Downtrodden Abbey: Back-breaking tasks, 17-hour days… and forbidden from even looking at the family. What life would really have been like for Downton’s servants
22:05 GMT, 28 September 2012
22:11 GMT, 28 September 2012
Life as a servant at the dawn of the last century sounds quite pleasant – if you believe the Downton Abbey version of events.
Mrs Patmore receives an all-expenses-paid eye operation, Lady Mary treats butler Carson like a father, and valet Molesley takes a pew at the big family wedding.
But the reality, according to a new BBC history series, couldn’t have been more different. Servants were overworked, underpaid and often lived in misery.
Mrs Patmore receives an all-expenses-paid eye operation, Lady Mary treats butler Carson like a father, and valet Molesley takes a pew at the big family wedding
Of course, the presenter of Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, academic Dr Pamela Cox, knew all this. The working conditions of the age, particularly for those employed as maids, had long been of interest to her – two of her own great-grandmothers had worked ‘in service’.
Yet trying to recreate their routines for a TV programme – which effectively involved standing in a ‘sluice room’, among the chamber pots that would have been emptied, by hand, every morning – rather vividly brought home the reality of what a gruelling, and gruesome, job it could be.
‘Every grand house would have had a sluice room, which was basically a mini sewage works,’ explains Dr Cox.
‘The maids would have been responsible for collecting all the full chamber pots, bringing them here and washing them all out. It was back-breaking work. Lifting some of the buckets they used (and they were empty when I was doing it) was difficult. And remember, some of these girls were as young as 13 or 14.
‘Just imagining their routine made me feel exhausted. It would have been normal for them to start work at 5am, and put in a 17-hour day.
They were lucky to get one Sunday afternoon off in two weeks, and lived in often appalling conditions, sometimes with four or five servants sharing a windowless room in a basement.
And the idea that they were valued members of the household is a fanciful one, I’m afraid. It may seem that way from the period dramas that are so popular, but the reality is that a lot of servants were not well treated.’
The three-part series, which looks at servants’ lives through to the Second World War, was devised as an antidote to period dramas like Downton, which have given us a ‘fascinating but not entirely realistic’ view of what life ‘downstairs’ was like for the servant class.
Life was a very different story for the servants of yesteryear to those in Downton
‘I am a big Downton fan, but it is fantasy,’ says Dr Cox. ‘Quite often in period dramas you have a sense of some cosiness between the servants and the family they serve.
'But all the evidence is that these sorts of relationships were quite rare. It would have been more usual for the servants to have no contact at all with the family – right down to having to use separate staircases, or even being forced to flatten themselves against the wall, face in, were they to encounter one of them. Some servants felt that they were a “non-person” – and when you see how they worked and lived, that isn’t surprising.’
What the series underlines is how common it was for our ancestors to live like this, whether working in a stately home – such as Erdigg Hall in North Wales, where they had to clean 51 fireplaces a day and wash 600 items of clothing a week – or, as the century progressed, as sole maidservant for a middle-class family.
A century ago, 1.5 million people in Britain worked as servants – more than in factories or on farms.
‘This means that the show is likely to be about your family and my family. I see it as a kind of national Who Do You Think You Are’
And yet putting the documentary together was actually quite difficult because few servants could write. The juiciest pieces of information, like the meticulously written diary of a manservant called William Tayler, were discovered in family homes.
A century ago, 1.5 million people in Britain worked as servants – more than in factories or on farms
Tayler, who came from a farming background but moved to London as a footman in the 1830s, started keeping a diary ‘to improve his handwriting’.
His daily observations – including going on holiday with the family, becoming irritated by the children, and pretending to go to church so he could see his wife – make for eye-opening reading. So too does his conclusion about a life in service. ‘He talks of feeling like a bird in a cage – well fed, but not free,’ says Dr Cox.
As a social history of Britain, Servants is a revelation. In this week’s episode, Dr Cox explores the workhouses and charitable homes for fallen women in the Edwardian era, which were basically factories churning out young women, and men, for service. Were they a good thing
‘In some ways they were. There was this thinking that the best way to help the most unfortunate in society was to train them up for a job in service, with a view to eventually being able to help themselves. But there are also aspects that are questionable, because this was a solution to a growing crisis with fewer people wanting to work in service. The option of recruiting via the workhouses was morally questionable.’
Morally questionable, too, was the later practice of allowing Jewish refugees into the UK on domestic service visas. By this point, in the late 1930s, the domestic service crisis had fully arrived.
Then and now: A young 'tweeny' maid, left, in late nineteenth century Britain, and Downton Abbey's scullery maid Daisy, played by Sophie McShera.
The Balfour Education Act of 1902 had raised the school leaving age – meaning young girls were no longer starting work at 13. By then, too, a life in service had ceased to be the only employment option. Shops, factories and hotels were crying out for staff – and with these jobs came freedom, including weekends and evenings off.
A Government scheme to effectively plug the gap was launched, and in just a few years 20,000 domestic service visas were issued to Jewish women wanting to enter the UK. Many of them were middle-class, and some had had servants of their own.
Yet they entered Britain on the understanding that their flight from the Nazis would mean them scrubbing floors. One of the most moving moments is when Dr Cox meets Edith Argy, who is now 92, but was then a middle-class girl from Vienna who found herself working as a maid in the UK.
Edith had ‘barely held a broom before’ yet had to do the most menial tasks for the family she worked for. At one point she tried to gas herself in the family’s oven, she was so unhappy.
If it doesn’t add up to as comfortable a viewing experience as Downton Abbey, then Dr Cox thinks her work will have been done. ‘You can still be glued to Downton – I certainly will be,’ she says.
‘But just bear in mind that these are the stories of the people whose voices haven’t been heard – their reality was often much messier.’
Servants: The True Story Of Life Below Stairs, Friday, 9pm, BBC2.