As part of the Frost Hollow Hall blog tour, I am pleased to welcome Emma Carroll, who has written a brilliant post about what living in Downton was really like.
Real-life Downton: What it was like to be a girl in service in the C19th.
Domestic life in old country houses is fascinating; the customs, the hierarchies, the glimpse of a world gone forever. In Downton Abbey, the servants’ storylines are every bit as juicy as those ‘above stairs’. Yet in reality no servant spent that much time drinking tea at a freshly scrubbed table. My grandmother was in service in the 1930s. She said it was backbreaking work.
In 1881 there were 1.25 million female servants in Britain. For a girl from a poor family, like my narrator Tilly in ‘Frost Hollow Hall’, life in service was a very real prospect.
A house the size of Frost Hollow Hall would have had upwards of 20 servants. Below stairs, the butler was in charge. He was responsible for the male staff (valets and footmen). The housekeeper was the next in superiority, with the lady’s maid, cook, housemaids and kitchen maids all in her charge. Tilly is aged 13 when she’s taken on at Frost Hollow Hall. She’d be at the bottom of the house hierarchy.
I admit I’ve taken liberties with this hierarchy in ‘Frost Hollow Hall’. There are no valets or ladies’ maids. The head housemaid doubles up as kitchen maid, the scullery maids are also housemaids. My reasons for this are firstly, staff recruitment. The house is a strange place where no-one wants to work. Secondly, if Tilly was stuck in a scullery all day washing dishes, she’d not get to explore the house, and thirdly, I couldn’t cope with any more characters!
As a maid, Tilly’s day would start at around 5am. Her day might finish as late at 10.30pm. She’d light fires and blacken grates, carry water, scrub floors, all to be done out of sight of the family. She’d have a uniform to wear, the cost of which would most likely come from her wages. When serving above stairs (NB: female staff did not serve at table in the C19th, this was the job of the footmen) maids wore a different uniform. Clean cuffs and hands were imperative. To be seen without your cap could cost you your position.
Meals were taken in the servants’ hall. Breakfast was at 8am after the morning chores were done. A main meal was eaten between 12pm and 1pm. This would be a meat course followed by puddings or cheese. A supper of cold meats was eaten at about 9pm. For many servants, the food was far better than they’d have had at home. Certainly this is the case for Tilly.
Young servants were often paid in food and clothing. By the end of the C19th staff were paid quarterly or monthly. A maid in Tilly’s position could earn anything between £6 and £8 pounds a year, with a half-day off a month. Almost as valuable was the ‘character’, a written reference from the employer all staff relied on to get their next job. Yet many worked for the same family for life. Some servants were even buried alongside their masters and mistresses.
To find out more about Emma Carroll: