What life was really like for the Downton Abbey servants

Carson and Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey. Photograph: ITV
17 Jun 2013 @ 2.33 pm
| Entertainment

Carson and Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey. Photograph: ITV
Carson and Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey. Photograph: ITV
Writer Lucy Lethbridge will offer a window into the fascinating world of the Downton Abbey era at a York Festival of Ideas talk.

Based on her best-selling book, Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th-Century Britain, she will describe the real below-stairs experience of those who served as domestic servants in our great country houses, popularly depicted in TV series such as Downton Abbey, before the onset of the First World War changed that world forever.

Told through the eyes of those who served, Lucy Lethbridge’s talk In conversation: The voices of servants will include accounts of prodigious affluence among the so-called “gentry”. They could employ huge numbers of servants to carry out tasks such as the weekly washing in milk of the mosaic hall of a vast country house.

She will also explain the lack of privacy and respect encountered by many servants, and chart the decline of this life due to the huge social changes caused by the First World War.

Men went to war, butlers were replaced by parlour maids and the introduction of a series of labour-saving devices such as the vacuum cleaner meant that, even for middle class households, the numbers of staff required to run houses became fewer and fewer.

Lucy Lethbridge’s talk will also highlight the stark differences in experience. Some former servants described with great loathing their treatment and the drudgery of their way of life. Others identified with a passing order in the post-war period and what they saw as the “pretensions of the middle classes” reserving praise and loyalty towards employers described as “real gentry”.