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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Below Stairs

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

by Margaret Powell

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell X
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

Buy This Book

About this Book

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

Print Review

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 beginning to use new appliances for housework that obviated the cost of servants.

The Scullery Maid According to Life Below Stairs by Alison Maloney, there was an undeviating hierarchy to the inside staff of a prosperous family. The butler was the highest-ranking servant who oversaw the entire household. Under him would be the first footman, who would serve meals and accompany the family on outings, followed by any number of other footmen. At the bottom would be the hallboy, a menial worker. The master's valet would report directly to the master, not the butler.

The housekeeper was the head of the female staff and worked alongside the butler as an equal but ultimately reported to him. She oversaw the chambermaids, who cleaned the bedrooms, the parlourmaids, who cleaned the public rooms, and the maid-of-all-work. She also oversaw the cook, the undercook, the kitchen maid, and the scullery maid (the kitchen maid's assistant). Like the valet, the ladies' maid was independent of the housekeeper and served at the pleasure of her mistress. If there were children in the household, they would be cared for by a nanny who was likewise independent of the downstairs staff and who might on occasion dine with the master and mistress.

It is commonly perceived that domestic service declined in the 1920s, when Powell's memoir is set. But as social historian Lucy Delap argues, "After a brief dip in numbers during the First World War, the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s forced more women back into service, aided by hostile government benefits policies which regarded all women as potential servants and, whatever their training and employment history, refused to pay benefits to those who rejected domestic work." Delap further argues in Knowing Their Place that domestic service is a "foundational narrative" about social change and that the now-absent servant continues to exercise a great deal of power in the British cultural imagination.

Click on the video below for a clip of the latest season of Downton Abbey, the popular television drama about aristocratic life and domestic service in 20th century Britain:

Oil painting of a scullery maid by Jean-Simèon Chardin (d. 1779)

This article was originally published in January 2012, and has been updated for the December 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: Killers of the Flower Moon
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    by David Grann
    Voted 2017 Best Nonfiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    The long, sorrowful list of injustices done ...
  • Book Jacket: The Dry
    The Dry
    by Jane Harper
    Voted 2017 Best Debut Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    After receiving a letter from his childhood...
  • Book Jacket: Little Fires Everywhere
    Little Fires Everywhere
    by Celeste Ng
    Voted 2017 Best Fiction by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    Small towns, big drama. Acclaimed author ...
  • Book Jacket: La Belle Sauvage
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

"Electrifying . . . as beautiful and as icy as the Minnesota woods where it's set."
—NPR

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, and a Man Booker Prize Finalist

Enter

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay: $400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.