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This Sunday, PBS will air on most stations an hour presentation of  Secrets of the Manor House, a documentary narrated by Samuel West, that explains how society was transformed in the years leading up to World War One. Expert historians, such as Lawrence James and Dr. Elisabeth Kehoe, discuss what life was like in these houses, explain the hierarchy of the British establishment, and provide historical and social context for viewers. For American viewers of Downton Abbey, this special couldn’t have come at a better time.

The British manor house represented a world of privilege, grace, dignity and power.

For their services for the King in war, soldiers were awarded lands and titles. The aristocracy rose from a warrior class.

This world was inhabited by an elite class of people who were descended from a line of professional fighting men, whose titles and land were bestowed on them by a grateful king.

Manderston House, Berwickshire.

For over a thousand years, aristocrats viewed themselves as a race apart, their power and wealth predicated on titles, landed wealth, and political standing.

Huge tracts of lands with fields, villages, laborers' cottages, and forests surrounded country estates.

Vast landed estates were their domain, where a strict hierarchy of class was followed above stairs as well as below it. In 1912, 1 ½ million servants tended to the needs of their masters. As many as 100 would be employed as butler, housekeeper, house maids, kitchen maids, footmen, valets, cooks, grooms, chauffeurs, forestry men, and agricultural workers. Tradition kept everyone in line, and deference and obedience to your betters were expected (and given).

22 staff were required to run Manderston House, which employed 100 servants, many of whom worked in the gardens, fields, and forests.

As a new century began, the divide between rich and poor was tremendous. While the rich threw more extravagant parties and lived lavish lives, the poor were doomed to live lives of servitude and hard work.

Lord Palmer pulls on a false bookcase to open a passage to the next room.

Manderston House in Berwickshire represents the excesses of its time. The great house consists of 109 rooms, and employed 98 servants just before the outbreak of World War One. Twenty two servants worked inside the house to tend to Lord Palmer and his family. Every room inside the house interconnected.

The curtains in the ballroom of Manderston House look as fresh as the year they were made in 1904.

The curtains and drapes, woven with gold and silver thread, were made in Paris in 1904 and cost the equivalent of 1.5 million dollars. Manderston House itself was renovated at the turn of the century for 20 million dollars in today’s money. This was during an era when scullery maids earned the equivalent of $50 per year.

Once can clearly see the differences in bell sizes in this photo.

The servant hall boasted 56 bells, each of a different size that produced a unique ring tone. Servants were expected to memorize the sound for the areas that were under their responsibility.

Scullery maids were placed at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. They rose before dawn to start the kitchen fires and put water on to boil. Their job was to scrub the pots, pans and dishes, and floors, and even wait on other servants.

Life was not a bed of roses for the working class and the gulf between the rich and poor could not have been wider than during the turn of the 21st century.

Thoroughbred horses lived better than the working classes.

While the servants slept in the attic or basement, thoroughbred horses were housed in expensively designed stable blocks. As many as 16 grooms worked in the stables, for no expense was spared in tending to their needs.

The stables at Manderston House required 16 grooms to feed, care for, and exercise the horses.

As men and women worked long hours, as much as 17-18 hours per day, the rich during the Edwardian era lived extravagant, indulgent lives of relaxation and pleasure, attending endless rounds of balls, shooting parties, race meetings, and dinner parties.

Up to the moment that war was declared, the upper classes lived as if their privileged lives would never change.

The Edwardian era marked the last great gasp of manor house living with its opportunities of providing endless pleasure. For the working class and poor, the inequities within the system became more and more apparent. The landed rich possessed over one half of the land. Their power was rooted in owning land, for people who lived on the land paid rent. The landed gentry also received income from investments,  rich mineral deposits on their land, timber, vegetables grown in their fields, and animals shipped to market.

The lord of the manor and his steward can be seen walking among the farm laborers, many of whom were women.

The need to keep country estates intact and perpetuate a family’s power was so important that the eldest son inherited everything – the estate, title, all the houses, jewels, furnishings, and art. The laws of primogeniture ensured that country estates would not be whittled away over succeeding generations. In order to consolidate power, everything (or as much as possible) was preserved. Entailment, a law that went back to the 13th century, ensured that portions of an estate could not be sold off.

The Lord Mayor of London was seated at the center of the table next to the Countesses of Stamford and Lichfield.

The system was rigged to favor the rich. Only men who owned land could vote, and hereditary peers were automatically given a seat in the House of Lords. By inviting powerful guests to their country estates, they could lobby for their special interests across a dinner table, at a shoot, or at a men’s club.

Thoroughbred horses were valued for their breeding and valor, traits that aristocrats identified with.

The Industrial Revolution brought about changes in agricultural practices and inventions that presaged the decline of aristocratic wealth. Agricultural revenues, the basis on which landed wealth in the UK was founded, were in decline. Due to better transportation and refrigeration, grain transported from Australia and the U.S. became cheaper to purchase. Individuals were able to build wealth in other ways – as bankers and financiers. While the landed gentry could still tap resources from their lands and expand into the colonies, the empire too began to crumble with the rise of nationalism and nation states.

The servant hierarchy echoed the distinctions of class upstairs. The chef worked at the end of the table on the left, while the lowest ranking kitchen maids chopped vegetables at the far right. The kitchen staff worked 17 hours a day and rarely left the kitchen.

Contrasted with the opulent life above stairs was an endless life of drudgery below stairs. On a large estate that entertained visitors, over 100 meals were prepared daily. Servants rose at dawn and had to stay up until the last guest went to bed. Kitchen maids, who made the equivalent of 28 dollars per year, rarely strayed outside the kitchen.

Steep back stairs that servants used. Out of sight/out of mind.

One bath required 45 gallons of water, which had to be hauled by hand up steep, narrow stairs. At times, a dozen guests might take baths on the same day. House maids worked quietly and unseen all over the manor house. The were expected to move from room to room using their own staircases and corridors. Underground tunnels allowed servants to move unseen crossing courtyards.

Manderston House's current butler shows the servant's hall

Maids and footmen lived in their own quarters in the attic or basement. Men were separated from the women and were expected to use different stairs. Discipline was strict. Servants could be dismissed without notice for the most minor infraction.

Footmen tended to be young, tall, and good looking.

Footmen, whose livery cost more than their yearly salary, were status symbols. Chosen for their height and looks, they were the only servants allowed to assist the butler at dinner table. These men were the only servants allowed upstairs.

Green baize doors separated the servants quarters from the master's domain.

Green baize doors were special doors that marked the end of the servants quarters and hid the smells of cooking and noises of the servants from the family.

The Jerome sisters were (l to r) Jennie, Clara, and Leonie.

As revenues from agriculture dwindled, the upper classes searched for a new infusion of capital.This they found in the American heiress, whose fathers had built up their wealth from trade and transportation. Free from the laws of primogeniture, these wealthy capitalists distributed their wealth among their children, sharing it equally among sons and daughters. The ‘Buccaneers,’ as early American heiresses were called, infused the British estates with wealth. ‘Cash for titles’ brought 60 million dollars into the British upper class system via 100 transatlantic marriages.

Working class family

Transatlantic passages worked both ways, even as American heiresses crossed over to the U.K.,  millions of British workers emigrated to America looking for a better life. The sinking of the Titanic, just two years before the outbreak of World War One, underscored the pervasive issue of class.

Most likely this lifeboat from the Titanic was filled with upper class women and children. Only 1 in 3 people survived.

The different social strata were housed according to rank, and it was hard to ignore that a large percentage of first class women and children survived, while the majority of third and second class passengers died.

Labor strikes became common all over the world, including the U.K.

Society changed as the working class became more assertive and went on strikes. The Suffragette movement gained momentum. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a proponent of reform, even as the aristocracy tried to carry on as before.

Lloyd George campaigned for progressive causes.

Inventions revolutionized the work place. Electricity, telephones, the type writer, and other labor-saving devices threatened jobs in service. A big house could be run with fewer staff, and by the 1920s a manor house that required 100 servants needed only 30-40.

Change is ever present. The last typewriter factory shut its doors in April, 2011.

Women who would otherwise have gone into service were lured into secretarial jobs, which had been revolutionized by the telephone and typewriter.

Many of the aristocratic young men in this photo would not return from war.

The manor house set enjoyed one last season in the summer of 1914, just before war began. Many of the young men who attended those parties would not return from France. Few expected that this war would last for six months, much less four years. Officers lost their lives by a greater percentage than ordinary soldiers, and the casualty lists were filled with the names of aristocratic men and the upper class.

Over 35 million soldiers and civilians died in World War 1

Common soldiers who had died by the millions had been unable to vote. Such inequities did not go unnoticed. Social discontent, noticeable before the war, resulted in reform – the many changes ushered in modern Britain.

As the 20th century progressed, owners found it increasingly hard to maintain their manor houses. According to Lost Heritage, over 1,800 have been lost.

Watch Secrets of the Manor HouseJanuary 22 on PBS. All images from Secrets of the Manor House.

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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.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Servants await the arrival of guests. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Siobhan Finneran as O’Brien, the countess’s ladies maid, Rose Leslie as Gwen, housemaid, and Joanne Froggatt as Anna, head maid. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Jane Austen's World

Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, escorts Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners through Pemberley

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.

Downton Abbey. Jane Austen's World

The registry office

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.)

Downton Abbey 2010. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Anna (Head maid) and Gwen (house maid) in their room. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Daisy, the kitchen maid, lays a fire in the library. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

The servant stairs. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Breakfast at Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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

Downton Abbey 2010. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The servants quarters. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Servant’s dining space and table, Downton Abbey

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.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Back of the house. In the background, a servant scoops coal.Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

The servant bells behind William, the second footman. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

‘Oh, ah, let ’em ring again!’ by George Cruikshank

The servants of Downton Abbey worked hard, but as shown in the series, they knew their place and were proud of their positions.

Downton Abbey 2010. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the Butler. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010. Jane Austen's World

Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes, Housekeeper. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Brendan Coyle as John Bates, the Valet. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Joanne Froggatt as Anna, Head Housemaid. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore, the Cook. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

Siobhan Finneran as O’Brien, Lady’s Maid. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Rob James-Collier as Thomas, First Footman.Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Allen Leech as Tom Branson, the Chauffeur. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Thomas Howes as William, the Second Footman. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Rose Leslie as Gwen, House Maid. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

Downton Abbey 2010.

Sophie McShera as Daisy, Kitchen Maid. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited for MASTERPIECE

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.

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