Downton”s dirty secret: One former maid on the risible relationship between the Granthams and their servants
Too pally: Lady Mary and maid Anna in Downton
The master had his little foibles, and the giggling housemaids at his palatial home in Sussex happily obliged.
While his formidable and over-bearing wife was away in London, they let him have his proprietorial bit on the side.
Late at night, he would lure one of the girls into his bedroom — as long as she had her curlers in her hair. Because that, recalled servant Margaret Powell, was how the hen-pecked Mr Bishop got his kicks.
He didn’t do much, and nor did they. The girls would just have to sit on his bed while he lovingly and lasciviously caressed their coiffeurs.
Thiswas back in the 1920s, and it was behaviour that Powell described as ‘kinky’ in the memoirs she wrote half a century later (and which are nowbeing reprinted).
Nor was he the only master-of-the-house she encountered with strange desires.
In another role, working as a cook for an elderly couple in a house in Notting Hill, Powell had to endure beingpawed by the amorous old man, ‘who liked to put his bony hand on my shoulder and hang over it while I wrote the menu’.
She was disappointed not to be rewarded for her indulgence with a pair of stockings, a box of chocolateor theatre tickets, which the maids who let Mr Bishop fondle their hairusually received.
MargaretPowell’s accounts show an altogether racier view of upstairs-downstairslife in those distant times than that portrayed to the millions of viewers hooked on ITV1’s Downton Abbey.
There,the kindly if rather drippy Earl of Grantham’s furtive snog with a housemaid was enough to give him (and us) an attack of the vapours, his conscience as racked by guilt as if he had run naked through the servants’ hall and had his way with both Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore on the kitchen table.
It isn’t only the sexual relationships between Downton’s masters and servants that seem a tad unrealistic.
Real-life ex-servant Margaret Powell reveals the actually ongoings for maids and servants
This week the show’s writers were accused of making the servants unhistorically clean and tidy for both the age in which they lived, and the jobs they were required to do.
While this is somewhat understandable (fresh-faced maids are far more telegenic than those with weeping sores and missing teeth), the writers may have missed a trick by under-playing the seamier side of upstairs-downstairs.
It was rare that either masters or servants benefited from these liaisons. Powell recalled how the maids who profited from Mr Bishop’s wandering hands, for all the rewards they received, were contemptuous of him.
‘We thought that somebody with his money and education should not indulge in these footling pursuits.
“Whenhis wife was not around, we would not give him the respect that we would a normal employer. We never called him Sir and we would grin like hyenas when we met him.’
But Powell’s respect for the man was restored when one evening she bumped into him coming out of a hotel in Brighton with a woman who was not his wife. ‘She looked about 40, nothing particular about her, quite plain and plainly dressed. Mr Bishopsaid, “Good evening,” and that was that.’
Afew days later, the woman made contact with Powell and the two met up. The story she then unfolded was one of grubby goings-on that put a different gloss on poor Mr Bishop’s hair fetish. He, it turned out, was more saviour than sinner.
Kind: Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham, centre, may have been kind to his servants but it wasn”t the norm
‘Hername was Dora and she’d been a housemaid with Mr and Mrs Bishop many years ago. Their son had seduced her and landed her with a baby.
Assoon as Mrs Bishop heard of it she dismissed Dora without a reference. She had no money, no chance of getting another job and the son abandonedher, emigrating to Australia.
Shewas nearly destitute when Mr Bishop tracked her down, paid off her debts, put her up in a flat and paid for her child’s education. When theboy grew up and got married, Mr Bishop had stayed in touch and every Wednesday he came to visit Dora.
In return for all he had done for her, she satisfied his obsession with hair
“The master”s son got her pregnant so they fired her”
curlers. They used them on each other, not only on their heads but in other places as well.
Butif the fictional Granthams and the real-life Mr Bishop were kind to their staff, the majority of the upper classes at the time of Downton tended to be bullies, beasts and snobs to those who served them.
‘Wewere not expected to have lives of our own,’ Margaret Powell recalled. In her first job she was made to change her name because the lady of thehouse thought ‘Margaret’ too grand for a kitchen maid.
‘Thedehumanising disdain wafting down from on high was a disgrace. Our employers did not see us as real people with minds and feelings. We weretheir possessions to do with more or less what they chose.
Theyregarded us in the same way people today regard their homes, their carsand gadgets. They don’t want them to wear out too quickly, but if they go wrong or become tiresome they can be replaced.’
Not reality: The servants, like Anna, are far too familiar with their employers and would not have received much support in a similar situation
Servants were also treated as if they were invisible, deaf and blind.
‘At one dinner party the guests were discussing a scandal involving the royal family when one of them remarked, “We must be careful that no one overhears us.”
‘Towhich the host replied, “How could they We are alone here.” There werethree footmen in the room but, as far as they were concerned, the servants were so far below them they literally were not there.’
Such disdain was far more typical than the easy and respectful way in which the Grantham toffs treat their below-stairs staff.
In the Christmas Day special the family showed passionate concern for head housemaid Anna and her husband, the valet Bates, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly murdering his first wife.
Contemporaryaccounts such as Powell’s suggest that, in reality, even the slightest hint of criminality or scandal would have resulted in the couple being quickly shown the back door.
Indeed, this closeness between the classes in Downton is causing some unease for experts in the period whenthe series is set.
This week, historian Jennifer Newby, editor of Family History magazine, was scathing about its portrayal of upstairs-downstairs cosiness.
Too clean: Servants working in a country home like Downton would have been dirty and treated much worse
‘Therelationship the Granthams have with their employees is so totally wrong it sets my teeth on edge,’ she complained, explaining that membersof an aristocratic family like the Crawleys would see their servants like we do our washing machines — ‘just something to give us a clean shirt’.
For her part, Margaret Powell, who died in 1984 after turning her lifetime of service into successful and money-spinning books about life downstairs, would have agreed.
‘The rigid social divisions in any ofthe houses I worked in were carefully defined,’ she wrote. ‘You knew your place and you kept in it.’
Newbyalso criticised the fictional Downton for being physically far too clean. Servants in big houses were generally grubby creatures, covered in soot from all the grates they had to clean and dust from all the carpets they had to sweep and beat.
Sweat poured off them as they toiled from 5am until midnight, with the result that, Newby says, they stank. She is right.
Few accounts of life below stairs reveal any time for washing and personal hygiene, and the invariably cold-water facilities for servants were several grades (and many degrees) below those they themselves were required to lug up stairs and along endless corridors to the rooms of their masters and mistresses.
On call: Mr Carson is flanked by a servant who glistens in his outfit
Life as a maid was hard, as Margaret Powell knew from years of personal experience. ‘I was confined to the basement, the backstairs and the miserable attic room that I shared with another maid and which was so cold in winter that the ice froze in the jugs of water we used for washing.
I had to get up at 5.30am to clean the fireplaces and front steps, polish the shoes and boots of everyone in the household.
‘I was shouted at by the harridan of a cook and treated like some sort of sub-human by my employers, who found fault with everything I did.’
It is often believed that World War I was the death knell of the traditional aristocratic them-and-us way of life and that the end was in sight for the social divide seen in the Victorian and Edwardian stately homes of England.
Yet even well into the 1920s, which the next series of Downton will cover, there were hundreds of thousands of maids still living lives like that of 16-year-old Lavinia Swainbank, who worked for an elderly lady and her two spinster daughters.
It is described as ‘drudgery’ — though ‘slave labour’ is how we may view it from the 21st century. She was up shortly after 6am to clean the grate, lay the fire, sweep the carpet and dust in the dining room, library, billiard room, drawing room and morning room.
Then she swept the vestibule and the blue staircase — all before 8am.
“Poor little devils crying with pain and degradation”
After a quick breakfast, it was on to the bedrooms. She wrote in her diary: ‘Help with bed-making and slops, fill ewers and carafes. Clean grates and lay fires.
Fill up coal boxes and wood baskets. Sweep and dust bedrooms. Clean bathrooms.’
After lunch, she polished the silver and brass and trimmed all the lamps before lighting fires in all the bedrooms. ‘6pm — cans of hot water to bedrooms. 7.30 — turn down beds, make up fires, empty slops. Fill up coal and wood containers. Leave morning trays set up in housemaid’s pantry.’
It was grim and dirty work, and toughest of all for the scullery maid, according to Edwin Lee, the grand steward at stately Cliveden, the Astors’ famous home on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire.
Despite his lofty position in the household, he had great sympathy for the lowliest subjects in his private kingdom.
‘Poor little devils,’ he described them, ‘washing up and scrubbing away at dozens of pots, pans and plates, up to their elbows in suds and grease, their hands red raw with the soda that was the only form of detergent in those days.
“I’ve seen them crying with exhaustion and pain, the degradation too, I shouldn’t wonder.’
With a better employer, though, a servant’s lot could mightily improve — as Lavinia Swainbank’s did when she went to work in the service of a duke, who was clearly as enlightened as the Granthams.
‘For the first time I was treated as a human being,’ she recorded in an account of her life, ‘by people with heart and consideration for all their staff.
“We were even granted the then unknown privilege of two hours free in the afternoon, either to rest or sit in the lovely gardens.’
There was fun in the Servants’ Hall — ‘a gramophone and stacks of up-to-date records, where the gardeners, grooms and under chauffeur joined the indoor staff of maids and footmen for dances after the day’s duties had ended.
‘We had a dart board, cards, Ludo and snakes-and-ladders, everything to make a contented staff.’
She had delightful times at the servants’ ball where, in true Downton style, the family waited on the staff and whisked them round the dance floor.
But whether this compensated for the seamier side of a servant’s life — the grinding work, the hard task-masters and their sometimes smutty ways — was another matter.
Climbing the Stairs by Margaret Powell (Pan, 6.99). To order a copy for 6.49 including p&p call 0843 382 0000.