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Poor Crawleys: A Study of Downton Abbey’s Staffing Woes

A guest post by JHarper2

Why are the Crawleys so poor?

Watching Downton Abbey and having some interest in the social history of the time, it struck me that both the Matthew Crawley family and the Crawleys of Downton Abbey seemed under-servanted for their time and class. Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed. Let’s look at this handy “Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale.”

Upper Staff

  • Butler:The highest ranking official servant. Responsible for running the house. Forty to 60 pounds ($4,300-$6,400) per year. He also received considerable “gratuity” money from vendors selling goods to maintain the house. In smaller estates the butler assumed the house steward’s responsibilities.
  • Housekeeper:Responsible for the female staff and maintaining the house’s furnishings. Her salary was usually 5 to 10 pounds less than the butler’s ($3,700-$5,400) per year.
  • Cook or Chef: In charge of the kitchen staff and responsible for preparing the family’s meals. (An under cook would prepare meals for him and the staff.) Because food quality was an important method for impressing guests, chefs often earned more than butlers even though they ranked below them. A cook for a modest house might only make 30 pounds ($3,200) a year while a famous chef for a royal family might earn as much as 300 ($32,000.)
  • Lady’s Maid and Valet:Their main job was to be a private servant for the lady or master of the house: assisting them with dressing, caring for their cloths, being a general companion and even performing secretarial duties. They were hired by the Lady and Master of the house rather than by the butler, housekeeper or house steward. Typical salaries were 20-30 pounds ($2,100-3,200) per year.
The lower staff, and discussion on where all these servants are in Downton Abbey, after the jump.

Lower Staff

  • First Footman:Next in line to replace the butler. His main job was to be tall, handsome and represent the estate’s grandeur. He accompanied the lady of the house on shopping expeditions, served the family meals and assisted the butler in his duties. Oddly, his responsibility did not include heavy work such as carrying coal or water. These were left the the female staff. His salary was around 30 pounds ($3,200) a year. Many footman’s salaries were based one how tall they were rather than how well they did their work. The taller and more impressive they were the more they received. Their income was supplemented by 5-15 pounds ($500-$1,500) a year in tips and other gifts from lady of the house.
  • Second Footman:Similar to the first footman but in more of an apprenticeship status. Twenty-five pound ($2,700) per year. Premium salaries were paid to a pair of first and second footman whose size and appearance
  • made them look like twins. The idea was that they were most impressive if, like book ends, they matched.
  • Footman: Additional male staff for opening doors, waiting at table, assisting gentleman or accompanying ladies as needed. Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year.
  • Head Nurse: In charge of the nursing staff in houses with several nurses. Many of these nurses, charged with watching over young children, were themselves only 12-14 years old. Head nurses earned 25 pounds ($2,700) per year.
  • Chamber Maids: Responsible for cleaning bedrooms. Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year. I imagine they were slightly higher than parlour maids because chamber maids were in more intimate contact with the family, or at least the remnants of their presence.
  • Parlour Maids: Responsible for cleaning and maintaining the sitting rooms, drawing rooms, etc. of the house. Twenty pounds ($2,100) per year.
  • House Maid: General purpose worker. Sixteen pounds ($1,700) a year
  • Between Maid: Worked in either the house or the kitchen as needed. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year.
  • Nurse: Responsible for raising the babies and young children of the house. Ten to 15 pounds ($1,100-$1,600) per year depending on age and ability.
  • Under Cook: Apprentice to the chef. Prepares meals for the staff. Worked for low wages to work his way up to a full chef’s job. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) per year.
  • Kitchen Maid: Assists in kitchen work. Fifteen pounds ($1,600) a year.
  • Scullery Maid: Dish washer. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) per year
  • Laundry Maid: Washing and ironing. Thirteen pounds ($1,300) a year.
  • Page or Tea Boy: Apprentice footman. Typically 10 to 16 years old. Eight to 16 pounds
  • ($860-$1,700) per year depending on age, height, appearance and abilities.
  • Head Groom or Stable Master: Responsible for running the stables. Positionally he might rank as upper staff but because he wasn’t part of the inside staff he didn’t have their privileges. However, as master of his own staff he undoubtedly occupied a similar status. Thirty to 50 pounds ($3,100- $5,300) a year.
  • Groom: Cared for horses: grooming, saddling, etc. fifteen pounds ($1,600) per year.
  • Stable Boy: Cleaned stables and etc. Six to 12 pounds ($640-$1,300) per year depending on age and ability. Many times they started when they were only 10.
  • Head Gardener: Like the head groom the head gardener was management and therefor upper staff, yet his position outside the house prohibited him from occupying a position in the house’s upper servant’s. Also like the stable master his position of authority had its compensations. Because a grand estate’s grounds were as important to impressing guests as the chef’s skill, the head gardener could earn a very high wage, as much as 120 pounds ($12,800) per year.
  • Game Keeper: Responsible for maintaining the bird population of the estate so that the Master and guests would have game birds, such as pheasant, to hunt. Thirty to 50 pounds ($3,100-$5,400) per year.
  • Grounds Keepers: The general laborers under the head gardener. They’d do everything from planting trees to cutting grass. Eight to 16 pounds ($850-$1,700) per year depending on age and ability
  • Governess: I’m listing governesses as a separate category because they existed in a kind of social limbo. Typically they were unmarried daughters of gentlemen who for one reason or another had to go into service to support themselves. Because they officially belonged to the genteel class it would be unspeakable for them to accept service as a maid. As a governess they were able to make use of their education and in theory retain a little of their dignity. In reality their lives were miserable. They were looked down on by the house’s family as being from a failed family. Equally, the staff looked down on them because they represented hypocrisy: they worked for wages like any servant yet were supposed to be genteel. Their job was to care for the family’s teenage girls. (Teenage males were sent off to boarding school.) Their salaries were 25 pounds ($2,700) per year. I found no references that clearly stated whether they were considered upper or lower staff. Movies that show governesses walking through the front door and assuming a status high above that of house servants are not consistent with the lives described in my references.
  • Gate Keeper: This is another servant hard to categorize. His job was to guard the main entrance to the estate and often lived in a small house attached to the gate. Yet he would be classed as unskilled labor and as such would occupy a low position on the servant’s hierarchy and receive a commensurately low salary, perhaps as little as 10 pounds ($1,100) per year.

First, let’s consider Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel.

Both a City Solicitor like Matthew, and a City Doctor like his father, would have lived in a five servant house. It is extremely unlikely that someone of that status and income in Victorian or Edwardian times would be as unfamiliar with servants as it is implied that this branch of the Crawley family was (ie: hardly none.) Matthew and his mother, if they lived in the style typical of their income and class, would likely have lived in a five servant house. To wit:

  • One male servant, footman/valet: To serve in the dining room, valet Matthew, and accompany Mrs Crawley as the lady of the house on her calls.  Valeting, unlike what is implied in DA, involved more than helping on the clothes, it meant supervising the washing and cleaning, (many could not be laundered in these times, they were sponged and pressed which was the valets job), mending, polishing etc and it was here that most of the valeting time was consumed.  A lady, even of the middle class would be accompanied on her errands and calls by a footman.  Service at table, except in the lowest houses employing servants was never performed by female servants.
  • One Cook.
  • One KitchenMaid.
  • One housemaid (to perform the duties of both Chambermaid and Parlor maid)
  • One Scullery maid/tweenie.  To perform all the heavy cleaning and lifting.  This was the youngest (12-16) and weakest and least well paid of the servants.

In short, they would have lived in an establishment very similar to the one they had near Downton Abbey. So, why did they not have such an establishment before moving to Downton? One can only speculate of course, but it is likely that massive debts played a role. When Dr. Crawley (Matthew’s father) died, he may have left large debts from either drinking or gambling. These, of course, would not have been mentioned by the family once they arrived at Downton. Most middle class individuals had some small investments that brought in between 60 and 200 pounds/annum, but these may have been wiped out in some fashion.

It is also possible that Dr. Crawley left no insurance, which would not be unusual at the time. Any income producing investments would have been eaten up raising and educating Matthew, and there may have been no surplus for more than a “daily” woman coming in to cook and clean. In any case, Matthew and his mother lived in genteel poverty with income (after paying loans) and expenditures much lower than normal for their class and education. This experience would go far to explain the independence and outspokenness of Mrs. Crawley, as even relative poverty strips one of the protections that income and status privilege can confer.

And what of the Aristocratic relatives? First, let’s look at the staffing that Downton Abbey should have had, as a great house in the prewar period and what positions were actually staffed.

  • Butler, check.
  • UnderButler – nope, but was an optional  position.
  • Valet – check, but see below under4th footman.
  • First Footman – Check (if senior can fill underbutler role), also attends the lady of the house when making calls.
  • Second Footman – Check but fail, in high class household is supposed to be as alike physically to first footman as to be twins.
  • Third Footman – fail
  • Fourth Footman – fail. Households of the size and importance of Downton should have two extra footmen, sometimes called 3rd and 4th.  The fact that Bates the valet was expected to fill in at even a small dinner is not something that would normally be case. Also Downton is ill-equiped for a large dinner or house party, hospitality that would normally occur several times a year.
  • Housekeeper – check
  • Lady’s Maids – There is one for Lady Grantham, but as all the daughters are “out in society” they should have maids too, at least one for Lady Mary, and one to be shared between the other two at the least. As O’Brien is doing the work of 3 or 4 Lady’s maids, no wonder she is so sour. Lady’s maiding included: overseeing laundry of those things that could be laundered, sponging and brushing clean the rest, repairs, and sewing different ribbons and accessories onto the ladies clothing to make them appear different. Again, O’Brien is way overworked if she is doing this for four ladies.
  • 2-3 Chambermaids – These maids work solely on the bedroom floor and in contact with the family (because of the bedrooms.  They are more highly paid than parlor maids)
  • 2-3 Parlor maids – These maids work on the main floor public rooms and rarely if ever come in contact with the family.  Downton only has 2-3 housemaids/maids of all work, thus is both understaffed and staffed at a lower level.
  • Cook – Check
  • Undercook or 1st kitchenmaid – check, but the first kitchen maid is responsible for cooking the servants’ meals, not the cook, and there should be more than one kitchen maid.
  • Scullery maids, cleaned and washed up in the separate scullery area.  Downton has none, a house that size should have two or more.
  • Laundry Maids – A house the size of Downton generates huge amounts of laundry. Each table cloth would be washed, starched and ironed after each use. Each napkin likewise. The Table cloths in the servants hall , the butler’s room and the housekeeper’s parlor would not be washed as frequently but would add to the workload. In addition, the sheets of the family would be changed several times a week, as would those of any guests. At this point in history, upper class people changed their clothes several times a day (4 or more) resulting in huge amounts of laundry. Downton has no laundry maids, adding to the burden on the undersized staff.
  • Hall boy – to take cards in the hall, polish shoes and boots of visitors. Downton has none.
  • Oddjob man – does heavy lifting in the house, replaces oil in lamps, carries logs for the parlormaids to make fires in the main floor fireplaces, carries logs for the chambermaids to look after the fireplaces in the family and visitor bedrooms, can help maids carry up hot water for baths (piped hot water was so rare as to practically never happen). Downton has none.
  • Tweenies – who help the parlormaids and the scullery maids- Downton has none.

Downton has an inside staff of eight or nine, when it should have between 17 and 24.  It does not have enough staff to properly look after the family and house and provide the hospitality that a great house of its type should.

In addition Lord Grantham would be expected to have a Land Agent, to look after the income from the estate, tenancies, leases, collections and repairs. This is a very will paid post, but Grantham seems to fill this role himself without employing a professional, which would be more usual. He tries to get Matthew to fill this role without pay which will save the estate an upper middle class salary, and still get a dedicated professional into the job. Grantham’s offer of a place on the estate is not as selfless and kind as it appears.

The only explanation is that the aristocratic Crawleys are also quite short of money. Even with the income from Cora’s money propping up the estate, they can’t afford to have it run professionally or to keep up the house properly.

Most estates had lands inside the entail, and had lands outside the entail that could be sold in lean times etc. Land was acquired for outside the entail when the family and times were flush. I suspect that all lands outside the entail, and that revenue, are long gone. I also suspect that the income from Cora’s funds that is inside the entail is paying off debts that the estate contracted in the past. (I suspect that the creditors insisted on Cora’s funds going into entail as a condition of the loans to ensure repayment).

Lord Grantham is certainly paring expenses to the bone, likely to pay off debts, and also to save up money to provide a small inheritance to the daughters. Cora will, like the current dowager, receive an income from the estate if she outlives Lord G. This would be laid down in the entail, country estates, such as Downton had smaller houses, called Dower Houses for the Dowagers to live out their days. The Dowager Countess is in the Dower House now, if Matthew inherits, he would move to Downton and Cora could move into his current residence as her Dower House.

Another indication of the Crawley poverty is how seldom they are up at the London residence. Especially with three daughters to marry off, they should be in London society every moment that Society is in London throwing parties etc. This is of even more force in wartime, as everything is gravitating to the capital. With so much war time demand for housing in London, I would not be surprised to find out the house is rented out, and will be sold for death duties once Lord G dies.

Lord G was likely given his position as Honourary Colonel/regimental mascot by his friends as a face-saving excuse to stay in the provinces where he can live more cheaply. He just could not see that his friends were trying to protect him.

Spare a tear for the Crawleys who cannot afford the position that their birth and landed acres would have brought them.

20 thoughts on “Poor Crawleys: A Study of Downton Abbey’s Staffing Woes”

  1. This is great – thanks!

    In Sunday’s episode, when Lord G comes downstairs to tell everyone the war is over and how they’re going to assemble on the 11th at 11:00, he says “I expect all of you, including the kitchen staff and hall boys, everyone, to be there.” This implied to me that there are other servants, but since they don’t have plot lines, we simply don’t see them.

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  2. Et tu, JHarper2?

    Sigh. I wage a one-man War against the forelock-tugging worship of all things that glorify a parasitic aristocracy – and then am betrayed! My fellow-Canadian – and a resident of that historic hotbed of Socialism and socialized medicine called Saskatchewan – has turned on me!

    Oh Woe! Alas and alack! (Do they mean the same thing?)

    OK – seriously, this was a good post. Highly informative, while at the same time completely avoiding the fetish known as hat worship. Thanks – and courage, my friend.

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  3. I love this post. (especially how it brings in the Honorary Colonel posting at the end to tie everything together!)

    Thank you, JHarper2! (And anibundel, for posting!)

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  4. I recently rewatched the second season of Upstairs, Downstairs, and I have some general questions/want to check if I understand things right.

    Room, board, and at least some clothing came with the job in addition to the money, right?

    Servants were not allowed to marry of have children of their own. Which would mean female servants would have to be celibate or very careful.

    What happened to servants who did get pregnant? Where they just fired and thrown out?

    What happened to servants when they got too old to work?

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    1. Fired, thrown out. Unless pregnant by a member of the household in which case they might also get paid off.

      Too old to work? Pensioned off, but you worked until you were really old, and dying was a lot easier then anyway. Staff was generational too: the more senior but still relatively young maids and footmen and underbutlers etc. would be promoted into the households of the adult children, and grow old with them. with any luck.

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  5. This is fantastic information–thank you.

    I believe that your desire for a portrayal of the economic reality of Downton Abbey is running smack against the economic reality of 21st century television. The only kind of television show that was economically able to have such a large cast of regular actors (those with speaking parts, let alone character arcs) were the soap operas of the 1960s-1980s. DA has a huge cast by today’s television standards (it is the closest thing we have to the old-time soap opera tradition, in both scale and plot devices–amnesia! forbidden love!). I tend to rationalize it that there are lots of other servants that we never see, just as high school dramas only focus on a handful of students and neglect the other 98%.

    Actually, I would prefer to see more actors less often, rather than the current DA model, where every actor appears in every episode. Seriously, we don’t need to see Ethel in every episode. Except I guess we do, since each episode seems to span months, and sometimes years. DA is about to have the opposite problem of most TV shows, where the actors age faster than the plots move (I’m looking at you, kid from Lost! And you, 30 year old actor playing a high schooler!). In two years of real time, DA has progressed eight years. Maggie Smith will be playing a 120 year old by the time this show wraps production.

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      1. I told you over at TNC’s place, and I’ll say it again–Maggie Smith will never die, so you just stop that nonsense. :-)

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  6. Captain Button, as far as I understand it:

    Room, board and I think work-appropriate clothing (uniform, etc) came with the job along with salary.

    Servants who married often left, though the employer could find a position for the spouse within the establishment if they wanted to keep the servant.

    Servants who got pregnant were often fired and thrown out. Occaisionally a servant who became pregnant by a member of The Family would be paid off (but also fired), depending.

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  7. I was fascinated to read in a recent memoir, I think Tony Judt, that he considered his family to be lower middle class but they had a maid in 1950. England is another country.

    Maybe we’ll find out more about the family finances in season III, when Cora’s mother appears.

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    1. The same was true here. Even fairly low on the middle class scale, money would be found for part time live out help. Housekeeping was hard physical labor before central heat and air made houses cleaner; and standards of dustfree shining cleanliness were higher, not to mention the only way to have food was to cook from complete scratch every day and many households still made at least some of their own clothing. If all you could afford was ‘a girl’ a couple days a week, you got one.

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    1. I’d noticed before the maids uniforms don’t quite match. I suppose they are buying them as needed from the shops rather than having them made to match, or even expecting the maids to sew their own to a matching pattern.

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      1. Good eye! I hadn’t noticed that. From reading “Below Stairs” by Margaret Powell is seems some employers made their servants to buy or make their own uniforms, and other provided them or parts of them (such as the cap). You would think a big house like “Downton” would provide them, but perhaps not. There may be a difference between housemaid and parlourmaid uniforms, and perhaps differences in rank too.

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  8. Just wondering — assuming you could afford a house like Downton today, what would your staffing needs be now as compared to 1920? I assume you would not as many full time staff.

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    1. That’s a good question.
      You’d still want Cook, and she’d probably want an assistant.
      You’d still want a maid to do laundry and vacuum. It’s a big house after all. If you were in the business of doing events and hosting lots of parties, that maid staff would probably expand to two or three.
      Having a butler to buttle and function as house manager would be good, considering that in today’s world, Husband and Wife would have the kind of two-salary high powered jobs that can afford that size house. Again, hosting events, parties and random BBC shows who want to film period pieces on your grounds might require him to have an assistant or two.

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  9. Downton has about six housemaids who do all duties of parlour and chamber, there’s about 3-5 kitchen maids besides Daisy, who, poor darling, is the scullery maid I think, in additon to being a VERY young undercook, she couldn’t have been much older than 14 at the start, probably younger, the footmen, you are quite correct on that mark. Now I’ve never seen a tweeny, but there seem to be about two hallboys/odd job men. The laundry was in a different building and the laundry staff were seperate, so its no wonder you don’t see them, but you really should watch the series over, if you watch the downstairs secnes there’s about 20 or more extras running around behind all the servants who get a character. Anna maids the three daughters, plus different houses had different rules for daughters, some gave them maids and let them have breakfast in bed, others didn’t, Downton is obviously the latter. The Crawleys of Manchester I think are recently upper middle class, Doctor Crawley must have been middle middle class along with Mrs. Crawley’s Doctor father, as Matthew is a solicitor they must have moved up in the world and bought a bigger house but not a bigger staff, they had a cook and two maids, if you listen to Mrs. Bird she says she’s always had one kitchen maid and gotten on perfectly well. The Crawley’s Manchester house was well furnished (what we saw of it) and fashionably furnished, so they redecorated within the last 5/10 years, they still had all their tea sets and china and silver. I think Mrs. Crawley is merely a very independant person, you’d have to be if you were a Manchester matriarch, which, given her interests in charities and hospitals and so on is more than likely.

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  10. We often see servants in the background, coming and going, whose names and positions we don’t know. Gardeners have been referred to, as have gamekeepers and general “outdoor staff.” We’ve seen at least one groom, too. We saw some gamekeepers in the shooting episode in which Mary was accompanied by Sir Richard. Thomas is now Under Butler, and there are two footmen. There are also hallboys and other maids whose names we don’t know. In season 3, Edith mentions a new (presumably lady’s) maid, but we never see her. Matthew and Isobel did seem to live in Crawley House with a staff of only two, however, and Isobel seemed for a time to have only Mrs. Bird, and then Ethyl. I’ve wondered who does Isobel’s hair, and who does the laundry and ironing. Tweenies had pretty much gone out of fashion by 1900, so the absence is perhaps not as surprising as the apparent absence of a laundress.

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