back-breaking. Seventeen-hour days were the norm; the only time off was Sunday for church and one afternoon each week.
A Loss of Self
To be a servant was to, at the very least, lose one’s dignity.
Uniforms, identical hairstyles, and even generic first names also stripped workers of their identity.
Following is the recipe for a typical meal that would have been provided to the staff.
Potato Onion Soup
Ingredients for Soup Base
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
- 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 3 cups milk
- 5 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1/4 cup chopped chives
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
Finishing of the Soup
- 1 cup heavy cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the 4 tablespoons of butter and the onion and cook until the onion begins to soften. Do not allow to brown.
- Add the potatoes, milk, stock, chives, and thyme. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer about 1 hour.
- Prepare the roux. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
- Add the cooked roux to the soup, adding slowly and whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until thickened. Add the cream and cook gently but do not allow to boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
The Real Life of a Servant in 1920s England
At the turn of the 20th century when the population of Britain was only 36 million there were 1.5 million servants. That is more than worked on the land or in factories.
A typical housemaid’s day began at 6:00 am, if not earlier, and ended at 10:00 pm. Employment was not Monday through Friday, but seven days a week.
As written by John Burnett in his The Annals of Labour:
- Whereas factory work was often intensely social, the life of domestics, particularly in middle-class households with few servants, was often terribly lonely.
- Whereas factory work offered young girls many opportunities to meet, be courted by, and marry fellow workers, servants had virtually no chance to meet young men.
- Whereas young women who worked in factories had both the money and freedom to dress as they pleased, by mid-century female servants had to wear that "outward and visible sign of servility" -- the uniform.
- Finally, whereas men and women in factory work had Royal Commissions, parliamentary committees, social activists, and unions to take up their cause, leading to reduced working hours, servants had none; and as a result, they worked far longer hours than factory workers.
A Guide to the Order of Servants
- The butler - in charge of the house, coachmen, footmen and wine cellar.
- The housekeeper - responsible for the housemaids and carried keys to the china and linen cupboards.
- The ladies maid - the mistress of the house's personal attendant, helping her dress and do her hair.
- The valet - the master's manservant, attending to his requests and preparing his clothes and shaving tools.
- The cook - ran the kitchen and larder, overseeing the kitchen, dairy and scullery maids. (Scullery maids cleans and scour all of the kitchen and its utensils).
- The governess - educated and cared for the children.
- The hallboy - worked 16-hour days, lighting all the lamps and candles and polishing the staff boots.
- The tweeny - in-between stairs maid, worked seven days a week from 5am-10pm.
Example of A Day in the Life of a Servant in 1920s England
6:00 am.--Scullery maid gets the kitchen range hot enough to boil water for tea.
6:30 am.--Housemaids prepare tea and toast for the lady of the house and the housekeeper. Housemaids clean the main rooms on the ground floor. All fireplaces are lit, all floors are swept, and breakfast is made for the servants. Cook makes breakfast for the family.
8:15 am.--Servants eat their breakfast, lady’s maid runs a bath for her mistress and helps her dress and do her hair. The butler awakens his master and attends to his needs.
9:15am.--The family (except for the lady of the house) assemble for a full English breakfast, served by the butler and footman.
10:00am.--Cook meets with the Lady of the house to discuss the day’s business—what’s for lunch, who’s coming for dinner, etc. Meanwhile the butler meets with the Lord of the house.
10:30am.--Family bedrooms are cleaned and laundry is sorted. Meanwhile silver is polished and knives are sharpened. The cook places orders for foods and receives needed produce from the head gardener. Meanwhile pots and pans are being scrubbed and plans for lunch are underway. The kitchen maid is preparing the servant’s main meal of the day which will be served at twelve o’clock (dinner).
11:00am.--Morning tea is served.
12:00pm (noon).--Servants have a well-deserved respite, but lunch for the family is at 1:00pm so there is not much time to relax.
1:00pm.--The family is served a 3-course meal
2:00pm.—After lunch the meal has to be cleared and washing-up done in the butler’s pantry while the scullery maid washes the servants’ dishes, then everything has to be put away again. Housemaids check on the fires, the lady’s maid attends to the Lady’s wishes (probably for a change of clothing).
3:00pm.—Cook is making preparations for the family’s tea.
5:00pm.—The family takes tea in the drawing room.
6:00pm.—Servants eat supper (a light meal). A five-course dinner is to be served to the family at 8:00pm, so everyone is hard at work including the laundry maids (who must wash and replace napkins and tablecloths for every meal).
7:00pm.—The footman sounds the gong to alert family and guests that it is time to dress for dinner. Lady’s maids and butlers are, of course, required to assist with these preparations.
8:00pm.—Dinner is served. Five courses with wine, footmen and butler in attendance. While the family is dining, the housemaids will be hard at work clearing up the bedrooms, picking up clothes, drawing the curtains, and laying out nightwear.
9:00pm.—The footmen clear the dinner table while the maids start on the crockery and laundry. Once this is finished, the footmen start on the glass, silver, and cutlery.
10:00pm.—The Lady’s maid and housemaids stay up until the ladies of the house retire.
10:30pm.—(or later) The butler checks that all lights are out and the doors secured.
The Servants Rules
- Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house
- Always 'give room' if you meet one of your employers or betters on the stairs.
- Always stand still when being spoken to by a lady and look at the person speaking to you.
- Never begin to talk to ladies and gentlemen
- Servants should never offer any opinion to their employers, not even to say good night.
- Never talk to another servant in the presence of your mistress.
- Never call from one room to another.
- Always answer when you have received an order.
- Always keep outer doors fastened. Only the Butler may answer the bell.
- Every servant must be punctual at meal times.
- No servant is to take any knives or forks or other article, nor on any account to remove any provisions, nor ale or beer out of the Hall.
- No Gambling, or Oaths, or abusive language are allowed.
- The female staff are forbidden from smoking.
- No servant is to receive any Visitor, Friend or Relative into the house.
- Any maid found fraternising with a member of the opposite sex will be dismissed without a hearing.
- The Hall door is to be finally closed at Half-past Ten o'clock every night.
- The servants' hall is to be cleared and closed at Half-past Ten o'clock.
- Any breakages or damage to the house will be deducted from wages.
Typical Annual Wages
1910 wages (in pounds)
2002 equivalent (in pounds)
2015 equivalent (in dollars)
Decline of Decadence—The End of an Era
While the master and mistress of the house dined on nine-course meals costing up to six times a maid's annual wage employees were treated bread, soup, and leftovers in the kitchen.
Gradually, however, this world began to disappear and the ‘Downton Abbey’ period marked the beginning of the end for domestic service. Labor-saving devices such as the first motorized vacuum cleaners made housework easier. It became an extravagance for all but the biggest houses to have servants. Domestic service, novelist and broadcaster J.B. Priestly declared in 1927, was "as obsolete as the horse" in an era of motor cars.
© 2015 Linda Lum