Why is Downton Abbey so popular? I think one big reason is the way the show explores the dynamics between the privileged upper class family and their evolving crew of servants. It wasn’t that long ago that even the middle class considered “help” a necessity in running a household. Comfortable transportation such as a horse drawn carriage, on the other hand, was a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. The situation is reversed today–most families could not imagine functioning without at least one car, but would never conceive of hiring someone to help with cooking or polishing silver. So we can’t conceive what it would be like to have servants there all the time, part of your life like a family and yet so very removed.
I’m going to explore the duties of servants like those at Downton Abbey who don’t really exist anymore. The great house that “plays” Downton Abbey on the show, Highclere Castle, still employs a butler, but he manages tourism more than anything else these days. Because my real interest is in Georgian and Regency eras rather than Victorian or later periods, I’m starting with 18th and early 19th Century servants’ guides. So exact duties may not be just as seen in the later era, at least as depicted on TV.The butler is the first position addressed in the Directions for Men-Servants published in London in 1764. However, though he is listed first, he is not really described as the one who sets the tone for the household, as Mr. Carson does on Downton Abbey. His listed duties, in fact, make him something of a glorified security guard and bartender. His first job is to manage the “plate,” that is, the silver. He must keep it locked up, not tell strangers where it is kept, and never send other strangers to fetch it when wanted, but bring it out himself and lock it up when finished, keeping the key in his pocket at all times.
His other duty is to guard the wine and liquor with similar care, and make sure wine glasses are clean. The rest of the “directions” explain the care to be used in wiping the glasses and polishing the silver, with instructions on pouring ale and wine. That’s it. I think I’m going to apply for this job. Either the rest of his duties were so understood at this time period that they did not require instruction or the butler was simply a trusted retainer who didn’t have to do a whole lot.
So was the housekeeper’s position just as easy? Not by a long shot. Of course the duties aren’t listed in the guide for men-servants, but neither is the position described in Hannah Glasse’s 1742 Servant’s Directory. She is, however, described in Samuel Adam’s The Complete Servant of 1826. According the recommended pay scale, the housekeeper is the highest paid female employee, but still earns less than the butler or coachman and one other male servant. The Adams guide gives 142 pages for the instruction of the housekeeper (compared to just 21 pages for the butler) dealing with everything from grocery shopping and butchery to making candy, perfumes, preserves and wine (yes, it was that important).
The butler’s duties in this later guide still seem to center around wine (I now understand Carson’s obsession with the pudding wine glasses) and he is still listed first among male servants. However, he is not the highest paid. That honor falls to the “French man-cook” who makes 60% more than the butler, more than three times the salary of housekeeper. I don’t know how much of the high salary is proportionate to being French, but I’d say if I was a cook, it would be worth learning to fake the accent. So watch for that somewhere along the line in one of my future stories, where the French “man-cook” will be unmasked as a fake.
Next time– the footmen!
Information in this article came from:
Directions for Men-Servants: How to Discharge their Duty with Fidelity, and acquire the Good Will of their Masters (London: Paternoster Row, 1764).
Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant: Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants (London: Knight & Lacey, 1825)
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