Read an Excerpt
The Real Life Downton Abbey
How Life was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago
By Jacky Hyams
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Jacky Hyams
All rights reserved.
It stands at the end of a long, winding gravel driveway, set in five thousand acres of perfectly landscaped parklands. It's the grandest of grand houses, built from honey-coloured Bath stone, a monument to the wealth, privilege and history of the titled family that has owned this house and the land around it for centuries.
Step inside the massive and imposing studded wooden doors into a vast, breathtaking entrance hall with wide, tiled floors, enormous columns and neck-craning vaulted ceilings.
Climb the equally imposing staircase with their polished oak balustrades and gaze, in awe, at the splendour and opulence of the interiors and the furnishings: the saloon with its towering ceilings, the enormous library displaying thousands of valuable antique books, the stunning drawing room with silk-covered walls and curtains, the vast, gilded huge double doors leading to the beautifully furnished smoking room hung with valuable works of art, the enchanting music room with its baroque painted ceiling and walls decorated with sixteenth-century Italian embroideries, room after room displaying the evidence of a magnificently elegant and sumptuous way of life.
Venture above these vast State Rooms and you find more than fifty bedrooms, where the rich and privileged owners once played host to the many impeccably attired, equally wealthy house guests that were such an important part of their social life in the early twentieth century.
This is Highclere Castle in Berkshire. This Victorian gothic pile, home to the Carnarvon family since 1679 and rebuilt in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is the stunningly beautiful location for the TV series Downton Abbey, set in the Edwardian era in the early years of the 1900s. Back in 1912, when the story of Downton Abbey starts, Highclere had close to thirty servants working there.
Across the UK, we can still visit and explore many other examples of Britain's architectural heritage: grand, vast country houses and estates like this, some with hundreds of rooms, every estate with a proud aristocratic history going back many centuries, each one with a fascinating story to tell.
But as lovers of the TV series will know, the story of this house is not just about the fabulous setting, the grand design, our fascination with history and the trappings of immense wealth and great aristocratic privilege. For the story behind this elegantly appointed country home – and others like it – is a very human one about the people, the men and women living behind the imposing doors, their dreams, their disappointments, their hopes and their fears for themselves and their loved ones. Love, lust, deceit, duplicity and sorrow, the all-too-common elements of human experience, can be found within these majestic surrounds, even though the inhabitants of such houses, the masters and their servants, occupied very different roles in the world they lived in – and for convention and tradition's sake frequently concealed or hid their innermost feelings or emotions.
The rigid class system that once ruled British society and the lives of the population was about to disintegrate in the 'Downton era', the early pre-World War I years of the twentieth century when modern Britain, as we now know it, was born. Yet the social divisions between the occupants of houses like these, bred over centuries of tradition and restriction in ways unimaginable to us, continued to remain in place in this era, as they had always been, frozen in time; attitudes and traditions where stifling restriction and rules of etiquette dominated everything, an unequal world where personal freedoms were still limited by strict social boundaries for rich and poor alike.
Move away, by design or chance, from these rigidly harsh restrictive lines and you risked everything. For the rich, stepping outside the boundaries primarily meant loss of social status, their closely guarded, highly esteemed place in the highest pecking order – though a very wealthy woman often had most to lose if she fell from social grace and was shunned or ostracised by her peer group. Yet for the servants of the upper classes, male or female, a breach of the rules – and a sacking – in a vastly unequal world could mean total ruin, abject poverty – or even starvation on the streets. That's how vast the gulf was between them.
In the upper floors of this grand mansion, inhabiting vast luxuriously appointed spaces, lived the pampered, leisured upper-crust ladies and gentlemen and their families, their everyday lives dominated by centuries-old snobbery, convention and immense inherited wealth.
Today, most of us splash out on an exotic holiday in a far-off destination for a taste of luxury, being waited on, having whatever we want for an all-too-brief time. Yet many of the early twentieth-century country-house owners, like the fictional Earl of Grantham and his family, wallowed in luxurious living every day of their gilded lives.
Far below them, in more ways than one, tucked away in the hidden reaches of the big house, sometimes in cramped living quarters – and frequently invisible to outsiders and even their own masters – were their live-in servants, constantly at the beck and call of their masters who never needed to lift a finger to do anything for themselves – other than following a carefully mapped routine of grand entertaining, eating, visiting friends and relatives, running their estates and pursuing socially acceptable pursuits or outdoor activities.
The irony is that the two groups can't survive without each other. The country house servant classes worked, sometimes virtually round the clock, for a mere pittance, their sole means of survival. Yet it was only their crushingly relentless toil, often backbreaking and physically tough, that enabled their masters and mistresses to live such smoothly run, cushioned, lives of luxury – for without servant labour such a house and the land surrounding it couldn't function properly at all.
A visitor to the house in the early 1900s sees an incredibly well run, perfectly organised endeavour. Wealthy foreign visitors at this time sometimes marvelled at the amazingly well-organised way the English country house was run. But the truth is it can only work so well for one reason: the long established day-in, day-out hard work of the smaller cogs in the massive wheel, those who do the fetching, carrying, dusting, rubbing, polishing, heaving, cleaning, washing, gardening and many more complex tasks, scurrying to obey each and every command or summons from their masters' bells.
This army of servants is the hidden element in the enterprise that ultimately gives the house its air of serene, leisured opulence. Even though equality between the sexes and the classes is now ahead on the horizon, here, among the rich, leisured classes, it still seems a long way off.
So who are they, these two groups of people whose lives are ruled, 24/7 by class and birth, the opposing ends of the social spectrum? And how do they come to be living this way in the early years of the twentieth century? Before we take a look at the many different aspects of their day-to-day lives, let's take a closer look behind the grand façade to find out more about who these people are and how they got here ...
The families that own the vast country house estates during this period are in one sense an elite power group, part of a super-rich ruling class of land-owning aristocracy and high-born gentry that have remained at the very epicentre of power and royal patronage in Britain for hundreds of years.
Effectively, they are a ruling class, around 10,000 people from l,500 families whose privilege, ancient lineage and wealth has kept them at the top of society for hundreds of years.
Aristocrats, where the head of a family might be a knight or a baronet, hold the very highest political influence and power in government. And they own 90 per cent of the nation's land, much of it in vast, sprawling estates. As a result, their wealth, frequently handed down to the eldest son over the centuries, is immense: large country house estates valued at over £5 million (around £300 million in today's money) were not unknown in the years just before 1914.
But it doesn't stop there. These multi-million pound vast country homes are also continuous and awesomely impressive power bases for social networking, places for relaxing, extravagant dining, hunting and shooting parties with their owners' wealthy equals, other aristocrats and royalty, once the cares of running the country are set aside. Moreover, some of these homes have been created, at huge expense and usually by 'new' money (the millions earned by entrepreneurs in trade, shipping or mining, rather than 'old' money, i.e. inherited wealth) as a showcase for their owner's wealth and top-notch status, with big collections of priceless art, luxurious furnishings and enormous and perfectly tended gardens and tennis courts.
Some of these aristocrats own grand town houses too – located in specific upmarket areas like Piccadilly, St James's Square or Park Lane in London: only the 'right' address will maintain the upper-crust profile, postcode snobbery of the highest order. Others own more than one estate, so they may frequently move around the country, visiting each one, according to the time of year.
As a result, huge numbers of servants have, by tradition, always been needed to work and run these mini empires: think of the many hundreds of thousands of people employed by Britain's big supermarkets and you get some idea of the scale of the Edwardian landowners' power as employers and bosses. So not only do the elite, exclusive group of aristocrats, gentry and highly esteemed members of the House of Lords run the country – they have been, for centuries, its greatest providers of work, perhaps the biggest employers in their area, keeping hundreds of servants and workers in employment.
But these earls, knights and duchesses, once supremely confident of their prime position in the pecking order, are having to confront unsettling changes in the world around them. None of these changes have happened overnight. But the march of progress and the spectre of war are about to topple their pre-eminence.
And so as the storm cloud of World War I starts to gather over their gilded world, the decline of their once overwhelming influence – through what comes to be known as a 'golden' era – accelerates. Essentially, this is the slow beginning of the end of their tightly held reign over society, the extreme rule of privilege and wealth.
THE POWER SHIFT: HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
The shift in the power of the aristocratic elite started half a century before in the mid-1800s with the massive industrial revolution of the Victorian era and the early beginnings of what we now know as modern industry and the consumer society.
Until then, the poorest people faced limited employment options other than as agricultural rural workers or in service. But these big changes start, over time, to provide alternative means of employment for large numbers of people in mills, factories, railroads and shops. And eventually, as people begin to have greater mobility to move around – an important factor in the growth of Britain's economy – a slow but steady shift evolves in the ways people live and work.
Bit by bit, decade by decade, the rich and powerful elite landowners find themselves under fire, criticised for their treatment of the poor – and for the shocking inequalities of a society where this 10 per cent of the British population own 92 per cent of the country's wealth.
Taxation is also starting to be a bit of a headache for the ruling classes, nibbling away at their inheritances. Death duties on their estates, introduced in 1894, come on the heels of a long agricultural recession brought on because Britain has started to import more foodstuffs, thereby bringing down local agricultural prices. And this, in turn, reduces the value of land in the great estates – a late nineteenth-century property slump, if you like.
Some of the wealthy ruling class have huge debts to pay and they start to sell off their estates – or, if they own several country houses, some of their houses. Following continuous political pressure to increase the taxes paid by the very richest landowners, in 1909 the 'people's budget', championed by the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George, introduces big tax increases for the most wealthy people in society.
Country-house owners at this time already paid tax for each male servant they employed (this started in 1777 and didn't end until 1937), but the servant tax did not apply to female servants, who were much cheaper to employ anyway. So by the early twentieth century, the big country households had already undergone their own version of cutbacks, starting with their wages bill – often the biggest expense when running their big estates. They'd already been replacing male servants with cheaper females; previously traditional male servant roles like house stewards, hall ushers and grooms of the chamber were gradually replaced in the late 1800s by the butler, the housekeeper and the parlour maid. In some cases, footmen too were replaced – by housemaids. And by now, only the really great households continue to employ the more expensive male cooks. The hard-working and harassed cook, Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), heading up the Downton kitchen might well have learned her duties as a kitchen maid working for a temperamental male chef with better take-home pay.
Technology too has started to influence the way the rich live: the motorcar is not reliable or even widely accepted by 1900 – but cars gradually become commonplace for the wealthy over the next few years, with the chauffeur replacing the coachman. As a result of these changes in technology, less manual labour is required in some houses.
Yet as badly paid as they are by our standards, by the early twentieth century domestic servants are getting slightly more expensive and not quite as easy to recruit as in the past, partly thanks to the growth and development of towns and cities, which eventually creates more job options for the working classes in shops, factories and offices.
Even so, most of the big country houses are still well staffed, an average of about twenty to thirty indoor servants living in each house. And the need everywhere for servants remains consistent: large numbers of them work for middle-class families in the big cities. Only the very poorest people cannot afford some sort of servant or domestic help.
Yet although the middle class tend to have far fewer servants for their smaller households, they too are often finding it difficult to employ and retain good servants: youngsters from the poorest backgrounds who might have willingly followed their relatives into an entire life working in service for the wealthy, generation after generation, are now actively starting to question this: some realise that there are different, less restrictive, ways of earning a crust other than being a live-in servant, even if the wages are low.
However the biggest power shift that is nudging the aristocracy from their lofty perch is that they are no longer the only rich kids on the block. With the English industrial revolution of the mid-1800s and the expansion of the British Empire – which spanned a quarter of the globe at its height – comes the gradual rise of the moneyed industrialists, the factory and mill owners, a new breed of get-up-and-go entrepreneurs. The Richard Bransons of their day, they are making millions from overseas trade, coal mining, shipping and cloth, rather than mere inheritance handed down from generation to generation. Some aristocratic country-house owners have benefited from this, of course, because they already own huge tracts of land ready to be developed as the towns and cities expand.
But the ever-growing spending power and influence of the new entrepreneurs – combined with the influential voice of the professional middle classes – is starting to unseat the snobbish, class-bound aristocrats who now have to face facts: they can no longer afford to shun or ignore the existence – or the company – of equally wealthy people who may have started life without an ancient name or high-born lineage – but who, through their own endeavours, can easily match the aristos' spending power.
Some wealthy industrialists have also started to buy into the aristocrat's way of life, building vast houses and estates of their own, sometimes with all the latest mod cons; a few have installed their own heating system, electrical plant, telephone network – and a telegrapher to send off urgent telegrams.
While the more conservative players in the aristocratic world don't always rush to adopt the latest new technologies like electricity – some country-house owners are extremely reluctant to change rooms designed for oil lamps and candlelight – the penny is starting to drop: other people can – and do – match their vast influence. And some of these 'new money' people have started to marry into the aristocracy, a clear case of 'if you can't beat 'em – join 'em'.
Excerpted from The Real Life Downton Abbey by Jacky Hyams. Copyright © 2011 Jacky Hyams. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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