“Below Stairs”: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”


 Those of you who are “Downton Abbey” fans know that the 5th season has just begun here in the U.S.  We viewers are wondering which of her many suitors Mary will marry.  We are wondering why Edith’s love relationships are invariably disastrous and how she will be able to keep the existence of her illegitimate child a secret.  We know that the aristocratic and wealthy Crawleys live lives that are worlds apart from those of their downstairs servants.  We see, however, that the Crawleys do care about the welfare of their servants and treat them with kindness and respect.  In some cases, such as the relationship between Anna and Lady Mary, the relationship could almost be considered that of friends.

Reading Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs made me realize how utterly unrealistic “Downton Abbey’s” portrayal of the master-servant relationship is.  Below Stairs, originally published in the UK in 1968, is the memoir of Powell’s experience in domestic service in the 1920s.  This memoir (along with her others) was the inspiration for the hit TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and one of the inspirations for “Downton Abbey.”

Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find many of Powell’s descriptions of the homes, the job descriptions, the relationships among the servants and so forth quite familiar, if nonetheless appalling.   When Powell was hired as a kitchen maid at age 15, she worked from 5:30 a.m. until about 10:00 at night.  She had only one evening off a week, from 4:00 – 10:00, and every other Sunday off, also from 4:00- 10:00 p.m.  She could never be out later than 10:00 p.m.   She slept in a tiny, freezing-cold attic room and was only allowed a cold hip bath for her hygiene.  All of this for 24 pounds a year.  It is no surprise, then, that Margaret felt like was in jail.

Margaret Powell
Margaret Powell

21st century readers might wonder how this life differed from slavery, except for the fact that servants were free to quit their jobs. Powell did eventually quit, after she got married.  Trying to find a husband while working in such constrained quarters and with so few hours off was another trial for Powell and another theme of her memoir.

I already knew about the hard work, the low wages, and the appalling hours.  What I did not realize was how awful most of the employers were to their servants.  In both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”, the wealthy employers are basically decent people who are not unkind to their servants.  In Powell’s book however, basic human kindness was an extremely rare commodity among the wealthy who hired her.  Most of her employers treated their servants as little better than brutes and lorded their superiority over their staff in every way possible.  (To be sure, Powell’s perspective is that of one individual and could be skewed.  However, some of the critics of “Downton Abbey” who are knowledgeable about the period also claim that the relationships between employers and servants in “Downton Abbey” are extremely unrealistic.)

As Powell recounts it, class divisions were never forgotten, never even blurred.  Even as a young child, she learned that rich children and poor children could never play together.  She did not mind that so much as a child because it seemed that the poor children had more freedom and more fun.  She was not so happy about the class divisions, however, when she went into service.  She said of her employers that

“We always called them ‘Them.’  ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil” (74).  Powell goes on to write that,

“It was the opinion of ‘Them’ upstairs that servants couldn’t appreciate good living or comfort, therefore they must have plain fare, they must have dungeons to work in and to eat in, and must retire to cold Spartan bedrooms to sleep.  After all, what’s the point of spending money making life easier and more comfortable for a lot of ungrateful people who couldn’t care less what you do for them?  They never tried, mind, to find out if we could have cared more by making our conditions good and our bedrooms nice places in which to rest.”

One of the pleasures of reading Below Stairs is Powell’s ability to write brief, yet insightfully snarky sentences about the hypocrisy and meanness of her employers, such as this:  “There were always economies which had to be made.  During my years in domestic service I noticed that all economies began with the servants and always ended with them too” (46).

Powell is acutely aware of the class differences in her world and of the drudgery of the work servants do.  However, she is no socialist and is not advocating a revolution.  Her point is simply that most of her employers could have made the servants lives considerably more comfortable without a huge sacrifice of money.  For example, why couldn’t the servant eat the leftovers of what the employers ate, rather than having to eat food the rich would find unpalatable?  Couldn’t the servants have a heated bedroom with decent blankets?  Couldn’t they take a heated bath?  Maybe have two nights off a week instead of one and be able to stay out as late as they wanted to?  Slight changes would have made a huge difference and there was no compelling reason NOT to make them except for the seeming callousness of the employers regarding their servants’ basic human needs.

The servants did what they could to make their lives more bearable.  One way was to gossip about their employers.  After all, the servants met very few other people in their lives.  Some of the most entertaining stories in the memoir are gossipy tidbits about her “betters” that Powell shares.  For example, one of her married women employers had a habit of bringing young male ‘boy toys” back to her home.  Powell unfortunately walked in on one of them, who was standing stark naked in a bathtub.  Another employer, a man, had a fetish for hair curlers.  He invited the female servants up to his room at night, simply so he could rub their hair while it was up in curlers.

I am trying to imagine Lord Grantham lasciviously rubbing the curlers of, say, Anna, while Cora is in the other room having a “romp” with, say, Jimmy.  Good heavens, I think I am going to swoon!

Where are Jane's curlers?
Where are Jane’s curlers?