The British show Downton Abbey is a hit period drama (or soap opera) in both the UK and the US which tells the story of a great house during the early 20th century which kicks off when two of the male heirs of Downton and to the Earl of Grantham died aboard the R. M. S. Titanic and since the Earl only has daughters, the next in line is a lawyer in Manchester who the Granthams hadn’t met until the second episode. The show is now in its fifth season which airs on PBS during the months of January and February in the United States. Since my series on the real people from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has met great success (I’m still getting hits on the posts since September) I figured I could do a similar series pertaining to Downton Abbey as well. However, I couldn’t do a series on the real people of Downton Abbey because there’s barely any, which would take a very small post (and most of these people appear in Season 4). Instead, I decided to do a series on an aspect the show revolves around: the servants.
For a long time in Great Britain, domestic service was a big industry, especially in the 19th century where servants were employed by almost every family that could afford one. In the 1850s it’s said that 1 in 3 women between the ages of 15-25 were servants while the other 1 in 3 were prostitutes. By 1900, British domestic servants amounted to 1.5 million of the country’s population of 36 million. Of course, unlike what you’d see from Downton Abbey and in other media portrayals, the relationship between master and servant wasn’t always of mutual respect between social boundaries. And it would be more fair to say they were treated more like appliances than people. Not only that, but servants’ lives could actually be quite miserable, degrading, exhausting, and thankless work. Some people could be forced to surrender their identities for a matching hair style and a generic name. Not to mention, servants could often be targets of abuse and could be fired for getting married, pregnant, or other reasons. Many of them worked 17 hour days for a pittance wage but the competition was fierce since servants had a roof over their heads and regular meals. Not to mention, there were worse situations to be in at the time such as in a factory or on the streets. Still, when it came to employment options a servant would rather work in a great house like Downton than a small one (which would’ve had a staff much bigger than on the show). At least working at a grand house would mean not doing as many chores and meeting people. And as far as loyalty goes, it wasn’t unusual for a employers to hire 32 maids in 34 years. However, despite the romanticized picture Downton Abbey gives, there was much more separation between the lives upstairs and downstairs and a lot of times the people downstairs didn’t have it so great (and at times their lives could totally suck since their employers couldn’t be held accountable if their bosses did anything horrible to them). Yet, what the show does get right is that servants did have their own hierarchies and were a great part to the grand house economy on the estate. Of course, I should remind you that not all the servant jobs I feature in my post pertains to the time of Downton Abbey or even the 19th century in that matter either.
In this first post, I’ll cover a group of those who worked on the estate or the Great House but weren’t actually designated “servants” since they didn’t reside in the house or at times didn’t work directly under the master and his family. Rather many of them have the designation as, “professional” employee since many of them had some degree of education and skill, yet may or may not work when called upon. Some of them may have their own house on the estate while others may just be looking for a place to apply their skills or live elsewhere. Yet, compared to most of the servants you’d see, they’re usually treated better, have much more independence or power, work shorter hours, and are more likely to be better paid. Not to mention, they don’t really belong in the other categories you’ll see later. So for your pleasure, here’s a list of jobs you’d see from an English estate under the designation of, “professional.”
Function: Charged with the management of the living quarters of a sovereign or member of the nobility. May be in charge of receiving and distributing funds.
Pay and Benefits: Well, this is a job that allows for generous compensation as well as a private house on the estate. May have servants of his own.
Status: Highest steward of the servant hierarchy and regarded as a professional employee. Is answerable only to the master.
Hours: Depends on their duties during a specific era. Medieval chamberlains had the longest hours and most duties compared to their later successors.
Typical Candidate: Usually a member of the nobility or the royal court, particularly lower than the person they’re serving.
Characters who had this job: This job doesn’t really exist on Downton Abbey, except maybe in the King’s household with Lord Chamberlain.
2. Land Steward or Estate Manager
Function: Responsible for managing the farms, collecting rents, and undertaking all those activities associated with making the estate profitable. Other duties include leasing farms, surveying the property, settling disputes over land and farming, and detailing records of such affairs. When master isn’t present, usually supervised cultivation of land, lending his ear to tenant farmers and the sophistication of agricultural practices. Communicated with lawyers, family members, architects, suppliers, and tenants as well as saw to processing every aspect for the family and its affairs.
Pay and Benefits: Annual salary of 100-300 pounds ($11,000-$33,000) and a private house on the estate.
Status: Regarded as a professional employee with a status higher than the family lawyer. Is answerable only to the master.
Hours: Usually a regular work day with a flexible schedule or as needed.
Typical Candidate: Usually a highly educated gentleman. Lawyers preferred, especially those who have a financial and managerial background.
Characters who had this job: The Earl of Grantham and his family had Jarvis who served the estate from 1880 to 1920 until Downton Abbey was struck with financial disaster in Season 3. Since then, it’s been shared by Matthew Crawley and Tom Branson (since he grew up on a farm). Yet, after Matthew’s sudden death during the Christmas Special, it’s just been Branson.
3. House Steward or House Manager
Function: Responsible for all purchasing, hiring, firing, and paying the servant staff. Engages with the male and female servants except the family, lady’s maid, nurses, and valet. Orders goods, pays bills, and keeps books. May also act as the Land Steward as well. Usually submits books to the master for review on a monthly basis. Basically the chief servant and the estate’s accountant.
Pay and Benefits: Annual salary of 50-100 pounds ($5,500-$11,000). May have his own private house on the estate with its own sitting room.
Status: Regarded as a professional employee but he’d be the chief male domestic servant in a household. Reports to the master and does not wear a livery.
Hours: Works on a daily schedule on the estate.
Typical Candidate: Must be male as well as a certain amount of education in finance and management. Usually lower born than the Land Manager.
Characters who had this job: Downton Abbey doesn’t really have this job since the House Manager is usually employed in larger households where the accounts are too extensive for the Housekeeper to manage. However, in the show, the House Manager’s duties are usually split between Carson and Mrs. Hughes.
Function: Either a free agent or employed under the Estate Manager. Manages the farm on his master’s country estate, buys cattle and horses for the plow, and is responsible for husbandry, the breeding and raising of livestock of the estate. May assist the Estate Manager in tenant and leased land issues as well as other administrative duties. Occasionally may assist in the dining room.
Pay and Benefits: Well, may have his own house as well as a generous annual salary.
Status: Well, as far as the grounds goes, he may be either professional or servant. If servant may be Upper Staff but not share in the privileges.
Hours: Typical working hours, save maybe special occasions.
Typical Candidate: Usually a reasonably educated man, preferably someone who’s grown up on a farm.
Characters who had this job: This job doesn’t really exist on Downton Abbey though Tom Branson usually fulfills many of the duties (he grew up on a farm).
5. Family Lawyer
Function: Assists the family with legal matters and represents them in a court of law as well as in legal transactions. Serves executor of the will and is the first one called if a family member is facing legal trouble.
Pay and Benefits: I’m sure lawyers in those days didn’t come cheap, especially those who served wealthy families.
Status: Regarded as a professional and didn’t live with the family unless he was related to them.
Hours: Came to the family as often as needed but tend to have a regular work schedule.
Typical Candidate: Usually a highly educated man from the upper or middle classes. May be part of a firm or the family even.
Characters who had this job: George Murray, QC has this job at Downton Abbey and he usually exists to explain the complicated legislation that drives the show’s plot. Tends to give sound financial advice, even if Lord Robert ignores it.
Function: Basically responsible for things most librarians are such as managing the books in the estate library as well as family records and archives. Keeps a catalog of books, manuscripts, documents, and other pieces of information.
Pay and Benefits: I’m sure the librarian got a fair compensation as well as their own private house on the estate.
Status: Considered a professional and not a servant. Addressed by last name.
Hours: Regular working hours.
Typical Candidate: Usually someone from the educated middle classes with at least a college education. Could be male or female but if the latter, she was usually single.
Characters who had this job: An off-screen character named Mr. Parkison has this job on Downton Abbey as of Season 4.
Function: Personal assistant providing a variety a clerical functions such as dictation, correspondence, typing out documents, organizing, and maintaining files. May also handle bookkeeping operations, greet visitors, and make travel arrangements.
Pay and Benefits: I’m sure they received a generous compensation.
Status: Considered a professional, addressed by last name, and reported to the master.
Hours: Regular working hours or as needed.
Typical Candidate: Usually a young unmarried woman or man with some experience in clerical skills.
Characters who had this job: This job may or may not exist on Downton Abbey. However in Season 1, Gwen Dawson trains to be and becomes one for a telephone company.
Function: A craftsman who’s completed his apprenticeship but isn’t yet a master. Responsibilities may include repair of furnishings or specialist cleaning.
Pay and Benefits: Depending on the journeyman’s fee or trade.
Status: Considered Casual Staff since they don’t live on the estate.
Hours: Called on as often as needed or if they’re passing through.
Typical Candidate: Usually a man who’s completed his apprenticeship but isn’t a master.
Characters who had this job: This job doesn’t exist at Downton Abbey for many of the skilled trade jobs fell by the wayside during the Industrial Revolution.
9. Tenant Farmer
Function: Tending to the livestock and crops on the estate’s lands as well as paying rent in exchange for a home and compensation.
Pay and Benefits: Well, they rented land they had a private house on as well as some compensation for what they provide to the estate.
Status: Well, they were renters and partly beneficiaries so they weren’t considered servants in the usual sense. Reported to the master or estate manager.
Hours: Worked from sunrise to sundown, especially during the spring through autumn.
Typical Candidate: Usually men from tenant families who’ve resided on the estate for generations.
Characters who had this job: Downton Abbey has a lot of tenant farmers on the estate, but only a man named Timothy Drewe is named from Season 4. His family has been tenants at Downton since the reign of King George III. Has a wife and 3 sons and is in charge of the pig sty.