Domestic Service in Early 20th Century Britain: Background information when reading Below Stairs

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Below Stairs

The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey

By Margaret Powell

Below Stairs
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2012,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2012,
    224 pages.

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Beyond the Book:
Domestic Service in Early 20th Century Britain

In Britain in the early twentieth century, occupational options were few for women. Up until World War I, domestic service constituted the largest single employment for English women, even ahead of factory work. The 1901 census shows that approximately 40.5% of the working adult female population worked in service, to which must be added a significant number of girls, some as young as ten. The profession was wholly unregulated. A typical maid would work 80 hours a week, far more than the 56 hours that a factory worker might put in.

The number of servants a family employed was the key index to their social status, and even middle-class families would have had several, but early in the twentieth century, that began to shift. In 1904, a German architect observed that English middle-class families were complaining of the scarcity of the "£20 maid," one whose annual salary was £20. Women were starting to find employment in shops and offices, and middle-class families were ...

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