Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Monday, 16 November 2015


Even if you’ve yet to see the final series of Downton Abbey, it’s no secret that the Crawley family is facing the prospect of having to cut staff to balance the books. But could Downton really reduce the number of servants and still function as a country house?

Yes, if the Crawleys took on board some of the advice offered to the middle classes. In the 1920s, the gentry were by no means the only ones struggling to afford servants. There were fewer school-leavers willing to enter domestic service and the cost of employing older, more experienced servants was much higher. Middle-class households, which had kept a maid or two as a sign of respectability since the mid-nineteenth century, found themselves priced out of the market. This was a significant development in domestic service and it is borne out in the some of the tales told by ex-servants in my latest book, Servants' Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950.

The cast of Downton Abbey (courtesy of ITV)

New publications like The Ideal Servant-Saving House by an Engineer and his Wife (1918) and The Servant-less House by R. Randal Phillips (1920) explained how householders could use new technology and other methods to run their homes efficiently without servants. The Crawleys could easily reduce their staff numbers with some of the following suggestions:

1. Employ fewer male servants

With Downton’s wages bill being three times what it was before the First World War, the Crawleys could easily save money by employing fewer male servants. Footmen, under-butlers and butlers were always more expensive to employ than women since their salaries were higher. Employers also had to pay a tax on male servants until 1937. In upper-class households in London and other cities, parlourmaids were increasingly employed instead of footmen.

2. Invest in labour-saving devices

Technology really came to the fore by the 1920s for those who could afford it. The Crawleys were happy to try new things in previous series such as putting in a telephone and buying a radio. If they installed electric lighting, a gas cooker and refrigerator in the kitchen, and provided vacuum cleaners for the maids, this would significantly reduce the staff’s workload.

Large numbers of domestic staff like this were less common by the 1920s (from 'Servant London' in Living London, 1901)
3. Use fewer rooms

This suggestion might be more difficult for the Crawleys who love to entertain so much. If they were able to use fewer rooms at Downton, it would mean fewer fires needing to be tended and less cleaning and dusting required. Instead of employing live-in housemaids, the Crawleys could employ ‘dailies’: maids who lived at home and came to work for a fixed number of hours. This would also reduce the cost of wages.

4. Downsize

As a last resort, the Crawleys could always do what many real-life country houses did in the 1920s: sell up and downsize to a smaller property. Large buildings like Downton frequently became home to institutions such as boarding schools and asylums. However, selling their London house and modernising the estate might be a viable alternative for the Crawleys, allowing them to keep Downton Abbey in the family.