What was life really like as a servant in the 19th-20th Centuries?

Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downtairs fans,

I highly recommend you read this article by BBC: Servants – A life below stairs or the summarised (and Downton-related) version by the Daily Mail: Downton Abbey servants: New BBC series Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.

Many of us have fallen in love with the idyllic world in England, of life in a manor or an upper-class apartment. It’s almost too perfect, with servants and lords and ladies mingling as one big family, everyone so compassionate and merciful. For those of you who do not read history, these TV shows may have already presented you with a distorted image of the late 19th – early 20th Centuries. Unfortunately, if you travelled back in time to life in Downton Abbey, hoping to land a job as a servant for the Crawleys, don’t expect life to be a magical dream. There were advantages and disadvantages that came with each job, whether you are male or female.

Let’s take a look at the following [Victorian servant] roles, along with an illustration of the hierarchy among servants:

  • The butler – in charge of the house, coachmen and footmen. He looked after the family and the wine cellar
  • The housekeeper – responsible for the housemaids and carried the keys to the china and linen cupboards
  • The ladies maid – the mistress of the house’s personal attendant, helping her to dress and do her hair
  • The valet – the master’s manservant, attending to his requests and preparing his clothes and shaving tools
  • The cook – ran the kitchen and larder, overseeing the kitchen, dairy and scullery maids
  • The governess– educated and cared for the children with the head and under nurse
  • The hallboy – worked 16-hour days, lighting all the lamps and candles and polishing the staff boots before they woke up
  • The tweeny – in-between stairs maid earned £13 a year, worked seven days a week from 5am-10pm and looked after slop duty.
Victorian servants - graphic taken from Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs

– BBC’s Servants: A life below stairs

Now let’s observe what the general rules were, based on those from Hinchingbrooke House, an example of strict expectations for servants:

  • Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house
  • Always ‘give room’ if you meet one of your employers or betters on the stairs.
  • Always stand still when being spoken to by a lady and look at the person speaking to you.
  • Never begin to talk to ladies and gentlemen.
  • Servants should never offer any opinion to their employers, nor even to say good night.
  • Never talk to another servant in the presence of your mistress.
  • Never call from one room to another.
  • Always answer when you have received an order.
  • Always keep outer doors fastened. Only the butler may answer the bell.
  • Every servant must be punctual at meal times.
  • No servant is to take any knives or forks or other article, nor on any account to remove any provisions, nor ale or beer out of the hall.
  • No gambling, or oaths, or abusive language are allowed.
  • The female staff are forbidden from smoking.
  • No servant is to receive any visitor, friend or relative into the house.
  • Any maid found fraternising with a member of the opposite sex will be dismissed without a hearing.
  • The hall door is to be finally closed at half-past ten every night.
  • The servants’ hall is to be cleared and closed at half-past ten at night.
  • Any breakages or damage to the house will be deducted from wages.

Not an ideal job, is it? Now aren’t you glad you’re living in the 21st Century?

When I first watched Downton Abbey, I admit that I’d allowed myself to be temporarily blinded, despite the fact that I was aware of the conditions during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I imagined what life would’ve been like for my great-grandmother in Germany as a governess (or perhaps she was simply the children’s nurse) in a rich family’s home. She could admire the furniture and interiors of the grand house every day, then enjoy a day off and conveniently meet her future-husband on the street, on her way home. How romantic. Sadly, I don’t know what life was like for her and for all I know, maybe she lived with a horrible family who never smiled. What I do know is that she didn’t have to work as a servant for life, for she went on to marry, had 3 children, of whom one became my grandmother.

If you enjoy watching documentaries or are interested in learning more about history, BBC2 will be airing Servants: The True Story of Life Below the Stairs, a 3-episode documentary by Dr Pamela Cox on the lives of servants in the British Isles on Friday, 28 September at 9PM (UK time).

Victorian/Edwardian FACTS:

  • New staff were often given generic names such as Henry and Sarah
  • Tasks included clipping your master’s toenails and ironing his shoelaces
  • Maids would not be able to turn down a master’s sexual advances
  • Over 1.5 million British people worked as servants
  • Most of the UK population would have been Downstairs…not Upstairs

One thought on “What was life really like as a servant in the 19th-20th Centuries?

  1. Pingback: Is Our Future Going to Be Keeping Rich People Happy in a Servant Economy? | CNT News

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