Why Downstairs HATED Upstairs; Beguiled by TV Portrayals of Cosy Servant Life in Grand Houses? the Acerbic Memoirs of a Twenties Maid Reveal What Domestic Staff REALLY Thought of Their Masters

Daily Mail (London), February 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Downstairs HATED Upstairs; Beguiled by TV Portrayals of Cosy Servant Life in Grand Houses? the Acerbic Memoirs of a Twenties Maid Reveal What Domestic Staff REALLY Thought of Their Masters


Byline: by Margaret Powell

IN THE Twenties, Margaret Powell worked as a kitchen maid, the lowest level of the servants' hierarchy. With unusually sharp observation, Margaret -- who died in 1984 -- recalled in a fascinating memoir what it was like to be treated as less than human by her wealthy employers in London and at Hove in East Sussex. As her book, republished next week, reveals, the animosity was very much mutual ...

ONE MORNING, as I was polishing the brass knocker on the front door, the newsboy arrived with the papers. Just then, my employer floated downstairs -- so I dutifully handed them over. In response, Mrs Clydesdale just gave me a long stare, looking at me as if I were something subhuman.

As the moment lengthened, I couldn't think what was wrong. I had my cap and apron on; I was wearing the correct thick wool stockings; my hair was even scraped back in the regulation manner.

Then at last she spoke. 'Langley,' she said, 'Never, never on any occasion ever hand anything to me in your bare hands -- always use a silver salver.'

Tears started to trickle down my cheeks. So this was what being in service was all about: you were so low that you couldn't even hand your employer something without it first being placed on a silver salver. I was just 15, I'd recently become a kitchen maid -- and I wanted more than anything to run home. I don't think I've ever felt so wretched before or since.

But, like so many other girls in service in the Twenties, I knew I couldn't back out. My parents and grandmother lived in three small rooms in Hove, Sussex, and there was neither money nor space for a growing girl.

In any case, I knew what my mother would have said -- 'Keep your pride and take no notice.' It wasn't as if I didn't know the difference between the likes of us and what everyone called 'the gentry'. In the local parks, if any wealthy child wandered up to me, its nurse would say: 'Come away this instant!'

Mind you, I had a kind of contempt for those children because they couldn't do what they wanted: they weren't allowed to dirty their clothes, they couldn't run in and out of thethey couldn't run in and out of the bushes and they gawped when I climbed on benches.

But when I left school, it was my turn to be thwarted. I'd won a scholarship at 13 and decided I wanted to be a teacher -- but that would have meant new clothes and books, which my parents simply couldn't afford.

For my dad, work in the decorating business had always been slow. I remember once having to queue like Oliver Twist for watery gruel at the town soup kitchen when I was seven. One winter, we'd even burnt all the shelves and banisters just to keep warm.

So, after doing a few odd jobs, I agreed to go into service and turned up for an interview at the imposing Regency home of the Reverend Clydesdale and his family.

His wife looked me up and down as though I were standing in a slave market. Fortunately, she decided that because I was strong and healthy, I'd do. I was to have [pounds sterling]24 a year, with half a day off a week, and do everything the cook commanded.

That seemed fine -- until I was given a list of my duties, which seemed sufficient for six maids.

Between 5.30am and 8am, I had to clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grates, clean the 4ft steel fender and the fire irons, polish the brass on the front door, scrub the 14 stone steps, clean the boots and shoes, bring the cook her tea and lay the servants' breakfast.

The first time I cleaned the boots, I was pulled up sharply by Mary, the under-housemaid. 'They won't do -- you haven't polished the insteps,' she said. 'And you have to take all the bootlaces out and iron them.'

The breakfasts I helped prepare for the Clydesdales were enormous: bacon and eggs, sausages, kidneys and either haddock or kedgeree -- not one or two of these things, but every one. …

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