As the new series of Downton Abbey returns, Rachel Jones looks at life upstairs and donwstairs in a stately home
The lives below and above stairs of aristocrats and scullery maids alike has become a fascination for 21st century TV viewers.
And that’s great news for Stansted, which offers visitors the chance to see real servants’ quarters, as well as the fancy upstairs rooms.
‘We’ve presented these rooms as they would have been in Edwardian times and between the wars. And of course the Edwardian period and the First World War is the period that‘s covered in Downton Abbey,’ says house manager Janet Sinclair, standing in the servants’ hall next to an original black housekeeper’s uniform.
A few rooms away the butler’s pantry is set out as the most important servant in the house might have had it, with furniture and personal effects taken from stores at Stansted and donated by supporters.
The butler had charge of the house’s safe, silver and other valuables and Janet points to detailed account books laid out on a table.
‘He did all the accounts, he was really the one who looked after the estate,’ she says. ‘He was the MD if you like, a very important man.’
As such his living quarters, with cosy chairs and a comfortable looking bed aren’t half bad, despite being below stairs. ‘They’re certainly better than my student digs were,’ laughs Janet.
It seems as though Stansted’s butlers were close to Downton’s imposing and authoritative Carson. And there’s more good news for fans of the show. The telly servants’ gossip sessions are likely to be bang on the nail too.
‘I’m sure they would have had some good chats about their employers and the visitors,’ says Janet.
‘After all, upstairs they were living on a national and international level. You had the celebrities of the day coming through. For the servants it would have been like having a copy of OK magazine.’
The house was bought by the ninth Earl of Bessborough in the 1920s. His French wife Roberte was a friend of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, and there would certainly have been a royal visit in the 1930s.
Another likely visitor was a cousin of the ninth Earl, Loelia, wife of the Duke of Westminster. She was a friend of Anne Fleming, wife of James Bond author Ian. He used names of friends for some of his characters and a secretary in the early books was called Loelia.
‘You could say she was a prototype for Moneypenny,’ says Janet, standing in front of a huge portrait of a very glamorous Loelia in Stansted’s music room.
Back downstairs, the servants’ already hectic and crowded lives would have escalated during visits from royals, dukes and diplomats.
And just like in the dramas, the pecking order would have changed while the most important people were in residence.
‘Visitors would have brought their own servants and servants took the rank of their employer. So they would have had preference, eaten first, that kind of thing,’ explains Janet.
But life was tough for everyone in service. ‘They had to be up before anyone in the family, to get the fires and the food ready, so that would have been the crack of dawn. And if the family stayed up late, they had to clear up afterwards.’
And while their quarters weren’t unpleasant, they didn’t offer much privacy or space. Stansted’s servant living space shows a gentleman’s valet might have had his own room but humble footmen had to share.
Janet points to a small tin tub. ‘You wouldn’t want to be the fourth footman (usually the youngest). You would be the last to get in and have to use the bath water of everyone else.’
Stansted likes to bring history alive and is proud to have some of the accounts and stories of real servants, provided by their descendants.
The cook, Mollie Plummer, boasts that she never broke a plate during her employment – a good thing as a single breakage would have cost her two guineas, about a tenth of her annual wage!
The poor old scullery maid (lower in the hierarchy than a house maid or lady’s maid) would have usually been found up to her elbows in cleaning soda.
‘But there was a real community here’, says Janet, who isn’t surprised that servant life has been the focus of many a drama.
Over in the kitchens, she highlights the importance of the household’s head females – housekeeper and cook.
‘The housekeeper was in charge of the maids and all the women’s tasks. But she wasn’t in charge of the cook, so those lovely battles you get on telly between housekeeper and cook are probably about right.’
But of course drama will be drama and the programme-makers do take some liberties.
‘I don’t think there would have been as much interaction between upstairs and downstairs, with families worrying about what was happening in a maid’s life. They wouldn’t have known their names a lot of the time. The butler and housekeeper hired them.’
And there was more choice than you might think for the serving classes. Stansted has a picture of formidable-looking housekeeper Martha Fletcher, clad in black and looking ready to reprimand any hapless maids. She married one of the gardeners and their daughters also worked at the house.
But many more servants who had worked their way up the ladder moved on. ‘Their skills were highly sought after and they had quite a pick of jobs. There are plenty of adverts in old papers,’ says Janet.
Still, life was in very sharp contrast to the wealthy families who employed them.
Rebuilt in 1900 in classical 17th century style after a devastating fire, Stansted was a state-of-the-art house with electricity and a working lift.
The servants, however, had to use the stairs. Neither, of course, could they eat from porcelain bearing the family crest at the beautiful mahogany dining table, or enjoy drinks in the ornate drawing room.
The views from Stansted, however, must have been enjoyed by everyone. The front of the house stands over beautiful beech-lined avenues and the back affords views of the stunning South Downs all the way to the coast.
And drama and tragedy belonged to everybody in the house too. The family went into mourning not long after buying the house when the ninth Earl’s nine-year-old son was killed in a riding accident on the estate.
These days it stands tranquilly as a testament to a vanished way of life. The big houses and their huge numbers of serving staff went into decline after the First and Second World Wars, with the arrival of mod cons and a different way of living.
But the echoes of a bygone era still exist in houses like Stansted, the servants’ stories and of course TV dramas.
And we remain fascinated with the lives of earls and serving girls alike.