Edwardian Servants~Part One

Downton Abbey Staff

We’ve grown to love the servants on Downton Abbey – Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Anna, Daisy, Mr. Bates, Mr. Mosely, and even Thomas and Jimmy. They all seem to be enjoying meals together and forging friendships below stairs, and then they are occasionally called upstairs to set the table or snuff out a candle or two. But what was life really like for servants in Edwardian England? As I researched The Governess of Highland Hall and The Daughter of Highland Hall, that was a question I needed to answer.

I learned a great deal by reading Life Below Stairs by Alison Maloney and watching Manor House on PBS, which is a cultural-reality series that took contemporary people and had them live as the staff and family in a manor house would in the early 1900’s.

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The truth about how most servants lived in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century is quite different than what we see portrayed on Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs. 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 Edwardian Britain.

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One and a half million British people worked as servants at the beginning of the Edwardian era, that means one in four people was employed as a domestic servant, and most were women. Upon entering service, servants were often given new names that were generic and easy to remember. Henry, John, and William were popular choices for men, while many female servants were frequently named Mary, Sarah or Emma.

Maid serves teaServants often worked seven days a week, from as early as 5 am until as late as 10 or 11 pm, for very low wages. They were occasionally given a half-day off once a week, but sometime employers didn’t allow even that. Most servants did not work in big stately homes full of fellow workers and camaraderie, but in a middle class town house as the only servant. Instead of enjoying a lively dinner after serving the family upstairs, these servants would live and eat alone in Britain’s dark and damp basement kitchens. Servants in grand houses fared a little better, but they were often hidden from the family by a complex maze of servant stairs and hidden passages throughout the home.

There was a strict hierarchy among members of the staff, and everyone was expected to know their place and show proper respect. The butler and housekeeper ruled over the other servants.

Staff

The Servants Roles and Responsibilities

  • 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 oversaw for the children.
  • The nursery maid – cared for the children, helped them dress, assisted the governess.
  • The hall boy – 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.

Would you like to know more about Edwardian Servants? Check out these links: Edwardian Promenade’s article about Edwardian Servants, Jane Austen’s World Article, The Daily Mail Article, Information about the Manor House Series.

You can Read Part Two  – More about the roles and duties of Edwardian Servants.

Until next time, Happy Reading,

Carrie

12 thoughts on “Edwardian Servants~Part One

  1. This is fascinating to me for several reasons: I love all things British! I love history, and I love sociology and cultures. My mind, of course, goes the the psychology of it, why it s thus, and what it produces in the psyches of all classes! I look forward to reading – and enjoying – all your books, Carrie – and to your next post…..

    • Hi Robin, so glad you stopped by! The research about how things changed during this time period is so very interesting. Have you watched Mannor House? It sounds like you are a history enthusiast, like me, so I think you’d enjoy it. I hope you do have a chance to read this series. I tried to weave in good historical detail without bogging down the story. : )

  2. Very interesting, Carrie. It’s disheartening to be reminded of the strict “class systems” that so many countries “had” and “still have”.

  3. Yes, there was a very strict class system, and even a hierarchy among the servants. I tried to portray this in my series, but I think I allowed the family and servants to have closer relationships in my books than they might actually had in Edwardian times. But I’m sure there were different relationships in different families, so I like to think I stayed pretty true to the time period.

  4. So interesting, but makes sense in a way. The family would definitely feel that they were “lowering themselves” to associate in any way with the servants and would rather them be around when needed and disappear when not.

    • Hi Brittany, watching Manor House was a real eye-opener! Modern people taking on the role of Edwardian servants had a very difficult time. We are not used to a class system and being treated like servants were treated in that time.

  5. Thanks for sharing your research. I think the saddest thing I learned here is the state of the servant who served alone in a house. What a lonely existence!

  6. I have been intrigued (I keep using that word in writing, sharing, and reviewing…but I am!) by this whole system. From reading both The Governess of Highland Hall and The Daughter of Highland Hall; then watching (so far) the first three seasons of Downton Abbey I must say I find it inviting and intimidating as well. I would much prefer to be in the upstairs society than the downstairs (servants) society…who wouldn’t. All the lovely dresses, someone to take care of my every whim…oh yes that would be the life.

    Sometimes I got a bit confused between your books and Downton Abbey but I worked it out! LOL!!!

    Thank you for introducing me to this era Carrie. You have done an amazing job in our research and bringing to life the characters in your story. Looking forward to Book Three! (Is it October 2015 yet?)

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