The truth about Downton

The truth about Downton

As Downton Abbey prepares for its fourth series, we take a look below stairs.

Imagine a world where 12-year-old girls are put into service for £12 a year, where maids work from 6am until late at night, seven days a week, with just one day off a month and no annual holiday, and where families live in ostentatious opulence while their staff freeze in attic bedrooms.

It's hard to believe that these were the conditions for Britain's domestic staff just 100 years ago. Yet, during the Edwardian era, service was still the largest form of employment in the UK. The 1911 census showed that 1.3 million people in England and Wales worked "below stairs" and many of those would have been in average middle-class homes, employed by doctors, lawyers and office clerks, rather than dukes and princes.

With millions of families living in stifling poverty, going into service was a sought-after alternative to near starvation but it was no easy option. From scullery maid to housekeeper and butler, the domestic servant was at the beck and call of their employers every hour of the day. While their employers dined on nine-course meals, costing up to six times a maid's annual wage, they were treated to the leftover cold cuts in the basement kitchen. And while the ladies of house bought the finest dresses for their parties and debutante balls, girls as young as 10 had to work elsewhere for up to two years to save enough pennies to buy their own uniform before going into service.

During research for my book Life Below Stairs, I came across Londoner Dorothy Green. An orphanage child, Dorothy was put out to work at the age of 11 to save for her uniform. "I went to work at a local house for a few hours each day, scrubbing floors, sweeping up and cleaning the range. They weren't grand enough to have a proper maid so they paid me two shillings a week and I wore my own clothes. It took two years to buy the material and sew my first cotton dress and aprons for service, and buy the plain black costume, but I was glad when I had because it meant I could get a position in a good house."

In 1901, the yearly wage for a scullery maid was £12, the equivalent of £685 today. A butler could earn the princely sum of £60 per year, (£3,423 today) while a housekeeper earned £45 (£2,565). Yet in the larger Edwardian houses, a generous host thought nothing of spending £60 on one dinner party.

Rules of behaviour

In the class-conscious Edwardian society, a strict hierarchy was observed even among the servants themselves, as one maid, Queenie Cox, discovered. At the age of 14, Queenie worked in the same big house as her older sister, who was nursemaid to four children, and the two girls were forbidden from socialising. She recalled: "One morning I called my sister by her Christian name and the lady of the house, who was an utter snob, corrected me: 'Nurse, please!' If I saw my sister out with the children she was not allowed to speak to me, or me to her, nurses were on a higher level, you see."

Above stairs, a tough code of conduct was observed and the ordinary maids had almost no interaction with their employers at all. Downstairs rooms were cleaned and hearths swept before the family rose for breakfast and if they met in the corridor, the maid was obliged to turn her face to the wall until the family member had passed. A booklet produced by the Ladies' Sanitary Association in 1901 entitled Rules For the Manners of Servants in Good Families,laid out a list of rules which included the following:

Always move quietly about the house, and do not let your voice be heard by the family unless necessary

Never sing or whistle at your work where the family would be likely to hear you

Do not call out from room to room and if you are a housemaid, be careful not only to do your work quietly but to keep out of sight as much as possible

Never begin to talk to the ladies and gentlemen, unless it be to deliver a message or ask a necessary question

Do not talk to your fellow servants or the children of the family in the passages or sitting rooms, or in the presence of ladies and gentlemen

Always answer when you receive an order or a reproof, either: "yes ma'am" or "I am very sorry ma'am" to show you have heard

Should you be required to walk with a lady or gentleman, in order to carry a parcel or otherwise, always keep a few paces behind

Do not smile at droll stories told in your presence or seem in any way to notice, or enter into, the family conversation, or the talk at table, or with visitors

But even as the more fortunate Edwardians basked in the lap of luxury, the winds of change were beginning to blow. Opportunities in shops, manufacturing and offices were offering young girls higher wages and more free time, the suffragette movement was filling the newspapers and the lower classes, who once "knew their place", were beginning to demand more from their middle and upper class employers.

"The servant problem" was a frequent topic of conversation in society drawing rooms and politicians anxiously discussed what could be done to encourage more workers to choose domestic service. In 1914, the First World War saw the end of the golden age of domestic service. Life below stairs was soon to become a thing of the past.  

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney is published by Michael O'Mara Books.

The fourth series of Downton Abbey begins this autumn.