Saturday, 15 September 2012

Downton Abbey: only servants with good character need apply

Tomorrow sees the return of ITV's highly popular period drama, Downton Abbey, to the nation's TV screens with the start of series three.

Downton Abbey cast Photo: ITV/PA Wire
Part of Downton's charm is the unlikely interactions between the family and the servants below stairs - or in many cases above stairs! Despite the best efforts of Mr. Carson (butler) and Mrs. Hughes (housekeeper) Downton does seem to have more than its fair share of problems when it comes to servants.  They have had to deal with a  scheming footman prone to dabbling in the black market, 'relations' between a lady's maid and Lord Grantham's man servant - who has ended up in prison facing a life sentence for murdering his estranged wife, an illicit courtship between the chauffeur with Irish republican leanings and Lady Sybil - need I go on? The list is endless and according to Julian Fellowes, author of the Downton series, all based on factual accounts.

As the person ultimately responsible for running the house, Lady Grantham needs to refer to the glut of  advice material on household management published at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century to assist the well-to-do with the management of servants.  At MoDA we have many of these advice books including The Book of the Home, a practical guide to household management, edited by H.C. Davidson with assistance from a hundred specialists, and published in 1906. Whilst it is aimed at the middle classes, it may be of some use to her Ladyship.

A volume from 'The Book of the Home: Practical Guide to Household Management' edited by H.C. Davidson, assisted by over 100 specialists (BADDA1064, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture)
The book provides key advice on the engagement of servants. When interviewing servants for vacant positions, the following should be noted:
"Observe the way that the candidate enters, if shy and nervous or sly and evasive, if boisterous and disrespectful, if shifty and hesitating...If an applicant demands a piano, a bicycle or a sofa, or the cast-off wearing apparel, have nothing to do with her... Loose hair pins, tawdry, untidy hats, ragged fringes, cuffs pinned instead of buttoned, and peculiarly untidy boots, bad gloves, and soiled ribbons, all proclaim undesirable mental peculiarities and habits."

Inquiries should also be made about health, so as to make sure that the servant is physically capable.
"The Mistress should observe whether the applicant holds herself easily and upright, whether she stands on one leg, or first on one and then the other: this attitude usually points to internal unsoundness which mitigate against normal and cheerful activity.  If possible find out whether she has been troubled with 'housemaid's knee', a mysterious complaint likely to recur and generally a hindrance to the sweeping of floors...."

Davidson goes on to offer particular advice regarding the appointment of the cook:
"Some of the best cooks are given to intemperance - apparently exposure to the fire leads them into temptation; but a cook who cannot be depended upon in this respect is a most dangerous, impunctual and generally unreliable person."

The next chapter, entitled 'The Law of Master and Servant', details the grounds on which a master may dismiss his servant for wrongful conduct (servants at Downton Abbey take note!):
"A servant should be dismissed on any of the following four grounds:
- Wilful disobedience of a lawful order falling in the scope of the servant's duty
- Immoral conduct (theft, drunkenness or unchastity)
- Habitual laziness
- Incompetence"

 In the following chapter, Davidson makes the following points concerning the treatment of servants:
"Owing to the scarcity of servants, perhaps the tendency of the day is towards an easiness of discipline and a certain indulgence which defeat there own ends, for a lax mistress is never respected by her maids.....As in most things, the middle course is the best to follow, and the mistress who, while insisting on obedience to her regulations, enforces them with kindness... has the best chance of obtaining good service."

The mistress, according to Davidson, should give due attention to the health of her servants by ensuring that their quarters are of a reasonable standard:
"A maid's room should be situated where it will be get a reasonable amount of light and air, and it should not be too far away from the mistresses own quarters....The walls should be decorated with a cheerful paper, not expensive as it should be frequently renewed.  Neat curtains of a pretty cretonne should hang from the windows, and the floor may be covered with cork carpet or linoleum."
MoDA has a number of furniture catalogues from the period including information relating to servants' quarters. The image below is of a maid's room featured in a catalogue by Goodall, Lamb & Heighway Ltd. of Manchester. All the furniture could be purchased as a complete suite.  This rather idealised image seems to include many of the requirements for a servant's quarters as suggested by Davidson.
A maid's room, furniture catalogue, Goodall, Lamb & Heighway, Goodall's of Manchester
(BADDA 469, Museum of Domestic design & Architecture)

Should Lady Grantham take note of this advice and make the necessary changes?  I think not.  After all it would spoil the entertainment for thousands of viewers.  What do you think?  In the meantime I will leave the last word to Davidson:
" Domestic service is a business like any other, honourable, comfortable and exceedingly useful but unpopular through the inability of mistresses to keep house, and of servants to submit to reasonable control." 

Click here to see more examples of material relating to household management in the MoDA collections.

1 comment:

  1. This "Book of the Home" cover is a wonderful example of Talwin Morris's design skill. He is probably my favorite British book designer ! For information on an interesting American book designer, see