Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey"

by Margaret Powell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429952446
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Series: Below Stairs , #1
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 117,057
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

MARGARET POWELL was born in 1907 in Hove, and left school at the age of 13 to start working. At 14, she got a job in a hotel laundry room, and a year later went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to the position of cook, before marrying a milkman called Albert. In 1968 the first volume of her memoirs, Below Stairs, was published to instant success and turned her into a celebrity. She died in 1984.
MARGARET POWELL was born in 1907 in Hove, and left school at the age of 13 to start working. At 14, she got a job in a hotel laundry room, and a year later went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to the position of cook, before marrying a milkman called Albert. In 1968 the first volume of her memoirs, Below Stairs, was published to instant success and turned her into a celebrity. She died in 1984.

Read an Excerpt

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

Reading Group Guide

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?

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Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Heidi_G More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Ann40AW More than 1 year ago
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****.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a good, quick read. Just realize that it is more autobiographical, not really a story.
Canyon1200 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing for fans of Downton Abbey.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is whiney, self indulgent and boring. I'm a huge Downton Abbey fan and was so disappointed in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting and engrossing book. A bit heartbreaking too. Definately recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Downton abbey fans should read this book.
bell7 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Originally written in the 1960s, Margaret Powell's first memoir as a kitchen maid and then cook in the 1920s and 30s is newly reprinted with a subtitle touting it as the inspiration for "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey."At first, I had a hard time believing this could be the inspiration, as it's very different from "Downton Abbey." An introduction with an explanation for the claim and a quick overview of the class system - though it's changed when Powell is writing, it's assumed you understand - would have been helpful to me as a young American, but there is none. Besides enjoying "Downton Abbey," I've done some research in family history and know I had relatives in service in the late 1800s to early 1900s, so I was interested in Powell's perspective. She pulls no punches in talking about her several positions with employers who were bad, worse or indifferent (I think there was one or two nice ones in there). She's not bitter, though, and she's often funny so once I got over the fact that it was different from what I expected, I did enjoy reading her thoughts and observations. Powell is clearly intelligent and curious and a reader. She has a sort of meandering, oral style and I could almost picture an older woman talking to someone, reminiscing about life when she was younger. The cover of the reissue - a woman dressed as a maid with a feather duster in hand and three young children in the background - has nothing to do with the contents (I imagine it's from "Upstairs, Downstairs") and felt tacked on. If you're a fan of the "below stairs" aspect of "Downton Abbey," this eyewitness account will definitely be of interest.
etxgardener on LibraryThing 10 months ago
As an antidote to all the "Downton Abbey" books about the aristocracy, this memoir by Margaret Powell relates the story of what life was like below stairs. For readers expecting to find the happy servants of television mini-series fame, this book should dispel that saccharine fairy tale. Md. Powell, while an untrained writer is not unintelligent. Despite having very little formal schooling, she read widely and had a good opinion of herself and certainly didn't suffer fools gladly. If she had been born a little later, one could easily see her going into Labour Party politics.Her descriptions of her duties as as kitchen maid and later on as a cook are fascinating and give the reader a vivid picture of what life in service was really like in the period between wars in England. This is a quick read & I was rooting for Margaret on every page.
Bodagirl on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A blunt, insider look into the world of domestic service in the early 20th Century. Margaret has a unique voice and take on her time in service and it is inspiring how she continually hoped and worked for more than her lot had dealt.
coolmama on LibraryThing 10 months ago
What a delightful read!Margaret Lawley was on of many children - all 9 of them sleeping in 2 rooms; and by age 15 even though she had won a scholarship to continue her education her family just could not afford to have another mouth to feed.She was sent away to work as a kitchen maid in domestic service.This lovely "no holes bared" slim volume talks of her time from a kitchen maid to a proper cook in many households both in the country and in London.She is honest with her acknowledgement of "them" above stairs, the inequity of the two groups, the cast offs the servants get and how poorly they are treated! I especially loved her section on how horrified a Lady was to be asked to borrow a book from Margaret as she did not believe that she could read!!
msf59 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Powell was born in 1907 and by the time she was thirteen, she was beginning a career in domestic service, toiling as a kitchen maid, the lowliest of lowlies. I¿m a big fan of the British series Downton Abbey but one thing is for sure, the gentry do not always treat their help as well as they do on that program.This is a bright, revealing memoir, filled with humor and a refreshing frankness. This was first released in the late 60s but the narrative still moves with a deft, contemporary flow.Of course, I recommend this for other DA fans but anyone with an interest in taking a peek at "downstairs" life, give this one a try.
arielfl on LibraryThing 10 months ago
As a lover of Downton Abbey, I could not pass up the book that inspired it as well as Upstairs, Downstairs. Although this book was not quite as titillating as the series it was still an excellent read. Margaret Powell entered into service at a time when the servants were not treated much differently than slaves. Even though she endured a lot of indignities at the hands of her employers she used her wits to advance her station while not allowing her employers to take away her pride. Her pointed observations on the human condition are often sharp as well as humorous. This book was published in the sixties and has been re released with the success of Downton Abby. Even though the book was written fifty years ago, Powell's wry observations are still pertinent to today. Although Margaret did not become the teacher she longed to be by profession, her memoir chronicling the 1940's British class system has enlightened countless people to the struggles and injustices suffered by the "downstairs people" of her day.
Crazymamie on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Fans of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey will enjoy this behind the scenes look at life as a member of the domestic staff at a manor house during the Gilded Age. Margaret Powell was only fifteen when she entered the halls of domestic service as a kitchen maid, the lowest position in the domestic service hierarchy. Her memoir chronicles her years of service as she changes households and rises in position to the post of cook. At times embittered, at times funny, she does a good job of revealing what that lifestyle entailed through her own eyes. The beginning starts slow, and the end drags a bit, but the middle is pure reading pleasure, full of wit and humor. I'm giving it 3.5 stars because better editing could have made this a more enjoyable book.I remember asking her if I could borrow a book from her library to read, and I can see now the surprised look on her face. She said, "Yes, of course, certainly you can, Margaret," adding, "but I didn't know that you read." They knew that you breathed and you slept and you worked, but they didn't know that you read. Such a thing was beyond comprehension. They thought that in your spare time you sat and gazed into space, or looked at 'Peg's Paper' or the 'Crimson Circle'. You could almost see them reporting you to their friends. "Margaret's a good cook, but unfortunately she reads. Books, you know."
MelissaPrange on LibraryThing 10 months ago
With the present success of the British television series Downton Abbey, St. Martin's Press has re-released the classic memoir, Below Stairs. In Below Stairs, Margaret Powell recounts her career in domestic service and vividly recreates the world in which she lived. As a child, Margaret Powell hoped to become a teacher, but her family was poor and there was no public assistance to pay for her education. Instead, she entered the workforce at the age of thirteen. For two years, she worked a series of odd jobs in her hometown of Hove, culminating in her dismissal from a laundry service for turning fifteen (the laundry wished to avoid giving her a half a crown raise). Her mother then decided it was time for her to enter domestic service. Margaret began her career with a position as a lowly kitchen maid but within three years, rose to the rank of cook through hard work and a bit of lying. The joy I felt in reading Below Stairs had little to do with my fondness for Downton Abbey and much more to do with Margaret's unique voice and the world she describes so clearly. Through her no-nonsense narration, we are transported back to the time between wars. Margaret introduces the reader to a post-World War I England in which everything has changed and yet many of its people are still reticent about moving forward. Many of Margaret's employers were once something but are now forced to live on dwindling fortunes with only the good, old days to keep them company. Courtship no longer resembles that of Victorian England, and Margaret struggles to keep up as she searches for a husband. Women, in general, struggle to gain autonomy while society struggles with accepting them as independent, single women. Daily life now includes bicycling, car rides, cinema, and theater going. It¿s a fascinating time, and Margaret allows the reader to experience it all through the eyes of a firsthand observer. Throughout Below Stairs, Margaret guides us through her world with a straightforward and feisty voice. The reader becomes well acquainted with her and, by the last page, are reluctant to say good-bye to her and her world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful retelling of a life well lived.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok read. Nothing spectacular. To be honest I do regret buying it. Expensive book for only 166 pages. She tells about her experiences but seems to jump around a bit so gets a little confusing sometimes. And she spends a LOT of time comparing the then and now and gets a really annoying.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Light and interesting read. Downton Abby fans won't be dissapointed.