Discussion: Women of the Downstairs Staff (A Project Downton post)

How you would like to work in a great house like we see every week in Downton Abbey? Well it might not be as glamorous as you might think! In this Project Downton discussion post we talk about the domestic staff.

In the Edwardian era which Downton Abbey is set, the domestic service was at its peak. WWI brought the decline of the domestic staff with most of the male staff being drafted to the Great War and the women replacing jobs previously held by men or working in machine factories helping the war effort.

The Victorian era in Britain saw a peak in the numbers of servants employed in households. All upper class houses had several servants, and most middle class households employed at least one or two servants. In 1871 over 4% of the population was employed ‘in service’, the vast majority of them women. Being “In Service” was considered by lower class and women, to be a highly coveted position for surprisingly long periods in history.

For big houses and estates in the English countryside, a large staff was essential to the running of the property. In her memoirs, Before The Sunset Fades (1953), Daphne Fielding, ex-Marchioness of Bath, detailed the forty-three member staff employed at Longleat during the Edwardian era (I found this list over at the Edwardian Promenade website which has some fantastic resources if you enjoy the Edwardian era!):

1 House Steward
1 Butler
1 Under Butler
1 Groom of the Chambers
1 Valet
3 Footmen
1 Steward’s Room Footman
2 Odd-men
2 Pantry Boys
1 Lamp Boy

1 Housekeeper
2 Lady’s Maids
1 Nurse
1 Nursery Maid
8 Housemaids
2 Sewing Maids
2 Still Room Maids
6 Laundry Maids

1 Chef
2 Kitchen Maids
1 Vegetable Maid
1 Scullery Maid
1 Daily Woman

By many accounts, a staff of forty-three servants was considered extravagant, most houses operated with less than half the number of staff as the ex-Marchioness of Bath, but still…a household of even ten staff was considered large. The grounds and outside estates were typically run by a network of gardeners and gamekeepers while the inside was run by the different maids and butlers.

For many women, service was the ideal place to earn a wage and find stability. The average salary for a domestic worker was:

  • About £1,000 a year—cook, upper housemaid, nursemaid, under housemaid
  • About £750 a year—cook, housemaid, nursemaid, and footboy.
  • About £500 a year—cook, housemaid, and nursemaid.
  • About £300 a year—maid-of-all-work and nursemaid.
  • About £200 or £150 a year—maid-of-all-work (and girl occasionally).

Wages were usually paid monthly, dating from the day on which the servant enters the situation. The head housekeeper would usually keep a wage-book and enter each payment which required the payee’s signature. Unless a special arrangement was made, wages for illness were not paid.

For women in particular, service was both a blessing and a curse. For many women, entering service meant giving up their romantic freedom. When a woman married or became ‘with child’, they were no longer fit for service and often lost their positions. While there was no shortfall of jobs for women in great houses….kitchens, sewing, nursery, laundry…..there more popular positions for women were Housekeeper, Lady’s Maid, Parlor Maid, and Chamber Maid.

For many women, taking pride in their jobs was important. The household uniform was often a symbol of all that a woman had accomplished professionally and designated their rank much like a military uniform for men.

The female domestic staff were part of a strict hierarchy. Their work was very rigorous, regimented, and difficult. The Housekeeper was considered the General of the house, as primary female maid, she was the ‘boss lady’ of the downstairs.

Housekeeper

The Housekeeper was responsible for the house and its appearance. She was in charge of all female servants. In grand homes even the butler and cook sometimes report to the Housekeeper. The Housekeeper was always addressed as “Mrs” regardless of marital status. The Housekeeper’s livery often reflected her rank. You will note in the picture, a Housekeeper wore a more formal apron and cap than the other female staff. Note the lace around the shoulder of the apron, this can be considered a reflection of her status.

The next most desirable position was that of a Lady’s Maid. The Lady’s Maid was the female equivalent of the Valet. She attended to all the needs of her mistress. Hairdressing, grooming, and fashion were considered the most important tasks of a Lady’s Maid. The Lady’s Maid was also called upon to do personal shopping for her lady and oversee the designing of gowns. In this picture you will note the Lady’s Maid livery is not as formal as the Housekeepers but the lace around the apron and cap distinguish her from the other lesser maid positions.

Lady

Next in line came the Housemaids and the Under Housemaids (sometimes called the Parlor Maids and the Chamber Maids). The main task of both of these positions was cleanliness and good order throughout all the rooms of the house.

The Housemaids or Parlor Maids were primarily in charge of the reception rooms and living areas throughout the house. They often served refreshments at afternoon tea, and sometimes at dinner. They tidied studies and libraries, and (with footmen) answered bells calling for service.

Housemaid/ Parlor Maid

The Under Housemaids or Chamber Maids were in charge of the bedrooms. They were often the first to rise in the house since it was their job to clean and light the fires in the bedrooms, supply the rooms with hot water, and empty chamber pots. Once the house was awake, they would be responsible for changing bed linen and cleaning the bedroom.

The Parlor Maids uniform lacked the detailing and lace that the Housekeeper and Lady’s Maid wore but the apron straps were often wider and more formal looking than the simple, functional apron of the Chamber Maid. Since Parlor Maids had the potential to come in to contact with guests, their aprons were more formal but maintained their functionality for a woman of their station.

As you can see, the Chamber Maids uniform was basic and functional. Since she would likely not be out of the bedrooms, a simple livery was often worn.

Under Housemaid/ Chamber Maid

With so many people running around I imagine it was hard for the Lady or Lord of the house to keep everyone straight so I expect it was important to be able to recognize the uniform/livery for all staff (male and female) so that the Lady or Lord could task the appropriate staff with their duties. I imagine it would be horribly embarrassing to ask the Chamber Maid to style your hair….so I expect the livery played a critical role in the daily routine.

I also expect the livery and apron were considered a badge of honor and accomplishment for the women who took on these roles.

The general consensus is that the lowest position “In Service” was considered the Scullery Maid. A Scullery Maid was usually the youngest and in charge of scrubbing all the pots and pans and doing all the other menial tasks that the other ladies didn’t want to do….she was the grunt.

So if you were thinking about being “In Service” at some of the great houses of the Edwardian era, you would certainly be looking for a job as a Lady’s Maid or at least a Parlor Maid….anything but the Scullery Maid for me anyway!!

If you are looking for more information on or reading on the life of a downstairs employee you should check out this great reading list I found over at the Edwardian Promenade website.

I also found lots of good articles on the downstairs staff and on Downton Abbey over at Jane Austen’s World blog too!

Further Reading:
The Domestic Staff – Bricks & Brass
Domestic Servants in Hinchingbrooke House
Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale
The Up-to-Date Waitress
Dining at Preston Manor
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
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

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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating stuff, thanks for all the research that must have gone into this! although, if we’re wishing, I’d wish to be the lady, not the lady’s maid … I would definitely use someone to help me keep up with all this hair I have 🙂

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