The wheels at Downton Abbey have cranked forward a year. It is now 1925. And mutinous kitchen maid Daisy Mason – now assistant cook – is causing trouble, railing against ‘the system’, speaking her mind in places she shouldn’t.
Is this credible?
How politically minded were girls such as Daisy in real life? Servant halls in remote country houses were effectively closed communities – there were no strikes, no demonstrations to improve their conditions. ‘There is no class less open to democratic ideas than a contented servant class,’ wrote William Clark despairingly in The Social Future of England, 1900. But they were aware of outside events, as newspapers were ironed and laid in the breakfast room; as influential guests were entertained; as visiting ladies’ maids and grooms brought with them gossip and new fashions; and as staff followed the family to London for ‘the season’.
The 1920s was an explosive, uneasy time for relations between British workers and their bosses. It was a time of strikes, of sharp financial recession, of falling wages and rising living costs. Had the carnage and sacrifice of the Great War been in vain? What sort of future did Britain hold for the working classes, impatient to improve their lot?
So yes, Daisy’s anger and frustration is absolutely of the moment – and it echoes that of another rebellious spirit, forced into domestic service in the Twenties.
Jean Rennie left Greenock High School at 17 with a scholarship to Glasgow University. But this was 1924 – the post war depression – and Mr Rennie, like thousands of others, was unemployed. So, as her mother before her, she ‘submitted to the badge of servitude’ – a cap and apron – with heavy heart, for £18 a year. She was an intelligent, ‘frightened and shy’ girl. Her mother was devastated.
‘I can only vaguely imagine what my mother must have felt. All that time, and all those books, and all my education – I know she was inarticulate – but I can see now the hurt in her eyes, that after all that, her daughter, her eldest, gawky, clever, talented daughter, was going ‘into service’, as she herself had done at the age of 12 – without education.’
Jean worked her way up from scullery maid, to kitchen maid to cook-housekeeper. In 1955 she wrote a memoir, Every Other Sunday, in which she finally gives voice to her subversive thoughts and black humour. Jean was just the sort of servant the aristocracy feared: too observant, and too clever by half.
The rigid class system, with its upstairs-downstairs hierarchies, seemed absurd to her from the start. She describes the parlour maids as ‘scuttling round’ with brushes and dusters until the dinner gong went and they had to run. ‘Apparently we mustn’t be seen. It was to be assumed, I suppose, that the fairies had been at the room.’
This was her first job.
‘There seemed no end to it, I thought.
“No end to it?” said a whisper from the future. “You wait, my girl, you’ve only just begun…”.’
We see, through Jean’s clear eyes, the upper class’s dirty laundry.
‘We toiled up the three flights of stairs again to the same bedrooms which we had tidied so nicely just over an hour before. It didn’t seem possible that one woman could make such a mess when all she had to do was step out of the clothes she was wearing, and scarcely needing to move, step into the other ones put ready for her.
Drawers were open, powder was spilled lavishly all over the place, stockings, shoes, underwear, all flung anywhere. Margaret said nothing. I said plenty. But what was the use – we were “supposed” to do all this – we were paid for it, after all, “They” were “Gentry”…
At ten o’clock we took bottles up and put them in the beds. Curtains drawn, windows shut, hot-water bottles.
God Almighty! The joys of being rich!’
This memoir caused a small rumpus among the upper classes when published. Jean had flung those insistently instilled values – the idea that working for the aristocracy was a ‘nobility’ and ‘privilege’ – back in their faces. She exposes the pettiness, the whimsicality, the casual cruelty. But most usefully (and poignantly) she lets us know that servants have feelings too.
There is the Christmas parcel presented to all maids after the servants’ ball at the ten-bedroomed Sawley Hall, Ripon, in 1925. Jean was 18, in her second job and already ‘branded a rebel’.
Like Downton Abbey, Sawley Hall was in deepest rural Yorkshire – but Cinema Chat magazine would still have found its way into the Servant’s Hall, along with a wind-up gramophone. Jean and the other maids might have attempted, with much giggling, to Charleston to that year’s hit single Yes Sir! That’s My Baby, or taken the bus ten miles to Harrogate to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush on their fortnightly day off.
As a bright girl with literary aspirations, Jean perhaps visited one of the new Public Libraries to get a glimpse of the explosive books of the year: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Trial by Franz Kafka.
Laying out her employers’ dresses and serving at parties, Jean would have known the fashions of the time: long, slim and flapper-esque, with hip-height belts, strings of beads, kitten heels and cloche hats. So expectations were riding high when her Ladyship, a stylish woman, presented the packages on Christmas Eve.
‘I hugged my parcel tightly, dying to open it.
What would it be? Black velvet? I did so long to be sophisticated in black velvet!
I opened the parcel.
There, in its hideous glory, was a length of that god-awful pink cotton – a length sufficient to make a morning dress – for work. Not a piece of material for a dress for the very rare times I was off and could dress up. Not a dress to dance in – just the one thing that mattered to her Ladyship – work; the nobility and the privilege of working for her, dressed in the hideous pink, for about threepence an hour.’
Jean Rennie managed, eventually, to leave domestic service, proudly earning herself a degree in late middle age (she wrote up the experience in Cap-and-Apron to Cap-and-Gown).
Has Julian Fellowes read Jean’s books? Will Daisy Mason escape from the basement of Downton Abbey by the end of Series Six, going on to enjoy some sort of personal fulfilment? As this is television, the answer is almost certainly yes. But if this were real life, I’m afraid she would probably have to wait another 14 years until the Second World War to finally make her escape.
For more in-depth stories of REAL servants, read my book The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House , now out in paperback.