Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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 the Abby. J

This was rather large, even for a country mansion, and the typical staff was usually more representative of what we see on tv shows like Downton Abby or Upstairs Downstairs. 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 job, rising in the ranks by acquiring a new position. 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 20th 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.

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


  1. Very interesting. It's hard to imagine life as a domestic servant. And I'm sure it would have been my lot in life to be one. :-)

  2. I guess I'm scullery - first one up every day. :-) Great post!

  3. Fun post!
    Anytime I think the writing life is hard work, I need to reread this. Wow.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow, what treasure trove of information! Thanks for sharing, Amanda.