Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs – An Overview

Where would m’lord and m’lady be without their servants? Lost, most likely, as Lord Grantham says in Downton Abbey. Without the footmen, housemaids, cooks, and butler; throwing lavish parties and maintaining their two hundred room house, would be impossible.

Staff in the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian eras were gigantic and it wasn’t uncommon for large houses such as Blenheim Palace and Highclere Castle to keep over fifty indoor servants, and another forty, outdoors. The Marchioness of Bath details her indoor staff in this lengthy and mind-boggling list:
One House Steward
One Butler
One Under Butler
One Groom of the Chambers
One Valet
Three Footmen
One Steward’s Room Footman
Two Odd Job Men
Two Pantry Boys
One Lamp Boy
One Housekeeper
Two Lady’s Maids
One Nursery Maid
Eight Housemaids
Two Sewing Maids
Two Still Room Maids
Six Laundry Maids
One Chef
Two Kitchen Maids
One Vegetable Maid
One Scullery Maid

And we thought they had a lot at Downton. J

This was rather large, even for a country mansion, and the typical staff was usually more representative of what we see on Downton. Typically  twenty to twenty five servants. The butler would often take on the role of steward, and groom of the chambers was a post rarely occupied.

The staff was hired and sacked (fired) by the housekeeper and butler, except the valet and the lady’s maid, which were engaged by the master and mistress of the house.
Most servants began at the bottom of the hierarchy, starting as kitchen maid or hallboy, and hoped to rise in the ranks. Many of them aspired to eventually become butler or housekeeper, the two highest ranking positions among domestics. Yet, as this was not always possible, servants often moved on to another place, rising in the ranks by acquiring a new job. Good references were a must and a bad one could ruin a servant’s entire career. In the case of a bad reference some servants forged their own, or when they went to hand in their notice, devised some excuse about how sorry they were to leave, but as their mother broke their leg, they were afraid they must. 

The staff had a very strict schedule and were only given one half day off a week, one full day a month, and a few hours on Sundays. Their lives were never truly their own, which was why, as the century wore on, it became harder and harder to staff a large house as young people preferred to find jobs as a secretary or shop worker.
The first servant to rise in the morning was the scullery maid or tweeny, the lowest ranking female servant. She would light the kitchen fires and draw and boil water. If there was no scullery maid, this task was assigned to the kitchen maid. She would then begin work on the servants’ breakfast after making sure everyone had been woken.

Housemaids and footmen were up a half an hour after the scullery maid, and after donning uniforms and livery, would go upstairs and light fires, empty chamber pots, and put out clean water for washing. They would then move on to the main living quarters and tidy the drawing rooms and Saloons; plumping pillows, dusting, sweeping, opening the curtains, etc. They would then eat their own breakfast and go about their designated tasks for the day. (During a later post, I’ll go in depth as to what the tasks were for each servant.)
Bells were the pagers of the Victorian era (we see a glimpse of them in the opening credits of Downton) and in the servants’ hall a long row of them was in plain view, so at a moment’s notice, the servants could be summoned to wherever the family was in need of them. I’d love a set in my house. J

Check out the following books if you would like more Information on domestic service:

1 - Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson
Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century by Pamela Horn
The Rise & Fall of the Victorian Servant by Pamela Horn
Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison
5- Life Below Stairs: In the Victorian & Edwardian Country House by Sîan Evans
Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
7- Manor House: The Companion Guide to the PBS Television Series

Since starting this new blogging schedule, with writers posts alternating with historical posts about the era’s in which I write, I’ve decided to title the historicals, “Carriages, Costumes, and Customs – Life in the Regency and Victorian Eras”, and the writing related posts “Writer’s Workshops” Hope you all are enjoying the new schedule!

I also hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into life Below Stairs. I hope to do more about this aspect in detail, as we approach the release date of Season 3 of Downton Abbey. If there are any posts you’d like me to cover either in Carriages, Costumes, and Customs, or Writer’s Workshop, I’d love to hear!


To celebrate my return to blogging regularly after a several week hiatus due moving recently, and to get you all in the mood for Season 3 of Downton Abbey, I am giving away one of the recommended books above, “Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell. This book is a hilarious, fact filled, true to life rendition of what it was like to be a servant in early 20th century London. I enjoyed reading this book very much and know you will too. So leave a comment with your email to be entered into a drawing to win this book.

Happy Writing,



Diana Lesire Brandmeyer said...

I've just started watching Downton Abbey and I am hooked!
dlbrandmeyer @ gmail.com

Cara Putman said...

Fascinating. I find all of this so interesting. Please enter me. Thank!

Teresa7 said...

I enjoyed the information you posted. Yes, I am hooked on Downton Abbey and can't wait for the next round.

Bonnie Engstrom said...

What fun, Amanda! I still long for the old Upstairs, Downstairs series. Downton Abbey filled the gap for a while, but the series was much too short. I saw the book in Costco; almost bought it. Now, I must.

Amanda said...

Hi Diana! I too am hooked on Downton and have been watching it almost ever since it started to air on PBS! Thanks so much for stopping by!

I too am fascinated by this time period, Cara! It has such an almost fairytale quality to it, at least as far as the upstairs people were concerned. :) Hoping to see you at ACFW!

So glad you enjoyed the info, Teresa! I had a lot of fun writing the post!

I loved Upstairs Downstairs too, Bonnie! It really got into a lot of aspects of the era that Downton hasn’t yet. So many cool historical tidbits on that show, plus some great characters!

Carrie Turansky said...

Hi Amanda, I also love the Victorian and Edwardian time periods. In fact, my next book is set in England in 1910 in Berkshire on a fictional estate modled after Tyntesfield (which is in Somerset). I have a story board created at Pinterest if you'd like to take a peek. http://pinterest.com/carrieturansky/highland-hall/

Thanks for all the info you shared. I have some of these books, but there are a few new ones on your list.

Carrie Turansky
carrie (at) turansky (dot) com

Amanda said...

Love, love, love your Pinterest board, Carrie! So many lovely Edwardian era pics and English country houses! You picked great models for your hero and heroine too! And I love the fact that you modeled your estate after a real one. I’ve used several real houses in my novels and have a blast looking at the photos. Also Berkshire is such a gorgeous part of England! It must be so fun to write about there!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Carrie!!!