One of the most interesting aspects of the show Downton Abbey is the way the servants have their own hierarchy that mirrors the strict hierarchy “above stairs.” When the servants sit down to dinner, they sit according to their positions in the household, from Mr. Carson the butler right on down through the ranks to Daisy the scullery maid.
Every British tourist attraction sells little guidebooks published by the Pitkin company. They run about 30 pages and are packed with information. I buy one for every attraction I visit. This one explains how a pre-war British country house worked. (The First World War shook the system; the Second World War pretty much ended the system entirely).
The book lists some typical YEARLY salaries for household staff in the late 19th century:
Butler 70 pounds (Mr. Carson)
Master’s Valet 60 pounds (Mr. Bates)
Housekeeper 40 to 60 pounds (Mrs. Hughes)
Lady’s Maid 50 pounds (devious Miss O’Brien)
Footman 20-30 pounds (saintly William , dastardly Thomas)
Scullery Maid 5-10 pounds (Daisy)
At this same time, there were about 700 families in England who could support large country homes. A rule of thumb was that an income of at least 1,000 pounds per year was required, or the income from at least 1,000 acres of land.
The master’s valet was especially important; his job was to make the master look impressive at all times. Valets often received lavish gifts, including the master’s hand-me-down clothing which they could either wear or sell. Since room, board and uniforms were provided, a valet could save most or all of his money.
Many valets did very well for themselves. For example, the poet Lord Byron had a valet named James Brown. In 1837, James Brown opened Brown’s Hotel with his savings. The hotel is still one of the most elegant places to stay in London.
Afternoon tea, priced at around $60 per person, is still quite an occasion.
The price includes piano entertainment and an unlimited supply of little sandwiches, scones and cakes which are served graciously for as long as the customer wants to sit there basking in luxury. Some years ago, I had tea there. At the time, the waiters made a great show of clearing the tables by whisking the tablecloth OUT FROM UNDER the cups, plates, pots and tiered cake stand. Do they still do it? I guess I’ll have to return to find out.
As for Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey, I hope he is able to climb out of the hole he’s landed in. I wish him a long happy life with his true love, Anna.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe, including the British Isles!