In 1922, when at the age of fifteen I entered domestic service – after two years as a ‘daily’ – servants were considered less than dusty by those who employed them; and ignorant, even positively ‘not all there’ by that section of the working class, male and female alike, who wouldn’t have been seen alive, or dead, as a servant ‘below stairs’.
Regardless of their poor wages and often poverty-stricken home lives, shop girls were the romantic dreamers. Didn’t they all day long handle delicate fabrics, perfumes and jewelry? Didn’t they serve titled ladies and debutantes; and just serve them, not wait on them hand and foot as domestic servants did? Furthermore, shop girls had the opportunity to meet dashing and obviously wealthy young men, who were not averse to a little dalliance with a pretty girl behind the counter. Small wonder that many a girl had visions of marrying one of those desirable and delectable prizes.
But servant girls too had their dreams. We found them in the pages of Peg’s Paper
and The Crimson Circle
where the heroines, without surrendering a fraction of their innocence and virginity, eventually succeeded in capturing the love – and money – of the handsome hero. We found romance, excitement and vicarious sexual emotion in the cinema, swooning over such cardboard lovers as Rudolph Valentino or Ramon Navarro. Though, as I used to say to my friend Gladys, it couldn’t be all honey being courted by one of those sheik types. When he held you in a passionate embrace, you wouldn’t know for sure whether he really cared or was just getting in a bit of practice for his next film. Gladys reckoned that she’d take a chance on it, for at least they didn’t start off by trying to feel a girl in all the wrong places – as the fellows one met at a dance did.
At the films, we too, for a while, could be as sexy as a Clara Bow, or as slinkily seductive as a Pola Negri. But one place where we never at any time looked for romance was above stairs. Although living in the same house, coming into contact in bedrooms, drawing-rooms and kitchen, those above stairs were, to servants, a world apart. None of us dreamed, or thought the prospect even remotely possible, of entering their life, of being one of them. Their style, their money and perhaps even their morals, were totally alien to the way of life below stairs. So, no matter if the sons or nephews occasionally visited the kitchen and servants’ hall on some specious excuse, we knew well enough they were merely amusing themselves by slumming. And yet, during my years in service, one girl did manage to change her status from downstairs to upstairs by marrying the son of the house; much to the Madam’s dismay and the Master’s fury. I must admit that Rosalie, the parlourmaid, was an exceptionally pretty girl – though a bit slow in the uptake. She had a lovely creamy skin, the bluest of eyes, and thick golden hair that waved naturally. I’d have thought that with those natural advantages, she could have got a better job than being a parlourmaid. But Rosalie’s mother was a strict, church-going disciplinarian, the embodiment of respectability. So what better job for her daughter than domestic service; that was eminently respectable.
All this occurred over fifty years ago. There are only two of us left now; Mary the under-housemaid, and me. I am therefore able to write about a unique event and the life of the household.
I was eighteen when I decided that I was fed up with being a kitchenmaid; fed up with having to gauge the disposition of the cook and cater to her whims and fancies; fed up with having to wait on the other servants. I reckoned I’d learnt enough about cooking to become a good plain cook. So I decided to give a month’s notice and then to go home for a couple of weeks – I’d saved enough money to pay my mother for my keep – while I looked around for another job and a new status.
One needed a short interval between leaving the old job and entering the basement of a new one, because working out a month’s notice was purgatory. The cook was invariably extremely irritated because you wanted to get away from her, and she’d also have to start training another girl. Yet, however awful she was, it would have been very unwise to answer rudely because she might tell Madam that you weren’t a good kitchenmaid, and then, if Madam didn’t give you a good reference, you’d no hope of getting a decent job.
I’d always kept in contact with Mary, the under-housemaid from my first job below stairs, so I wrote to let her know that I contemplated taking a job as a cook. Mary was still an under-housemaid, working now in a large country house near Southampton. I’d been home only two days when she came to see me, principally with the object of persuading me to become a temporary kitchenmaid. In a week’s time they would be in urgent need of one.
‘It’s ever such a nice place, Margaret. Madam, Mrs Wardham, is a lovely lady to work for, so considerate. He
’s a bit of a swine, but then you’d never see him, he never goes down to the basement except once in a while to inspect the wine cellar. And it’s only for a month or two, until the cook’s niece can come as a kitchenmaid. There’s a between-maid so you’d get help in the kitchen; and Mrs Buller, the cook, though she’s a bit churchy, she’s easy to get on with.’
‘Don’t make me laugh, Mary. You’re always telling me that people you
don’t have to work under are easy to get on with. Yet when I told you that I quite liked Alice, the upper housemaid where we were at Mrs Clydesdale, you went up in the air and said she was an old witch. Still, you were right about the cook there; Mrs McIlroy was quite nice.’
‘There you are then, Margaret. She’s married now too.’
‘Married? Never! Not Mrs McIlroy. Why, she was fifty at least. Who would marry her?’
‘You remember the butler, Mr. Wade? He got the sack for going out in one of the reverend’s suits and coming home as drunk as a lord. Mrs McIlroy married him about a month ago. I expect she thought, any port in a storm. Anyway, he’s got a good job as a hall porter in a posh hotel. Ah! that was a night, wasn’t it, when he got the sack; made a lovely bit of excitement for us. D’you remember he came rolling in about ten o’clock, went into his bedroom and came out with a sheet draped round him like a surplice. Then, waving a whisky bottle in one hand and a Bible in the other, he shouted to us goggle-eyed servants, “Down on your knees, sinners” – like we had to at prayers every morning with that old hypocrite the reverend giving us sermons on counting our blessings. Then Mr Wade said:
Dearly beloved brethren, isn’t it a sin,
to eat new potatoes and throw away the skin.
Though the skins feed the pigs and the pigs feed us,
Dearly beloved brethren, eat them you must.
‘Ah! Wasn’t Mr Wade the one for making up rhymes at the drop of a hat.’
‘Yes, but worse than that, Mary, was when he went on imitating the reverend’s voice, saying, “Here endeth the first lesson”, and then to our horror – because we could see the reverend on the basement stairs – adding, “I’m as drunk as I can be, all on the reverend’s fine whisky. What a stingy old man is he”.’
We had almost burst trying to suppress our laughter while the reverend was there – for we hadn’t wanted to follow Mr Wade into the wilderness. But up in our bedroom we’d giggled like mad over the thunder-struck expression on the reverend’s face; such an outrageous event had never been known in the reverend’s house. That a servant should get drunk and utter blasphemous words! It was worth a month’s wages, £2, to have been a spectator.
These reminiscences didn’t deflect Mary from the purpose of her visit. When I asked why couldn’t they manage in the Wardham house with just the between-maid if it was only for one month, she said that Mrs Buller needed somebody who could cook for the servants and make sauces because, as Madam was giving her niece a London Season, there was a lot of entertaining going on in the house. I was about to protest that obviously there must be a lot of work, when Mary hastened to explain that Madam didn’t expect the servants to do all the extra work for nothing. She thanked them all, and often gave them extra money. To listen to Mary the place sounded like a domestic’s dream of heaven.
‘Yes, Mary, that’s all very well,’ I said, ‘but I was just about to write after this job advertised in the Morning Post:
GOOD PLAIN COOK REQUIRED. £40 PER ANNUM. OWN BEDROOM. USUAL FREE TIME AND ONE WHOLE DAY OFF PER MONTH. It’s in Belgravia.’
‘For the last year we’ve had one whole day off a month, and we’re allowed to stay out until eleven o’clock on that night. As for wages, I know the kitchenmaid gets £30 a year; that’s not bad, is it?’
With such inducements offered me I couldn’t turn it down. So, some days later, and carrying only a suitcase as I wasn’t staying long, I travelled by train to Southampton and then got on a bus to this remote country residence. I suppose it wasn’t all that remote, really, but to me, used to crowds of people and shops, the bus seemed to be going into the back of beyond. I felt considerably dismayed when at last, after more than an hour’s ride, I was set down at the gates of a very long drive. What on earth would I do with my free time in this place, with not a sign of habitation, people, shops and cinemas? The rain was pouring down, and owing to the tall trees which almost met overhead the broad drive looked dark and uninviting. I trudged along, with rain dripping through the trees onto me, until I came to an arrow pointing to Tradesmen’s Entrance – I was experienced enough to know that the front door wasn’t for me.
I always found it an ordeal meeting the other servants because, unlike shop and factory workers who spent only a number of specified hours together, in domestic service we were confined in a limited space from early morning until late at night. We needed to keep on good terms with one another; it was too embarrassing otherwise.
Mary was getting the servants’ tea so I sat in the servants’ hall and met the others. There was the cook, Mr Hall the butler, Annie the upper-housemaid, Doris the tweeny, and Rosalie the parlourmaid – being trained by the butler. Later on I met the valet and ladies’ maid. The servants’ hall was a considerable improvement on my last one. Floral wallpaper, a few pictures and ornaments, and comfortable rugs on the linoleum certainly made it look like a sitting-room and not the waiting-room of some institution. I couldn’t help staring at Rose – as she was called there – she was so pretty. Even the black afternoon uniform and white cap couldn’t detract from her good looks. In comparison with Rose, whose features looked as though they were sculptured, the rest of us might have been moulded from putty. However, some consolation was to be found in contemplating the poor tweeny, Doris; she not only had lank mousey hair, but a squint too. I found out later on that she came from an orphanage, and she had one of the kindest of dispositions. Unfortunately, at the village hops, lank mousey hair and a squint were great disadvantages; young men just weren’t interested in the nice disposition.
The kitchen was the usual very large room with flag-stones covered with strips of brown coconut matting. The usual huge dresser took up one wall, and the equally huge kitchen range almost all the other. There was, too, a small gas stove on which Mrs Buller cooked the breakfast and kept the dishes hot until needed. She also baked simply wonderful soufflés in it although the oven had no Regulo; one had to use judgement and a lot of commonsense. Nowadays, with all the automatic kitchen equipment, judgement and commonsense are of little use. What one needs to be now is a qualified engineer, electrician and gas-fitter so that when the labour-saving devices break down, as they frequently do, one doesn’t go mad with irritation waiting for the experts to call.
After tea, Mary and Rose took me up to the bedroom that I was to share with them – Doris had a little boxroom. Although there were three beds, we weren’t cramped and we each had a washstand. Also, wonder of wonders, there was a bathroom for the servants which we could use any day we liked – after first enquiring whether the upper servants would be using it. I said to Mary and Rose how nice it would be when we got to be upper servants, then we’d have all the privileges. Mary, who was a year older than me, said she didn’t intend to be in service long enough to become an upper-housemaid. When her merchant navy boyfriend came home from this voyage they were going to be married.
‘When will that be?’ Rose enquired.
‘Oh, not for another year yet, it’s a two-year voyage.’
‘Oh, Mary, fancy having a boyfriend that you can’t see for two years. What ever do you do when you want to go to dances, and you engaged and all.’
‘Well, silly, I don’t tell boys. Besides, I’m not really engaged, it’s just an understanding. Sid knows that I go to dances, he don’t expect me not to have any fun while he’s away. He trusts me.’
I couldn’t help feeling that he must be a singularly trustful young man; because if one was lucky enough to get a partner in a dance hall he invariably became somewhat amorous. The type of dances encouraged that feeling, for dancing waltzes and foxtrots one was held in close embrace. Even so, we were all encased in heavily-boned corsets, held so rigid it was like wearing armour, and a young man wasn’t exactly clasping a mass of palpitating flesh. But if you didn’t respond at all to his advances, then, unless you were a marvellous dancer, that would be the one and only time he’d ask you to dance and you would find yourself joining the other wallflowers. A girl as pretty as Rose, though, whether or not she was a good dancer, would never lack for a partner.
On her bedside table there was a picture of a young man. Rose said that her mother wanted her to marry him, he earned good money working in a mill in Manchester – where Rose lived. ‘Are you going to?’ I asked, and Rose said that she supposed she would some day, her mum liked this Len.
‘You’re not going to have him just because your mum likes him, are you? Besides,’ I added, ‘his ears stick out like jug handles, he’ll never be able to wear a bowler hat.’
Mary started to laugh as she told us she had once a boyfriend with large floppy ears and every time he got a bit passionate not only did he breathe heavily, but his ears waggled like deflated balloons; it was a good warning that he was about to get inflated elsewhere. Rose screeched, ‘Oh, Mary, you are awful.’
By this time I’d changed into my uniform and was all ready for work downstairs. Mary had already told me that the family consisted of Mr and Mrs Wardham, an unmarried daughter of about thirty-five, an eighteen-year-old niece, and a son, about thirty, who’d only recently returned home after three years farming in Rhodesia. According to Mr Hall, the butler, the son had come back because he couldn’t make a go of it out there. This had greatly incensed his father who’d put up the money for the project.
Copyright © 1979 by Margaret Powell
MARGARET POWELL was born in 1907 in Hove, and left school at the age of thirteen to start working. At fourteen, 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.