Like a business affected by a structural change in the economy, the world was shifting downstairs at Downton Abbey.
The “business” was run by Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, while Daisy, the scullery maid, was at the bottom. The names provide a clue. Last names are for those at the top and the head housekeeper, married or unmarried, would always have the Mrs. precede her name.
As for the job, in Gosford Park, Helen Mirren explains, ….I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. When they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves. …I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.”
Specifically, the servants could have been working between 6:00 am and 10:30 at night. From stoking the early morning fires, taking tea and toast to the lady of the house in her room, helping her dress and do her hair, shaving and dressing the lord, morning breakfast for all at 9 or so, then lunch, tea, formal dinner and that’s just the food. There were chamber pots to empty, guests to oversee, the stable, the cars, the pantry…and more.
Ranging from £80 to £16, the staff’s wages were low but they did receive tips from guests and their food and lodging. Trying to figure out what £50 meant in 1901, I discovered that a typical male teacher in Great Britain earned £150-£200 and a female teacher, £112-£117. By contrast, a British constable earned just £72.80. I also found that these 1901 wages might have risen by 5% in 1912 when Downton’s Season 1 began.
Again, just like upstairs, the elephant in the closet is the economy. With a new world of self-flushing toilets and refrigerators that made servants less necessary and of new industries and shops requiring clerical and unskilled labor, the downstairs staff had less reason to remain. In an NPR interview, the series creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, explains that it is only the older servants like Carson who are horrified by thoughts of life beyond Downton Abbey. Gwen, the maid from Season 1 who left to become a typist was only the beginning.
Sources and Resources: This Fresh Air Terry Gross podcast interview of Julian Fellowes provides wonderful insight about the series and its relationship to his life, family and past and future work. My Helen Mirren quote came from Fellowes’s discussion of Gosford Park. For wage information and my chart, I went here and here. Also, for excellent facts about the British economy and servants’ lives, this Economist article, this Daily Mail article, and this blog were ideal.