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Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service, Below Stairs, is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high. Powell first arrived at the servants' entrance of one of those great houses in the 1920s. As a kitchen maid – the lowest of the low – she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and bootlaces to be ironed. Work started at 5.30am and went on until after dark. It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but warmth and laughter never were. Yet from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaids’ curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlormaid, fired for being seduced by her mistress’s nephew, Margaret’s tales of her time in service are told with wit, warmth, and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation. Margaret Powell's true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating “downstairs” portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.
“Margaret Powell was the first person outside my family to introduce me to that world, so near and yet seemingly so far away, where servants and their employers would live their vividly different lives under one roof. Her memories, funny and poignant, angry and charming, haunted me until, many years later, I made my own attempts to capture those people for the camera. I certainly owe her a great debt.”—Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey
I WAS BORN in 1907 in Hove, the second child of a family of seven. My earliest recollection is that other children seemed to be better off than we were. But our parents cared so much for us. One particular thing that I always remember was that every Sunday morning my father used to bring us a comic and a bag of sweets. You used to be able to get a comic for a halfpenny plain and a penny coloured. Sometimes now when I look back at it, I wonder how he managed to do it when he was out of work and there was no money at all coming in.
My father was a painter and decorator. Sort of general odd-job man. He could do almost anything: repair roofs, or do a bit of plastering; but painting and paper-hanging were his main work. Yet in the neighbourhood where we lived, there was hardly any work in the winter. People didn’t want their houses done up then; they couldn’t be painted outside and they didn’t want the bother of having it all done up inside. So the winters were the hardest times.
My mother used to go out charring from about eight in the morning till six in the evening for two shillings a day. Sometimes she used to bring home little treasures: a basin of dripping, half a loaf of bread, a little bit of butter or a bowl of soup. She used to hate accepting anything. She hated charity. But we were so glad of them that, when she came home and we saw that she was carrying something, we used to make a dive to see what she’d got.
It seems funny today, I suppose, that there was this hatred of charity, but when my parents brought us up there was no unemployment money. Anything you got was a charity.
I remember my mother, when we only had one pair of shoes each and they all needed mending, she went down to the council to try to get more for us. She had to answer every question under the sun and she was made to feel that there was something distasteful about her because she hadn’t got enough money to live on.
It was very different getting somewhere to live in those days. You just walked through the streets, and there were notices up, ‘Rooms to let’. When we were extra hard up, we only had one room or two rooms in somebody else’s house. But when Dad was working, we would go around looking for half a house. We never had a house to ourselves. Not many people could afford a house in those days, not to themselves. As for buying a house, why, such things were never even dreamed of !
I know I used to wonder why, when things were so hard, Mum kept having babies, and I remember how angry she used to get when a couple of elderly spinsters at a house where she worked kept telling her not to have any more children, that she couldn’t afford to keep them. I remember saying to my mother, ‘Why do you have so many children? Is it hard to have children?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no. It’s as easy as falling off a log.’
You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children. The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days. They didn’t dare. It was enough to live for the present.
People didn’t think about regulating families. The whole idea was to have big families, a relic of Victorian times perhaps. The more children you had, in some ways, the more you were looked upon as fulfilling your duties as a Christian citizen. Not that the Church played much part in my mother’s and father’s lives. I don’t think they had much time for it or, perhaps it’s truer to say, they had time but no inclination. Some of us weren’t even christened. I wasn’t, and never have been. But we all had to go to Sunday School, not because my parents were religious, but because it kept us out of the way: Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking because there was not much privacy in working-class families. When you lived in two or three rooms, you had to have some of the children in the same room with you. If you had any sense of decency, and my parents did because I never, during the whole time of my childhood, knew that they ever made love, you waited till they were fast asleep or out of the way. The fact is I never even saw them kissing each other because my father was a rather austere man outwardly, and I was amazed when only lately my mother told me what a passionate man he really was. So, you see, it was only when the children were out of the way that they could really let themselves go. So, Sunday afternoon, after a mighty big dinner (and everybody tried to have a big dinner on Sunday), was the time spent lying on the bed, making love and having a good old doze. Because, as my Mum said later, if you make love, you might as well do it in comfort. So that’s why Sunday School was so popular then.
* * *
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 whatever 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 finished I really don’t know. I should imagine they were given to the workhouse 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.
Directly after she’d eaten her dinner, she’d have to rush back to work because she was only allowed half an hour. So I had to do the washing-up before I went back to school again. Right after I came out of school in the afternoon, I would collect the two children from the day nursery, take them back home, and then set to and clear up the place and make the beds.
I never used to feel that I was suffering in any sense from ill-usage. It was just the thing. When you were the eldest girl in a working-class family, it was expected of you.
Of course, Mum took over in the evenings. She came back about six and got us our tea which was the same as breakfast – bread and margarine.
* * *
Unlike so many people I’ve met, I didn’t really make any lasting friends in my school days. But, being a member of a family, I wasn’t worried and, you see, we had the town itself.
Copyright © 1968 by Margaret Powell and Leigh Crutchley
1. Margaret Powell was thirteen when she entered service. How old were you when you had your first job? What was your first employee/employer relationship like?
2. Are thirteen-year-old girls today much different than those of Margaret’s era? If so, how? If you had a daughter, would you let her go off and live in the house of an employer at that age? Why? Why not?
3. What would your life be like if you were a servant in a grand house? How would your privacy be affected?
4. What would your life be like if you had to live it under the gaze of servants who lived in the same house with you? Would it affect your privacy? Would you trust them?
5. Would you rather be a servant or a master? Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each position?
6. How is housework different now from how it was done when Margaret first entered service?
7. There were not many kitchen conveniences when Margaret was feeding the upper classes. Much had to be done by hand and with simple kitchen tools. What kitchen appliances available today would Margaret have loved most?
8. Do we have a class system in the United States? If so, how does it compare to the class system Margaret confronts throughout the book?
9. What would it be like to work for people who expect you to erase yourself from their existence when they are in the room?
10. Sexual harassment of the maids by the men of the house seems to have been a regular feature of master/servant relations during the era of the great English houses. Has that aspect of employer/employee vanished today or is it with us still?
Posted February 9, 2012
Margaret Powell's story of her time in service, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook, brings to light the working conditions of the serving class in the early 1900s. Just as interesting is the attitude of "them" living upstairs in those great houses, the employers, their family members, and their friends. To think that just because a person was a servant that they couldn't read is so sad; to treat servants as less worthy of the basic comforts of life (food, shelter, kindness) is deplorable. As with many other reviewers, I have come down with Downton Abbey fever and am watching similar movies and reading books regarding about the servant class. Powell's book is a quick read; I enjoyed her wit but sometimes felt I was slogging through the details.
6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2012
You will like this book if you like Downtown Abbey! But you will see that the staff at Downton have it good compared to reality!! I cannot imagine todays teenagers living this life! A rough life to earn a roof over your head and a bit of food! The first half of the book is written about her life when she was a teen in service so keep that in mind. It made me appreciate even more than usual how lucky I was that I did not have to go through such a tough teen and early twenty something life! I learned alot from this book about the service life and as I love antiques and the old days it was even more enjoyable for me!
5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 18, 2013
I enjoyed this memoir of Ms. Powell. I always like reading stories of history of days gone by. And since I am a fan of Downton Abbey, I especially found this account of the servants downstairs interesting. It was what I found a delightful and interesting read. I liked it so much I awarded it 4****.
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 5, 2012
Written plainly and honestly, the autobio is well documented regarding the unromantic history of a young woman in the end of a class-based society. The truth in her writing shows the reality of the time: that being a maid that works herself up to cook isn't glamorous or hollywood but simply an unwanted life choice of survival in early 20th century england. The real deal.
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Posted February 15, 2012
Powell was such a malcontent (read early UK reviews when book was first published) that it is hard to establish fact from hatred. I truly enjoyed her strange way of writing but toward the end liked her less and less. I am sure her work was no picnic but I am just as sure that "they" were not as evil as she was wont to describe "them". As she said, she probably would not have been happy in any work she did. I do recommend Below Stairs as a light and often, fun, read.
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Posted January 21, 2013
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Posted June 5, 2013
This is a well written first hand account of domestic service during the time between the wars. Although short and a bit lacking in details, it is charming and honest. Well worth reading!
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Posted August 30, 2013
I ordered this book to read on my tablet. Just got the app to work this week. I am in the process of reading this book. It seems to be a pretty fast read, very down to earth and so far pretty interesting.
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Posted March 1, 2012
Barness & NOble keeps pestering me to write a review of the book. Damned nuisance.
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