What Downton didn't do
My only gripe with Downton Abbey was that the servants never did any real work. We never got to see housemaids hand-sweeping the state room carpets at 5am, or Daisy on her knees in the kitchen with black-lead paste and three types of scrubbing brush. So please, Mr Fellowes, if you revisit this territory (and we can only hope that you will), would you give ‘downstairs’ a little more material to work with this time round? Just a bit of historically accurate hard graft?
Here are ten things I’d like to see:
1. Hiding from Lord Grantham
The small hours of the morning – while the family slept – was the only time servants felt uninhibited. Housemaids started work at 5am, dressed in stiff aprons made of hurden, cleaning in pairs. If there was no electricity – and this was common in the grander houses – then it was done by candlelight. Rooms were re-cleaned throughout the day. As the family moved out of a room, two housemaids would move in stealthily to tidy it, checking fires, blinds, plumping cushions, removing dead flower petals.
One young parlourmaid, Jean Rennie, was astonished by this ritual at her first job in 1925. She described the maids as ‘scuttling round’ with brushes and dusters until the dinner gong went and they had to run. ‘Apparently we mustn’t be seen. It was to be assumed, I suppose, that the fairies had been at the room.’
Grand country households were ruthless in their pursuit of the ‘invisible’ servant. At Crewe Hall in Cheshire, any housemaid glimpsed by visitors would be instantly dismissed by Lord Crewe. At Woburn Abbey in the 1880s, any servant seen by the eccentric 9th Duke of Bedford after 12pm was sacked on the spot. A generation later, even the electricians wiring Woburn used to bundle hurriedly into a cupboard when their lookout reported the Duke’s approach.
2. Phyllis Baxter saving the tea leaves
The Victorians were neurotic about dirt. Curtains, rugs and upholstery would be beaten by hand; wooden floors swept and dusted daily. Carpets were brushed on hands and knees at least twice a week. To prevent clouds of dust, all sorts of extraordinary things were used: sand, wet tea leaves, damp salt, pepper, grass cuttings, shredded cabbage leaves, even dry snow, scattered over the surface and swept up with the dust.
The wooden floor surrounding a carpet was polished with beeswax and a ‘donkey’ or a ‘jumbo’ – a solid stone block with a thick felt pad underneath and a long handle to push and pull it. The jumbo was a fiendishly heavy tool for a malnourished, sleep-deprived, teenaged housemaid to wield.
3. Lady Grantham weighing the dirt
Had the floor been swept properly by the housemaids? Experienced country house mistresses had a unique way of finding out. Dust would be collected at specified points – near the door, in front of the fireplace – and the lady of the manor would bend down to examine it. She knew exactly how big the dust pile should be, if the job had been done well.
Some controlling mistresses insisted on weighing the dirt, to ensure the housemaid was cleaning properly. There were, of course, ways around this for the devious servant. One maid confessed to keeping a bag of dirt in her workbox expressly for this daily weighing ceremony.
4. Lady Mary stoking the fire
Six months of the British year were dominated by fire stoking, grate riddling, ash disposing. The fashionable Charles Barry rebuild at Highclere Castle (‘Downton Abbey’) was finished by 1878 – and it was a monument to Victorian standards of conspicuous inconvenience. This meant that it was prestigious to make absolutely no concessions to easy running. If coal had to come from an outside coal house, who cared? There was male staff to bring it in, and maids to put lumps on the fire when the bell was rung for them.
No lady would stoop to picking up the tongs and putting one lump of coal on the fire herself. Certainly not Lady Mary. Firelighting was an art: housemaids were expected to manage the task using no more than seven pieces of wood.
5. Mrs Hughes whisking up bullock’s gal
Those bright steel fireplaces were a devil to keep clean. First they must be rubbed with emery paper, then with a burnisher – a small square of leather covered on one side with fine chain which burnished the steel until it looked like silver. Or, if the young housemaid’s strength was up to it, you could rub the steel vigorously with a large pebble.
Next, the hearthplace. Marble hearths were washed with soap and water and dried with a linen cloth, or cleaned with a frothy liquid made from bullock’s gall. Freestone hearths were scoured with soap, sand and cold water. Slate slabs were polished with hot mutton fat. Nice.
A maid at Thorpe Lubenham Hall in Leicestershire in the 1930s remembered starting on the grates at 5am. She had to be finished and cleared away by the time she took a cup of tea to the housekeeper at 7am.
6. Mrs Patmore black-leading the range
Before anything could be cooked, the range had to be cleaned, black-leaded and stoked. Manuals devoted whole chapters to this unpleasant job. ‘Take out the ashes, if necessary sprinkling them with wet tea-leaves to stop them flying around. Pick out the larger cinders and sift the rest of the ashes.’ And so on.
Then came the really messy part. ‘Next mix some powdered black-lead with enough cold water to make it as thick as batter; put it on the grate with a small round brush, beginning at the top and working downwards. Brush off the black-lead with another brush and then polish the grate vigorously with a dry brush. Three brushes are thus used.’ Three brushes! In truth, the grander country house cook would have an underling for this sort of job. It was the poor ‘cook generals’ in smaller, middle class houses that had to do it themselves. Day after day.
7. Daisy Mason washing up
In the wealthy houses of the early 20th-century, the amount of washing up was obscene. Ex-butler Albert Thomas reckoned that a modest dinner for ten people required 324 items of silver, glass and china, not counting the saucepans and dishes in the kitchen. Before modern detergents, washing up was done with soda which left the hands raw. Teenaged kitchen maids would have hardened, red hands and arms, chapped to the elbow. An alternative to soda was soft soap, horribly slippery, so that breakages were frequent. Vinegar and silver sand or Vim and wire wool were used for scouring saucepans. It was punishing work.
8. The Dowager Duchess going to the loo
This was a difficult subject for the Victorians and Edwardians. Bodily functions were absolutely denied by the upper classes. Going to the lavatory? ‘No decent person did it, most certainly no lady,’ remembered author Ursula Bloom. ‘It was regarded as the height of vulgarity. Whatever personal discomfort or danger it entailed, one was secretive about it. Nobody who was anybody tolerated it.’
So the lavatories of even the really grand country houses were as nasty and as uncomfortable as was humanly possible. Non-absorbent toilet tissue was available, but you were just as likely to get torn up bits of newspaper. Yes, even for the bottom of the Dowager Duchess of Grantham.
9. Anna Bates carrying a potty
The chamber pot was far more convenient and comfortable than the lavatory. Emptying the upper classes’ potties brought servants into a bizarrely intimate relationship with their employers. Do we ever see ladies’ maid Anna Bates emptying Lady Mary’s slop pot? We don’t. But in a really large household this would be a job for the chambermaid, who would ‘do’ the bedrooms while the family was at breakfast.
The washstand was ‘slopped’ (rinsed out); three different cloths were used for mouth glass, basin and chamber pot (a rule vulnerable to abuse by disgruntled maids).
One 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Courtenay of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, remembered how ‘slopping’ had to be done before and after every meal: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea at 3pm, dinner and bedtime.
Full chamber pots were carried down the back stairs and emptied down a specific sink – or their contents might be used. Ex-butler Ernest King swore by pee as a means of cleaning a muddied, scarlet hunting coat. ‘We would ask the housemaid to save us the contents of the chamber pots, at least a bucketful. It was truly miraculous in getting the dirt out. That was immediately followed by brushing with clean water.’
10. Mr Carson treating his bunions
How long did the average country house butler live? And why did so many die on the job? The 9th Duke of Richmond and Gordon remembered Marshall, the butler of Goodwood House, ‘a white-haired, splendid butler, a lovely man, never went to bed until we had. I said to him once, I’m a bit worried about you. I want to see how far you walk.
So I got one of those pedometers and put it in his pocket, and found he’d walked nineteen and a half miles in one day, all over the house. Amazing people, and they never complained. He died with us: overwork, I should think.’
No danger of that for Mr Carson, now he has Mrs Hughes waiting on him hand and foot. Or does he? Here’s a plot line I’m really interested in… Let’s see what Julian Fellowes has in store for this intriguing marriage. I spent years researching the torrid lives of real housekeepers for my book The Housekeeper’s Tale and I’d say that Mrs Hughes is the one to watch. Just like the housekeeper in Gosford Park…