Downton Abbey servants: New BBC series Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs


The REAL story of Downton Abbey's staff: New BBC series reveals what it was really like being a servant in 1920s Britain
A century ago, 1.5 million British people worked as servants
Most of the UK population would have been Downstairs…not Upstairs

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UPDATED:

17:13 GMT, 24 September 2012

They all look so jolly on television, forging friendships in the basement and occasionally nipping upstairs to lay the table or snuff out a candle.

But the truth of how most servants lived in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century is a far cry from the soft-centred fiction portrayed in period dramas such as Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and Gosford Park.

A 'Tweeny' servant who worked seven days a week, from 5am until 10pm, and was paid 13 a year.

Downton Abbey's kitchen maid Daisy Robinson, played by Sophie McShera.

Then and now: A young 'tweeny' maid, left, in 1920s Britain, and Downton Abbey's scullery maid Daisy, played by Sophie McShera.

As a rule, most servants
tended to work not in big stately homes full of fellow workers and
camaraderie but as the lone member of staff in a middle class town house –
and lives for these people was lonely, dark and damp, according to a
new BBC documentary series.

Servants: the True Story Of Life Below Stairs explores the reality of life as a servant in Britain from the Victorian era through to the Second World War.

A century ago, 1.5 million British people worked as servants

In her three-part series, social historian Dr Pamela Cox – herself the great-granddaughter of servants – explains that life for these people was much less 'cosy' than is imagined in television period dramas.

The house cook would typically run the kitchen and the larder and oversee all the scullery maids.

Lesley Nicol as cook Beryl Patmore in Downton Abbey.

The way we were: A British cook and Downton Abbey's cook Mrs Patmore, played by Lesley Nicol.

Dr Cox reveals that her own ancestors never enjoyed their time as servants as much as those in ITV's Downton Abbey seem to.

A GUIDE TO VICTORIAN 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. 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 earned 13 a year, worked seven days a week from 5am-10pm.

BBC

Thanks to the emergence of the new
middle classes, the majority of household staff worked as the only
servant in a home.

And instead of partaking in a lively, jolly dinner after serving the family upstairs, these servants would live and eat alone in Britain's dark, damp,
dirty basement kitchens.

Servants in grand houses fared little better.

Staff in stately homes were kept hidden from the 'polite' eyes of their masters with complex mazes of hidden passages throughout the home, helpful when trying to enforce complete segregation.

Moreover, strict servant hierarchy even separated staff from each other.

Dr Cox explains that in 1901 one in four people were domestic servants, mostly women, and that these people were seldom seen as 'working-class heroes'.

Servants tended to work seven days a week, often from as early as 5am until as late as 10pm, for very little money.

And, unlike the kind and empathetic Crawley family of Downton Abbey, employers were unlikely to take pity on staff who were overworked, exhausted or ill – even if they were just children.

Servants: The True Story Of Life Below The Stairs starts on Friday on BBC2 at 9pm.

1920's Servant posing

Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates, Mary's lady's maid, in Downton Abbey.

A maid's work: A 1920s maid and Downton Abbey's lady's maid Anna Bates, played by Joanne Froggatt

A 1920's gardener.

Brendan Coyle as Bates, Lord Grantham's former valet at Downton Abbey.

Domestic life: A gardener in Britain in the early twentieth century, left, and Downton Abbey's Mr Bates, right, Lord Grantham's former valet, played by Brendan Coyle.

A 1920s family with their solitary servant.

A 1920s family with their solitary servant.

Downton Abbey's staff of twelve.

Downton Abbey's staff of twelve.

A group of women partake in garden tea in Edwardian Britain, served by a maid.

A group of women partake in garden tea in Edwardian Britain, served by a maid.

Downton Abbey portrays the life of a servant as completely endurable, even enjoyable, but in reality life below the stairs was often very lonely and pretty miserable.

Downton Abbey portrays the life of a servant as completely endurable, even enjoyable, but in reality life below the stairs was often very lonely and pretty miserable.

Most servants in Britain were the only member of staff in the home, unlike in Downton Abbey where a staff of twelve runs the house.

Most servants in Britain were the only member of staff in the home, unlike in Downton Abbey where a staff of twelve runs the house.