Servants on Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs may have hard lives, but they rarely seem to work hard. A real servant’s life had a lot less drama and a lot more work. On her first day as a maid in 1925, Rose Plummer did more than I do in a year.
Just after her fifteenth birthday, Rose’s mother announced that it was time for her to go into service. She was to be a “maid of all work” so her job was not as specialized as that of the servants in a bigger house like Downton Abbey. When she arrived, the first job she was assigned was to “whiten” the steps. She scrubbed the stone steps at the front of the house with water and then whitened them with a stone block. This needed to be done every day. I can tell you with a straight face that I never once considered scrubbing any stone outside my house though I did once sweep the stairs a few years ago.
Rose was also supposed to scrub the six flights of servants’ stairs, but first she had to help the cook in the kitchen. When the cook heard the lady of the house coming to discuss the day’s meals, she warned Rose to disappear, and so she sat in the pantry until it was “safe” to come out. Thus she learned that while doing the duties of a scullery maid, she wasn’t supposed to be seen by the family.
However, because the household staff was very small, Rose also had to serve the food, so in that role she was allowed to be seen—sort of. She had been instructed that she was never allowed to turn her back to the family, so when leaving a room she had to back out.
“The ideal,” she explains, “was that you sort of floated out like a fairy.” But the problem was that on her first day, she hadn’t yet mastered the art. She backed into the door and slammed her tray with a tremendous thud. Fortunately, at this point she had become invisible to her employer again. The lady of the house carried on her conversation at the table doing everything in her power to discourage her guests from noticing the clumsy servant.
Other than scrubbing seven flights of stairs and serving meals, Rose also had to chop food for the midday meal (which was “lunch” for the employers and “dinner” for the staff) and scrub pans with sand and vinegar. She rubbed the sand around in vinegar with her hands until the pans were clean. Knives and forks were rubbed with sand and oil and plates were cleaned with leftover bits of soap sloshed in a dishpan of water. I’d never really appreciated dish detergent before, but I must say I am grateful that I don’t have to wash dishes with sand. Rose’s hands were raw and bleeding long before the end of her first day. She notes that many unfortunate maids’ hands got so bad that they were unable to work and they had to be sent home where they were considered a burden to their families.
In the afternoon, Rose scrubbed more stairs until it was time to help prepare the evening meal (“dinner” for the lady of the house and “tea” for the servants). She was chewed out for not changing into her “afternoon” uniform. (Even in the less traditional households in the U.S., etiquette books still dictated the proper color for maids uniforms for morning and afternoon.) She served the dinner and helped prepare tea for the small staff. They had only the cook, herself and a small boy known as “The Boots” who, like Harry Potter, slept in a cupboard under the stairs. (“But the stairs were so big it actually wasn’t such a bad room in a way,” Rose reflected.) During meals, The Boots sat on a stool rather than a chair like the others, and he had to clean Rose’s shoes. The lady of the house wanted hierarchy with her meager staff just as in the grand houses like Downton Abbey.
Rose literally fell asleep on her feet while washing dishes that night. And she said that they had given her light duties the first day—many of her later days were much more demanding. But more than the physical labor, it was the attitude of her employer that seemed to bother Rose the most about working as a servant. She was not trusted to be given a hot water bottle at first, presumably because her employer thought she might steal it. She couldn’t be seen in the kitchen in the mornings. She was even told how to spend her time during the one-half day that she was off work each week.
So as much as I sometimes resent cleaning the house, I need to remind myself of two things. First, when I wash dishes my hands come out lemony fresh from dish detergent rather than like pickled sandpaper. And second, the kids and dogs who make most of the mess in the house never make me back out of the room after I’ve finished serving them dinner.
Information in this article came from The Maid’s Tale: Life Below Stairs as it Really Was by Rose Plummer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)