Life Below Stairs
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Life Below Stairs

True Lives of Edwardian Servants

Alison Maloney

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eBook - ePub

Life Below Stairs

True Lives of Edwardian Servants

Alison Maloney

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About This Book

In Life Below Stairs, bestselling author Alison Maloney goes behind the scenes to reveal a detailed picture of what really went on 'downstairs', describing the true-life trials and tribulations of Edwardian servants in a gripping non-fiction account. Thoroughly researched and reliably informed, it also contains first-hand stories from the staff of the time. A must-read for anyone interested in the lifestyle and conduct of a bygone era.

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Information

Year
2011
ISBN
9781843177814
 
CHAPTER ONE
Social
Background
DURING THE CLASS-RIDDEN Victorian era, the social divide between rich and poor had become a chasm. By the turn of the century, poverty had reached shocking levels, especially in cities, and in his 1901 report on the slums of York the Quaker philanthropist Seebohm Rowntree concluded that 28 per cent of the population of the city was living in intolerable hardship. At the same time he concluded that ‘the keeping of or not keeping of servants’ was the defining line between the working classes and those of a superior social standing.
Domestic service, while arduous and all-consuming, provided a reasonable alternative to the slums and a certain amount of social status, and was taken up by a significant number of both sexes in Britain. A large percentage of women who worked were in service. The 1901 census showed that they numbered 1,690,686 women, or 40.5 per cent of the adult female working population.
Children, particularly girls, also made up a significant proportion of the lower posts in a large household and the higher up the social scale the employer, the more cachet was awarded to the positions in the house. Young girls would be looking for a post in a good home from the age of twelve or thirteen, and in some cases they started as young as ten. And while many of these came from the city slums, employers often preferred to take the children of rural families, who were considered to be more conscientious and hard-working than those from the cities.
Work was hard but maids were an essential addition to all homes from the lower middle classes upwards. In an age of few labour-saving appliances, the mistress of the house would struggle to run even an average-sized household on her own. An aristocratic seat or country house would require a large staff in order to run from day to day, while even a modest middle-class home would employ one or two servants.
At the turn of the century, however, things were beginning to change, at least for the professional classes. In his 1904 publication The English House, German architect Hermann Muthesius said that many middle-class families complained that, with new opportunities for working women in shops and offices, ‘£20 maids’, those who earned around £20 annually, were hard to come by. That, along with the introduction of household appliances over the coming years, led to a decline in domestic staff and a rethink of the architecture of middle-income homes. Houses became smaller, cosier and more manageable for a housewife and, after the First World War, staff were to be found in the wealthier households alone.
In the years leading up to the war, a family’s social standing was heavily dependent on the number of staff it could afford to employ, as this was an obvious indication of wealth. Many of the richer families would employ up to twenty staff and, in the larger aristocratic homes, it often increased to thirty or forty. At the Duke of Westminster’s country seat, Eaton Hall in Cheshire, there were over three hundred servants, although this was an exceptionally large number, even amongst the aristocracy.
Eaton Hall in Cheshire
The 6th Marquess of Bath was born in 1905 at Longleat, a vast rolling estate in Wiltshire, and died in 1992. As a child he had his own valet and his parents employed a total of forty-three indoor staff. In 1973, when he and his wife were making do with two servants, a resident married couple who performed the duties of butler, cook, housekeeper and maid, he looked back on the servant age with some nostalgia.
‘I think the more servants one had the better,’ he recalled in Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of Upstairs, Downstairs Life. ‘We had two lampboys, two steward boys and about five footmen. You were looked after in the lap of luxury. If you ask me whether I’d like to go back to those days, of course I would. Obviously one would, because it was all so much more for us, but I’m not complaining, because times have changed. It’s so different from the old days when people were brought up to be in domestic service.’
Lady Lindsay of Dowhill, otherwise known as Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, was born in 1902 and recalled in her 1961 memoirs, Grace and Favour, how they were considered ‘dreadfully badly off’, despite her father being a respected courtier to Edward VII. The main reason for this ‘shame’ was that the Palace pay only stretched to five maids, a manservant, a boy and two gardeners. This led to embarrassment in their social circle who were ‘mostly people who had too many servants to count and who owned stately homes’.
So intense was the pressure to keep up with the Joneses in late Victorian and early Edwardian households that many middle-class mistresses deprived themselves of expensive food and basic needs in order to maintain the illusion of wealth through the number of servants employed. The Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray described this phenomenon in his satirical novel The Book of Snobs. The character Lady Susan Scraper feeds herself and her two daughters such meagre rations that they fill up on buns.
For the fact is, that when the footmen, and the ladies’ maids, and the fat coach-horses, which are jobbed [rented], and the six dinner-parties in the season, and the two great solemn evening-parties, and the rent of the big house, and the journey to an English or foreign watering-place for the autumn, are paid, my lady’s income has dwindled away to a very small sum, and she is as poor as you or I.
Of course, very few mistresses would go as far as starving themselves for the privilege of keeping more servants but Thackeray’s thrifty character illustrates the importance of staff when it came to keeping up appearances and boosting status.
Equally, in the early 1900s, the more staff you had, the easier it was to employ more as the dwindling number of young men and women willing to go into domestic work preferred the more well-to-do households. An elevated social position for an employer meant their servants automatically gained respect from the local population, including the tradesmen and shop workers. More staff also meant companionship below stairs, whereas a lone housemaid, moving away from her family for the first time, would feel isolated and lonely in her new home.
Mrs G. Edwards recalled in Lost Voices of the Edwardians leaving her Brixton home at fifteen to become an under-nurse at a house in Wetherby Gardens in London’s Kensington. ‘I only went back to my home in Brixton about once a fortnight, for an afternoon off. I used to get very homesick. I missed my home but my mother said I must stay for a year so I could get a character reference.’
In Life Below Stairs in the Twentieth Century by Pamela Horn another teenager, who travelled from Norwich to Beckenham to become a maid, recalled writing to her mother to say, ‘I wouldn’t mind what I done at home, if only she’d let me come. She wrote back and said be thankful you’ve got a bed to lie on and a good meal.’
Even the more aristocratic homes were beginning to cut back by the turn of the century. Wages were getting higher and taxation on the wealthy, especially the death duties introduced in 1894, were diminishing the upper-class pot. Education had become free to all from 1890 and the 1902 Balfour Act extended the school leaving age from ten to twelve, leading to a sharp decline in young children going into service. The suffragette movement was turning the heads of young women, who were choosing secretarial courses or shop positions over a lifetime of servitude, and the First World War, followed by the Depression, was to change the social order for ever. The Edwardian era was about to see the sun set on the last golden age of the upstairs-downstairs household.
CHAPTER TWO
Household
Structure
UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS
THE UPPER-CLASS and upper-middle-class Edwardian household had a very strict hierarchy and each servant was expected to know their place. The staff, particularly the longest serving members, may well have formed a bond with the family but the line between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ was never blurred. Domestic staff could not aspire to live the lives of their employers and even the most senior would be aware that over-familiarity or a word out of turn would never do.
Diarist and author Lady Cynthia Asquith wrote that ‘no one from Upstairs was required to lend a hand at the sink – not even once a week. Indeed, no such invasion of the Staff’s territory would have been tolerated.’
The staff quarters and the family quarters were separated by a large door that was often covered in green baize. Each servant was aware exactly which rooms past that door they were allowed to enter and when, and few would have dared to stray outside their given parameters.
DOWNSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS
In large houses, the household staff, responsible for the cleaning and laundry, was presided over by the housekeeper. The serving staff would be under the butler and the kitchen staff would answer to the cook. However, there was some crossover between the housekeeper and the cook, as the former was generally in charge of jams, pickles and confectionery while the latter presided over the meals.
Although the Edwardian era saw the rise of the suffragettes, and women servants outnumbered men by three to one, life below stairs was still a male-dominated hierarchy with a butler or manservant given greater authority, and therefore higher pay, than a housekeeper. This also meant that the ability to maintain a manservant or butler was looked upon as an enviable badge of wealth.
In What the Butler Saw E.S. Turner writes, ‘As often as not, he was kept for ostentation and sometimes for intimidation. He was expected to be deferential to his superiors and haughty towards his inferiors, which included his master’s inferiors.’
In smaller households, where no butler was employed, the housekeeper was the undisputed ruler of the ‘downstairs’ staff. She was the link between the mistress of the house and the lowliest of maids. In her Book of Household Management Mrs Beeton explains:
AS SECOND IN COMMAND IN THE HOUSE, except in large establishments, where there is a house steward, the housekeeper must consider herself as the immediate representative of her mistress, and bring, to the management of the household, all those qualities of honesty, industry, and vigilance, in the same degree as if she were at the head of her own family.
Constantly on the watch to detect any wrong-doing on the part of any of the domestics, she will overlook all that goes on in the house, and will see that every department is thoroughly attended to, and that the servants are comfortable, at the same time that their various duties are properly performed.
As well as the indoor staff, there would be a head gardener with, in larger houses, four or five groundsmen under him, and possibly a coachman, who would take charge of the stables and supervise the grooms. However, as more households splashed out on newfangled motor cars throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, many coachmen were replaced with chauffeurs who also acted as car mechanics.
For wealthier families, this pattern would be repeated in more than one house, with many boasting a London home, a country seat and often a sporting estate, used for the shooting season and weekend parties, in Scotland or Ireland.
THE HIERARCHY OF A HOUSE
Bottom of the ladder
The maid-of-all-work was the lowliest of all the servants and was often a child of twelve or thirteen. She could be the sole servant of a middle-class family or at the bottom rung of a larger ladder in a big household. Up with the lark, she would be rushed off her feet until bedtime and her endless lists of tasks would be menial and fairly degrading. The children, who came from very poor families or straight from the workhouse, were often mistreated by mistresses or superior staff and, more often than not, would have nowhere to turn to seek solace.
Even Mrs Beeton had a pang of sympathy for the downtrodden ‘general maid’.
The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration: her life is a solitary one, and in, some places, her work is never done. She is also subject to rougher treatment than either the house or kitchen maid, especially in her earlier career.
And Mrs Beeton added that, while she might make her way up to better households when she became a ‘tolerable servant’, many a general maid started her working life under the wife of a small tradesman, barely a step above her ‘on the social scale’:
Although the class contains among them many excellent, kind-hearted women, it also contains some very rough specimens of the feminine gender, and to some of these it occasionally falls to give our maid-of-all-work her first lessons in her multifarious occupations.
Knowing Your Place
The snobbery in the ranks below stairs was perpetuated as much by the staff themselves as by their employers. ‘Knowing your place’ was as important, if not more so, when talking to a fellow memb...

Table of contents

  1. Title page
  2. Copyright page
  3. Dedication page
  4. Contents
  5. Introduction
  6. CHAPTER ONE Social Background
  7. CHAPTER TWO Household Structure
  8. CHAPTER THREE Pay and Conditions
  9. CHAPTER FOUR A Day in the Life of a Country House
  10. CHAPTER FIVE Toil and Technique
  11. CHAPTER SIX Special Occasions
  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Code of Conduct
  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Hiring and Firing
  14. CHAPTER NINE The High Life
  15. Conclusion
  16. Sources and Bibliography
  17. Picture Acknowledgements
  18. Index