Wednesday, January 23, 2013

So you thought your job was hard…

Margaret Powell's mother went out "charring" from 8 am to 6 pm, for 2 shillings a day. At age seven, Margaret was running home from school at midday to prep a meal for her ma to pull together on her break. Supper was bread and margarine. The family of nine had one or two rooms in someone else's house. To earn money for the circus, kids collected horse manure for three pence a barrow. Moving pictures could be seen on Saturday afternoons for three half pence, but the atmosphere was anything but restful: "During the whole time that we were in the cinema, there was nothing but pandemonium. Babies were howling and the kids were screeching. But it didn't  matter because they were silent films." 
Margaret, who narrates her own story in Below Stairs ("The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey"), was born in 1907.  Highly intelligent, she won a scholarship at age 13 but her parents were too poor to pay for food and lodging, so into service she went, as a kitchen maid at the age of 15. (Above, Downton Abbey's kitchen maid Daisy Robinson, played by Sophie McShera; right Edwardian maids.)
Margaret's first post was with a vicar and his wife in Hove, near Brighton. Their Regency house had 132 stairs from basement to attic; needless to say, these two areas were frequented by staff only and were less than salubrious. For 25 pounds a year, Margaret had six hours off once a week and six hours off on alternate Sundays. "I thought they had made a mistake," she says of the list of duties she was shown. "I thought it was for six people to do." Rising at 5:30, she had to clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate, clean the huge steel fender and fire irons, clean the brass on the front door, scrub the 14 outdoor stone steps, clean the household's boots and shoes, and lay the servants' breakfast—all before 8 a.m. in a workday that often lasted until 8 at night. No wonder she thought she was in the pits of hell! 
Some of her observations on times gone by will make foodies swoon: milk deliveries three times a day, fish brought up in a bucket from the beach, grocers calling on the cook for her orders, lavish six-course meals upstairs, with breakfasts of bacon and eggs, sausages, kidneys, and kedgeree or finnan haddock ("I couldn't help thinking of my poor father and mother at home. All they had was toast.")
The employer's repasts were denied to the staff (who ate Welsh rarebit and macaroni cheese), and the maids lived in Dickensian conditions. This turned our heroine, understandably, into a proto-socialist: "The two pounds a month that I have in money is supposed to be supplemented by the board and lodging. If the lodging is of the kind that Mary and I have in this attic and the food is meagre, how are we getting an equitable wage?"
On the maids' afternoons off they sometimes went to tea dances. That was one of the few places they were likely to meet potential husbands (although they had to lie about their work as "skivvies"). Margaret eventually did get married, despite the fact that her work left her so worn out that she usually ended up collapsing at a film on her afternoon off.
"The most exciting part about dinner parties was the chauffeurs…. You never saw such a fluttering in the dovecote…. There were six or seven of us women who hardly ever spoke to a man and whose femininity was so suppressed that we got to be like female eunuchs…. Even the sewing-maid and the nursemaid would find some excuse to come down. And all because of these chauffeurs in their uniforms." Right: British chauffeur Frederick William Nibbs, born 1882 in Lambeth.
Margaret soaked up all she could to land a position as a cook, and her further adventures show her in a number of situations in London, both agreeable and not—but always recounted with  humor and a gimlet eye. After marrying the milkman, she had three children, passed her "O" levels at age 58, and lived to have a bus line named after her in Hove.
While there are some vague congruences between the world of Downton Abbey's servants and that described by Powell, her narrative come down mainly on the side of the BBC Program Servants—The True Story of Life Below Stairs, which portrays their existence as "miserable, degrading and exhausting." Thankfully, her prose is anything but.


  1. i just checked out the article THE REAL LIFE DOWNTON ABBEY: THE TRUE STORY OF SERVANTS. The treatment of the staff in many of the Edwardian households was absolutely dreadful.
    Reading "The Servents Rules" I was most bothered by this one "Always "give room" if you meet one of your employers or betters on the stairs and avert your gaze." This rule sounds similar to one made by a certain self entitled singer/judge/sometime actress when her staff comes in contact with her.

  2. Thank goodness for Kitchen Aid! And time payments!