Life Below Stairs, Allison Maloney (A Review)

The award winning ITV television mini-series Downton Abbey, piqued my interest about the  social history of the Edwardian Period.  I have only watched the first series (on youtube) simply because I am not fond of soap operas, and I must say that Downton Abbey is a posh soap opera.  Rather than watch the whole series I decided to read books on social history of the era, which is so much more profitable and enjoyable.

Though it’s easy to fall in love with the glamour seen at Downton Abbey and its magnificent location, Highclere Castle, the reality is running that type of household is a sheer hard work.  Thoroughly researched, the author not just recounts typical menus, daily chores and standards of decorum but also chronicles in detail first-hand stories of the lives of several servants; their duties, true-life trials and tribulations, and what life really was like living as a servant class.

Washing board (Photo: Historic England)

A lot of the servants were not well treated but often times were overworked, underpaid and lived in appalling conditions.  Some of the servants, as young as 13-14 year old girls called scullery maids, would normally start work from 5 am and don’t finish until about 7-8 pm or sometimes much later doing dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floors or performing some other menial task.

A group portrait of ‘Domestic Servants’ on a step of a grand house. They not only have to perform countless heavy chores for 14 or sometimes 17 hours a day, often without a day-off, but they were also expected to be invisible.  (Photo: Historic England)

One interesting bit is that every grand house had a sluice room, a mini sewage works if you like, and some of the maids were responsible in washing the chamber pots — collecting them from every room of the house, emptying and cleaning them up every morning.  And it was a gruelling and gruesome job.  A back-breaking work indeed. Just imagining the routine of the servants made me feel exhausted!

A group of 13 year old girls training to be domestic servants. (Photo: Historic England)          

Life Below Stairs is an intriguing book to read and it did answer so many questions I had of what life was really like working in a grand Edwardian house.  It was really enjoyable to read and I certainly have learned a bit more information on this part of English history.