Excerpt from Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2012, 224 pages
    Dec 2012, 224 pages

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My early school days don't stand out much in my mind. My brother and I began proper school together. They let you start at the age of four in those days. My mother sent me there as well because she had another baby coming along and she thought that would be two of us out of the way.

We had to come home for dinner. There were no such things as school meals and school milk. You took a piece of bread and butter with you, wrapped in a piece of paper, and gave it to the teacher to mind, because many of us children were so hungry that we used to nibble it during the course of the morning when we should have been doing what ever we did have to do. It was then doled out to us at eleven o'clock. I always enjoyed going to school because I did pretty well there. I never found any of it hard except things like art, knitting, and needlework. Singing was hopeless, too. None of those things were any good to me at all. The needlework was my biggest hate. We had to make such ugly garments; chemises and bloomers - as they were called then. Both made of calico. The chemises were wide with sort of cap sleeves and they reached down to the knees. The bloomers did up at the back with buttons and were also voluminous. Whoever bought these awful garments when they were fi nished I really don't know. I should imagine they were given to the work house because I certainly never brought any home.

But the great thing about school in those days was that we had to learn. I don't think you can beat learning; how to read and write, and how to do arithmetic. Those are the three things that anyone who has got to work for a living needs. We were forced to learn and I think children need to be forced. I don't believe in this business of 'if they don't want to do it, it won't do them any good'. It will do them good. Our teacher used to come around and give us a mighty clump on the neck or box on the ears if she saw us wasting our time. Believe me, by the time we came out of school, we came out with something. We knew enough to get us through life. Not that any of us thought about what we were going to do. We all knew that when we left school we'd have to do something, but I don't think we had any ambitions to do any particular type of work.

It was when I got to the age of about seven that I, as it were, took my place in life. You see, with my mother going off early in the morning to do her charring and me being the eldest girl, I used to have to give the children their breakfast. Mind you, giving them their breakfast wasn't a matter of cooking anything. We never had eggs or bacon, and things like cereals weren't heard of. We had porridge in the winter, and just bread and margarine, and a scraping of jam, if Mum had any, in the summer. Three pieces were all we were allowed. Then I would make the tea, very weak tea known as sweepings - the cheapest that there was - clear away and wash up, and then get ready for school.

The two youngest I took along to the day nursery. It cost sixpence a day each and for that the children got a midday meal as well. I took them just before school time and collected them the moment I came out of school in the afternoon.

At midday, I would run home, get the potatoes and the greens on, lay up the dinner and do everything I could so that when my mother rushed over from work, she just had to serve the dinner.

Generally it was stews because they were the most filling. Sometimes Mother would make a meat pudding. It's funny now when I look back on it, this meat pudding. I would go along to the butcher's and ask for sixpennyworth of 'Block ornaments'. Hygiene was nothing like it is now and butchers used to have big wooden slabs outside the shop with all the meat displayed for the public and the flies. As they cut up the joints, they always had odd lumps of meat left which they scattered around. These were known as 'Block ornaments'. I used to get sixpennyworth of them and a pennyworth of suet. Then my mother would make the most marvellous meat pudding with it.

Excerpted from Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Powell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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