With Downton Abbey incorporating the breakdown of the old order of the ruling class versus the servant class in its’ final season, we thought we’d run this documentary which addresses the social and economic changes that lead to the decline of the servant classes, their impact upon those in service and the new opportunities that became available to all and lead to the final farewell to a class system that had existed for centuries.
A century ago, 1.5 million British people worked as servants – astonishingly, more than worked in factories or farms. But while servants are often portrayed as characters in period dramas, the real stories of Britain’s servants have largely been forgotten. Presented by this documentary – herself the great-granddaughter of servants – this three-part series uncovers the reality of servants’ lives from the Victorian era through to the Second World War.
This documentary begins in the grand houses of the Victorian ruling elite – large country estates dependant on an army of staff toiling away below stairs. The Victorians ushered in a new ideal of servitude – where loyal, selfless servants were depersonalized stereotypes with standardised uniforms, hairstyles and even generic names denoting position.
In the immaculately preserved rooms of Erddig in North Wales, portraits of servants like loyal housekeeper Mrs Webster hint at an affectionate relationship between family and servants, but the reality for most was quite different. In other stately homes, hidden passages kept servants separate from the family – anonymity, invisibility and segregation were a crucial part of their gruelling job – and the strict servant hierarchy even kept them segregated from each other.
But it wasn’t just the aristocracy who had servants. The emerging middle classes were also hiring, and thousands – like manservant William Tayler – flocked from the countryside to take up positions in the cities’ townhouses. With no experience of keeping servants, however, how would these anxious new mistresses fair as managers – especially in the wake of a servant scandal? With a plethora of jobs available, the power was not always with the mistress, but also with the maids who were free to leave – and leave they did.
Watch the video here (one hour)