Downstairs at Downton Abbey

On screen the Earl of Grantham runs a benevolent regime - but in reality a revolution was sweeping England

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With millions of families living in stifling poverty in the Edwardian era, 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 master and mistress every hour of the day.

Up with the lark and toiling well into the night, they were rewarded with meagre wages and sparse accommodation. While their employers dined on nine-course meals, costing up to six times a maid’s annual wage, employees were treated to the leftover cold cuts in the basement kitchen.

As the Edwardian upper classes organised their busy social calendars around the London season, the shooting season and weekend parties, the staff was lucky to get one day off a month. 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.

Attitudes towards servitude really began to change at the turn of the 20th century. Pay demands had increased and a National Insurance tax, introduced in 1911, meant both mistress and maid had to contribute 3d a week to cover potential illnesses.

Many middle-class homes could no longer afford to keep servants, and even the big houses felt the need to economise. However, it was the start of the First World War in 1914 that finally saw the end of the golden age of domestic service.

Many of the younger male servants enlisted while the women found jobs filling the vacancies left by men fighting abroad. Throughout the UK, 400,000 people left service and the government and press urged employers to let their staff go.

Country Life magazine ran an article in January 1915 that asked:

“Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment, should be serving your king and country? Have you a man preserving your game who should be preserving your country?”

On their return from the front, fewer men were prepared to enter the life of servitude. In his memoir From Hallboy to House Steward, William Lanceley commented that the war work many were asked to do “was a novelty to them, the pay was big and they had short hours, hundreds being spoilt for service through it. It made those who returned to service unsettled.”

In the 21st century, domestic service is the domain of the few butlers, housekeepers and nannies who keep the richest homes in the country ticking over and usually command a high wage. 

But just 100 years ago, service was 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.

In 1919, the Women’s Advisory Council presented a report on the “Domestic Service Problem” to Parliament, which concluded that

“there is amongst girls a growing distaste for domestic service under its present conditions, and a reluctance on the part of parents to allow them to take up such work”.

The report suggested proper training and the creation of “clubs” that would lead to the formation of trade unions, an idea that even some of its own members found unpalatable.

The Marchioness of Londonderry refused to sign up to the report because, she felt,

“any possibility of the introduction into the conditions of domestic service of the type of relations now obtainable between employers and workers in industrial life is extremely undesirable and liable to react in a disastrous manner on the whole foundation of home life”.

Others believed the recommendations didn’t go far enough because, while they called for reduced hours, fixed breaks for meals and two weeks’ paid annual leave, hours and wages would not be enshrined in law.

Historically, mistresses disliked being told how to treat their servants, but committee member Dr Marion Philips argued, 

“I believe that the reason why it is difficult to get servants today is not lack of training, but because servants are dissatisfied with the wages and hours of work. They are also dissatisfied with many matters which may roughly be classified as questions of social status.”

From 1920, the government attempted to coax young women back into domestic service by running home-craft courses, with the condition the pupil would then become a servant, and even offering to pay for the uniforms required to enter a first position. 

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But a life of servitude no longer held any appeal to the majority of women and the days when life below stairs provided the only way out of crushing poverty were gone for ever.