Inquiring readers, from now until the U.S. airing of Downton Abbey, this blog will explore the facets of living in an English country house during the Edwardian era, and drawing upon the similarity and differences between the Edwardian and Regency eras.
Many of us today cannot understand why servants in country manors such as Downton Abbey would consider catering to the whims of others as a desirable occupation. In reality, service in great houses was preferred over other jobs that were available during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as tedious and often dangerous labor in factories or backbreaking work on farms.
Unlike their poorly paid counterparts, servants were housed and fed by their masters. They had the ability to save a large portion of their salaries, or send money to support their families back home. At the end of their stay with their hosts, guests paid servants a tip for their services. Housekeepers, as Jane Austen famously showed in Pride and Prejudice, served as tour guides when the family was absent. Mrs. Reynolds no doubt received a tip from the Gardiners after showing the public rooms of Mr. Darcy’s great estate.
Although servants began their careers at the bottom, working menial jobs and catering to the upper servants as well as their masters, they could move up in the servant hierarchy. It was not uncommon for a scullery maid to be promoted to kitchen maid and eventually up to a cook.
A good and reliable servant was a prized commodity. Young, able servants were in a constant state of flux (they worked on average for 2-3 years before moving on), always looking for a better position, which they could acquire as long as their masters gave them good references. Servants found new work in registry offices, where they would enter their name in the registry book, or through word of mouth. (Read more about this topic in my post, Hiring Servants in the Regency Era and Later.)
Upon rising, servants would labor first and eat only after the family had risen, dressed, and breakfasted. When Downton Abbey opens, the camera follows the servants as they rise and ready the house for the day. The earliest rising servant was the scullery maid, or tweeny, who sat lowest on the pecking order. She would stoke the kitchen fire for the cook and boil water. The kitchen maid would perform these offices if there were no tweeny or scullery maid.
Housemaids would tread silently up the servant (back) stairs unseen and unheard with fresh water and carrying covered slop pails. Quietly, so as not to wake their masters, the servants – maids and footmen – would empty chamber pots, remove cold ashes in the fireplace, carry up coal and stoke a new fire, and tidy any messes away from the previous day.
Downstairs they would continue making preparations for the day, opening drapes and shutters, dusting and polishing, and sweeping floors. The only time that the servants might be visible to family or guests was when they cleaned and polished the main halls and stairway. At all other times they were expected to remain invisible as they worked around the house, using the servant’s stairs and working in a room when the family was not expected to use it.
With or without guests, the daily routine for a family at its country house was unalterable, due in part to the servants, whose meal-times were rigid, and in part to Edwadian era tradition. At nine 0’clock, housemaids and valets arrived to draw bedroom curtains and deliver a cup of teac as ordered by the hostess the night before.” – The End of High Society
The hierarchy among the servants was strictly defined. At the top stood the butler and housekeeper. Dowton Abbey, the series, highlights eleven servants who ran the household, but in 1912, Highclere Castle, where the exterior and interior shots were filmed, used the services of 25 maids, 14 footmen, and three chefs. Although Downton Abbey follows only 11 of the upper servants closely, one can see other servants (housemaids, a scullery maid, young boys, coal men, and the like) in the background going about their business.
In addition to the main house, servants worked in the service buildings, such as the stables, garage, dairy, bakehouse, laundry, gun room, and pantry. The kitchen in these great houses often sat away from the house (to prevent cooking smells from wafting up to the public and private rooms) and were connected to the main house via underground passages. This meant that the food often arrived at the dining table cold or, at best, lukewarm.
In the lower common area, servants were summoned by the family via a system of bells connected to each room. In theory, even when servants had finished with their duties and were finally sitting down to eat their breakfast, they were subject to be called at a moment’s whim. But was this always the case? While the servants of Downton Abbey are shown to be loyal and proud of their positions, the Punch cartoon below shows a group of shiftless servants who are slow to respond to their master’s summons.
The servants of Downton Abbey worked hard, but as shown in the series, they knew their place and were proud of their positions.
The Butler: Jim Carter, who you may remember as Captain Brown from Cranford, portrays Mr. Carson, the butler, with grave dignity. He is as protective towards the Crawley family as he would have been to his own. While Mr. Carson is fair, he does not hesitate to reprimand a servant or even fire one if he thinks it is for the benefit of the house. Mr. Carson was not only in charge of the male servants, but also of the wine cellar and the butler’s pantry, which contained the family plate and silver. In addition to his managerial duties, he is shown in several scenes either polishing the silver or pouring over the books and counting the bottles of wine.
The Housekeeper: Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes is Mr. Carson’s counterpart. Head of the female servants, she consults with her mistress daily about the meals, family plans, and any guests that are expected. Mrs. Hughes (even if they are single, which Mrs. Hughes was, housekeepers were given the distinction of being a Mrs.) was also responsible for the linen and china. A kind and observant woman, Mrs. Hughes nevertheless keeps her female team in line. She begins to wonder if, by devoting her life to this household, she has missed out on managing one of her own.
The Valet: (Brendan Coyle) In small households, such as Matthew Crawley’s, the position of butler and valet was combined. But Downton Abbey is a great house, and there are servants aplenty. Mr. Bates’s arrival creates a stir that causes the lady’s maid and first footman to plot against him. A stoic and capable man who served the earl as batman during the war, he must perform his duties of dressing the earl and seeing to his wardrobe regardless of the war injury that requires him to use a cane. For Mr. Bates, the flights of steep stairs can be daunting, and he is incapable of carrying large trays or helping with dinner service when more hands are needed.
Head Housemaid: Joanne Froggatt as Anna is a pretty, quiet, and dependable presence. She works with a positive attitude and champions those who need defending. As head housemaid, she assists the daughters of the house with their hair and wardrobe, but she also performs the duties of a regular maid, dusting, cleaning, and changing the bed linen.
The Cook: Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is hiding a secret, one that threatens her very livelihood. The viewer will be struck by the sheer volume and variety of dishes that she creates and oversees daily. Although only her kitchen maid, Daisy, is seen as her regular assistant, there would have been others in a house this size. At the very least, Mrs. Patmore would have needed a permanent person in the scullery, and other assistants to help maintain order in the kitchens.
The Lady’s Maid: Siobhan Finneran plays O’Brien as a cold, ruthless woman, who trusts no one. When the Countess of Grantham states that she and O’Brien are friends, for they are often in each others’ company, O’Brien knows better than to disagree, but disagree she does. A lady’s maid caters to her mistresses’ every whim, making sure that not one coat button is missing or one strand of hair is out of place. Such a close daily association often develops intimacy over time. The countess mistakenly thinks that O’Brien is as fond of her as she is of her maid.
The First Footman: Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is a piece of work. An ambitious man, who cares only for his own advancement, he will use anyone to achieve his goals, even if it means destroying another’s reputation. A first footman will serve as valet to the male guests if they arrive without a male servant. Footmen are expected to wear livery and are generally tall and handsome. Only the very rich could afford footmen, and thus they were a form of status symbol.
The Chauffeur: Allen Leech as Tom Branson, the chaffeur, demonstrates how very different Edwardian England is from Regency England. Carriages are being replaced by automobiles, but the infrastructure for maintaining cars is not yet in place. A chauffeur not only drove the family around, but he was also its mechanic, keeping the car in top shape, acquiring parts when they were needed, and making sure there was enough petrol on hand to satisfy the family’s needs. This chauffeur can also read and has been given permission by the earl to check books out of his library.
The Second Footman: (Thomas Howes) William’s position among the upper servants is low, for he must answer to the butler, housekeeper, and first footman. Young, fresh-faced, and just starting out, William misses his loving family. Yet service allows him to better himself and someday work his way up to the position of butler. One wonders if William will ever achieve that ambition, for times are changing and the aristocracy will be hard pressed to hang onto their lands and houses after the second world war.
The House Maid: (Rose Leslie) Young Gwen is a housemaid with a goal – that of becoming a typist. Towards this end, she has been secretly taking typing courses. When her secret is uncovered the other servants are astounded – how could anyone prefer working in as some faceless office over service in a great house? Yet Gwen represents the future, in which political and socio-economic changes for women will end their dependency on the men of their family and force many to start fending for themselves.
The Kitchen Maid: (Sophie McShera) Poor Daisy is at the bottom of the status ladder. Subject to the cook’s every whim (and to the housekeeper’s and anyone else who happens nearby) she goes about her duties cheerfully. When disaster strikes, Daisy not only steps in but demonstrates that she is more than ready to step up the servant hierarchy.
Downton Abbey will be shown Sunday night on your local PBS station starting at 9 p.m. Click here to view the video clips.
More about the series: