Horrible History: Social Status
What follows was inspired by the tweet on May 25th, 2022 by @HistoryFilmClub shown right. Like many who responded naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and despite directors, producers, costume designers et al. claiming the opposite, most productions with a historical theme are littered with inaccuracies. It would be easy to fall into the role of critics, but we thought there is an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence we currently have. In doing so, we hope to learn something, but before we begin, some caveats.
We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet all too often liberties are taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more. All of these ‘errors’ are forgivable if the production is rooted in the fantasy genre, or is not claiming to be 100% accurate, or is not purporting to be a factual documentary. Where inaccuracies do appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead viewers. We are aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints: budgets, health and safety, insurances, and how much risk, financial or otherwise, is acceptable. With that in mind, let us ‘learn from our mistakes’.
The yardstick that is ‘Downton Abbey’ In most respects the TV drama series ‘Downton Abbey’ should be considered reasonably accurate. It is quite evident that a great deal of effort was taken with locations, sets and costume to reflect Britain in the first quarter of the 20th century. The series itself was broadcast from 2010 until 2015 in the UK, followed by two subsequent feature films. Set on the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey (actually Highclere Castle in Berkshire) between 1912 and 1926, it depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in the post-Edwardian era. The series’ writer, Julian Fellowes, interweaves the great events of the time to illustrate the effects on not only the principal character’s lives but on the British social hierarchy. Yet there are a few historical faux pas which, while not really affecting the series overall look, feel and viewing pleasure, we thought to look at in more detail.
Staff vacancies As with most dramas with a potentially large cast, for the sake of clarity and to help audiences relate to the characters, ‘Downton Abbey’ focuses on just eleven of the household servants. Yet in the ancestral country residence of an Earl there would have been a much larger staff. In 1827, for example, the Earl of Lichfield employed 107 servants at Shugborough Hall near Stafford. Tatton Park, Baron Egerton’s home in Knutsford, Cheshire, had some 40 indoor servants in the 1890s, while at Eaton Hall near Chester the Duke of Westminster employed 300 indoor and outdoor servants, among them more than 40 gardeners. With such large staffs, regimentation was essential which, unsurprisingly, led to a strict hierarchy below stairs.
Is that true Carson? The foremost servant in any household was the butler, although in the grandest homes or when the employer owned more than one residence, there was sometimes an estate manager of higher rank than the butler. In great houses like ‘Downton Abbey’ the household was sometimes divided into departments with the butler in charge of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry. Some may also have overseen the entire parlour floor. As the senior male servant with the highest status, ‘Mr Carson’ portrayed by Jim Carter, was the principal interface between the family and the downstairs staff. That said, the butler chiefly supervised the male servants such as the footmen and valets within the house itself. Outside, the coachman oversaw grooms and stable boys, while the head gardener would assign some gardeners to the greenhouses, with others working on flower beds, in the kitchen garden, and in the shrubbery (Johnson, 2022). Traditionally, male servants (such as footmen) were better paid and of higher status than female servants.
The female staff, predominantly the household maids, were supervised by the housekeeper (in the series this was ‘Mrs Hughes’ played by Phyllis Logan). The cook, a subject we shall return to shortly, was hierarchically beneath the housekeeper yet retained a degree of autonomy in overseeing a brigade of kitchen maids, scullery maids, and stillroom maids. In the Victorian household, the children's quarters were referred to as the 'nursery', but the name of the servant responsible for child-caring needs had largely evolved from 'nurse' to 'nanny'. Nanny, therefore, was charged with looking after the family’s children and might have been assisted by one or more nurserymaids. Finally, and although ostensibly under the direction of the housekeeper, the head parlour maid oversaw all the service in the family’s rooms, while the head housemaid had a bevy of under-housemaids to dust, clean and polish.
Over familiarity? The one element that does not ring quite true in ‘Downton Abbey’ is the easy interaction and casual conversational tone that exists between the upstairs world of the family and their peers and the downstairs world of the hired help. That simply did not happen, or at least not on the scale or in the manner depicted. It was more likely that most of the family would not have even known a housemaid’s name. Moreover, the great country homes had separate back stairways specifically to segregate the servants from the family or their guests. There would not have been much interaction between these widely different social classes, let alone much of an emotional connection. Of course, ‘Downton Abbey’ is fictional and the whole purpose of the more personal interactions is to develop characters that the audience can relate to and care for emotionally.
Dining together In the 19th century the servants’ mealtimes were pivotal to the timing of the whole day. The first break, involving a drink, was usually taken mid-morning to be followed by the main meal, or ‘dinner’, at around midday. A very light meal known as ‘tea’ was served around 4 pm, with ‘supper’ usually taken at 9 pm after most of the day’s work had been finished. By the end of the 19th century, the servants’ dinner had slipped later and later into the evening and a new lighter ‘lunch’ meal took its place in the middle of the day, a division that worked well for the kitchen.
Meals were served in the servants’ hall. Everyone waited behind their chairs until the butler and housekeeper arrived and signalled they could sit. The butler generally served the meat, while the housekeeper filled plates with vegetables and handed them out in order of seniority with the youngest received theirs last. In most instances this is portrayed well in ‘Downton Abbey’ but viewers rarely see the senior servants retiring to the housekeeper’s or butler’s parlour where one of the maids would serve them dessert. This would have left the junior servants free to chat without the constant scrutiny of the senior staff. This pause in the day’s toil also provided some free time, but servants were rarely allowed to leave the house. A bell could ring at any time, calling them to provide a service or to perform routine tasks. In effect, there was no end to their working day, and one day off a month was the most they could hope for.
Chef or Cook? In many of the large estates the British aristocracy preferred to employ a male chef, preferably a French one. While not suggesting for one minute that men make better cooks, male chefs typically commanded higher wages thus demonstrating the family’s wealth. To choose a fashionable French chef simply reinforced the refined sophistication of the nobility. Downton Abbey’s cook, however, is Mrs Patmore which might suggest the Crawleys were bucking the contemporary fashion for a country residence, or were trying to save money, or were simply unconcerned with society pressure. This is not to say Lesley Nicol who played Mrs Patmore is miscast, just that a female cook would have been more appropriate for the Crawley family’s London townhouse.
And finally In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War caused complete upheaval in British society. It was the men of the aristocracy who, as officers, led the largely working-class soldiers into battle. In the brutal, costly war that followed millions of these young men, from both the upper echelons of British society and the lower orders, met their deaths. Of the latter, most did not even have the right to vote. By 1919 when the war had formerly ended by treaty, an old world order had passed away and the modern era had truly begun. The landed gentry found it increasingly hard to recruit and maintain large retinues of servants as men and women left such roles to better themselves in other careers. For the British aristocracy, it was the end of life as they had known it. Many of the grand estates and houses became financial unviable only to be sold off, left to go to ruin or gifted to the nation to offset crippling death duties. Yet it is a bygone world that lives on in the continuing popularity of authors from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh, and beloved of television series from ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ to ‘Downton Abbey’.
This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Either way, thank you for reading this far and until next time, bon appétit.
Johnson, K., (2022), ‘How realistic is Downton Abbey?’, British Heritage Travel, available online (accessed May 26th, 2022).