January 18, 2014

The REAL story of Britain's servant class (and it wasn't exactly Downton Abbey)

Downton Abbey's staff of twelve.


  • The butler - in charge of the house, coachmen, footmen and wine cellar.
  • The housekeeper - responsible for the housemaids and carried keys to the china and linen cupboards.
  • The ladies maid - the mistress of the house's personal attendant, helping her 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.
  • The hallboy - worked 16-hour days, lighting all the lamps and candles and polishing the staff boots.
  • The tweeny - in-between stairs maid earned £13 a year, worked seven days a week from 5am-10pm.

They all look so jolly on television, forging friendships in the basement and occasionally nipping upstairs to lay the table or snuff out a candle.

But the truth of how most servants lived in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century is a far cry from the soft-centred fiction portrayed in period dramas such as Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and Gosford Park.

Clipping your master's toenails, ironing his shoelaces, spending 17-hour days doing back-breaking work with no employment rights were just some of the realities facing servants in late Victorian and early Edwardian Britain, according to a new BBC series.

Servants: the True Story Of Life Below Stairs (watch entire series below) explores the reality of life as a servant in Britain from the Victorian era through to the Second World War.

And it wasn't exactly like Carson, Anna, Bates and Daisy have it in Downton Abbey.

Upon entering service, new servants were often given 'acceptable', easy to remember and generic names - Henry, John and William were popular choices for men, while many female servants were frequently named Sarah or Emma.

Moreover, if female servants received unwanted advances from their masters, they had little power to stop them.

In her new, eye-opening three-part series, social historian Dr Pamela Cox - herself the great-granddaughter of servants - explains that life for these people was much less 'cosy' than is imagined in television period dramas.  Dr Cox reveals that her own ancestors never enjoyed their time as servants as much as those in ITV's Downton Abbey seem to.

Thanks to the emergence of the new middle classes, the majority of household staff worked as the only servant in a home.
A late nineteenth century British family with their solitary servant.
And instead of partaking in a lively, jolly dinner after serving the family upstairs, these servants would live and eat alone in Britain's dark, damp, dirty basement kitchens.
Servants in grand houses fared little better.

Staff in stately homes were kept hidden from the 'polite' eyes of their masters with complex mazes of hidden passages throughout the home, helpful when trying to enforce complete segregation.

Moreover, strict servant hierarchy even separated staff from each other.
Dr Cox explains that in 1901 one in four people were domestic servants, mostly women, and that these people were seldom seen as 'working-class heroes'.
Servants tended to work seven days a week, often from as early as 5am until as late as 10pm, for very little money.

And, unlike the kind and empathetic Crawley family of Downton Abbey, employers were unlikely to take pity on staff who were overworked, exhausted or ill - even if they were just children.

Servants: The True Story Of Life Below The Stairs

Part ONE

Part Two



  • 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.
A 'Tweeny' servant who worked seven days a week, from 5am until 10pm, and was paid £13 a year.Downton Abbey's kitchen maid Daisy Robinson, played by Sophie McShera.


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