What Life Would Really Be Like In A Television Manor House
In November, Downton Abbey’s producer Gareth Neame announced a sequel to the 2019 movie. Everyone was very excited to reunite with the Crawley family and see just how Downton Abbey is surviving in an increasingly modern age. Unfortunately, with so many schedules to align, there’s no exact date on just when we’ll actually get to see it. Currently, it’s tentatively scheduled for Christmas 2021 so hopefully, we don’t have to wait too long to find out just what will happen to Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, our favourite snooty matriarch!
Luckily, we’re not going to run out of period dramas to watch anytime soon. There’s Bridgerton, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Outlander, The Crown, Poldark, North & South. You get the idea.
Most of these shows focus on the upper class of society. It’s easy to see why with all the glitz and glamour of each historical era to draw on. Who doesn’t want to look at beautiful Regency era dresses? Imagine what it would be like to attend a Georgian era ball? Or just watch Mr Darcy in a lake?
While it’s lovely to imagine our high society life… The reality is that most of us would probably be working behind the scenes. We’d be firmly living “downstairs” when it comes to Upstairs, Downstairs.
That’s what got us, at Aspire Doors, thinking about just what life would be like behind the scenes of a stately manor house like Downton Abbey? It’s no secret television shows like to show romanticised versions of eras gone by, so we decided to dig into the reality.
Hierarchy was everything, even amongst household staff
Set between 1912 and 1926, Downton Abbey follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family. There was a strict class hierarchy and endless social rules for how staff were expected to behave with their employees. What might be more surprising, is that there was even a strict system within the household staff.
Butlers and Housekeepers were top of the chain as joint heads of staff. The Butler would report directly to the Lord, and masters, of the house, while the Housekeeper would report to the Lady, and women, of the household. Aside from managing the rest of the staff, they were responsible for keeping the master’s bedrooms clean and organising dining.
Butlers made an average of £60 a year, while Housekeepers made an average of £45 a year. With inflation, that would be the equivalent of £7,250 and £5,550. That means, despite the fact Butlers and Housekeepers were joint head of staff, Butlers made an average of £1,750 more.
Actually, there was one very important role that only the Butler could perform. The butler was the only member of staff permitted to answer the front door.
If a scullery maid, who was at the bottom of the household hierarchy, opened the door, they would be in very big trouble.
There were a lot of rules for staff to keep up with
While we all have rules that we need to follow in the office, we do have a lot of freedoms compared to household staff in a stately house. The rules didn’t just extend to dress code or how they behaved whilst on the clock either.
Because household staff lived in the manor house, they needed to follow rules even when they weren’t technically at work. For example, staff who were found to be “fraternising” were dismissed immediately, without any hearing. This was before worker’s rights or unions so staff had no choice but to simply leave. Unfortunately, without a reference from their previous employer, it could be very difficult to find employment elsewhere.
Staff also weren’t allowed to use foul language. Imagine your boss calling you into their office because they heard that you’d dropped a few swear words over the weekend.
Rules could also vary depending on gender. While male staff were permitted to smoke, female staff were expressly forbidden from smoking. It was seen as unladylike and during the 20s especially, it was increasingly linked to the women’s liberation movement.
Many of the rules were in place to remind servants of their position within the household. For example, servants were not allowed to begin conversations with the family. After all, their opinion wasn’t required. Not only could they not begin a conversation, but they were also not supposed to let their voices be heard by the ladies or gentlemen of the house. Heavens forbid the masters of the household should have to hear a working-class accent!
It was also forbidden for staff to enter through the front door, which was reserved for family and guests. Instead, they needed to use the servants entrance exclusively.
The working day was long, and there wasn’t much in the way of time off
Including bank holidays, full-time UK workers are now entitled to 28 days of annual leave. That’s five working weeks to relax, explore the world, and enjoy your hobbies. Often, even that doesn’t feel like enough and by Christmas, we’re scrabbling around the back of the couch trying to find a precious extra day of annual leave!
Household staff of a manor house were entitled to one afternoon off per week and Sunday morning to attend church. That was it. There was no city break to Prague, or week over Christmas to go visit family. It wasn’t uncommon for household staff to have boxing day off, in place of Christmas day which would be an especially busy day for staff.
On average, staff worked a 16 hour day. The work was also split between 6 AM and 11 PM giving little time for staff to actually relax. At 6 AM, the Scullery Maid and Hallboy would heat the stove and begin to empty chamber pots. By 8 AM, they would have prepared a bath for the Lady of the House, made sure the Lord was shaved and dressed before sitting down for a quick bite of toast.
Even during breaks, there was little choice on how servants spent them. There was a small 9 AM break which was reserved for daily prayers. Only the 3 PM – 4 PM gave the staff time to relax. Although, they still had to follow all of the strict rules set by the masters of the house so they couldn’t use the time to gamble, fraternise or use the front door of the house.
By 11 PM they would have finished helping the family to bed, clearing up from dinner and secured the house for the night. All ready to start again at 6 AM the next day!
Check out the rest of our infographic to learn more about just what life was really like behind the scenes at Downton Abbey. What surprised you the most?
Like our graphic? Feel free to share it, just make sure to credit the original source!