The Economics of Downton Abbey: An Introduction

I’m excited to begin this series. I am not sure where Season 3 of Downton Abbey will take us nor do I know what topics of economic interest may arise. Using the new season to highlight the economic issues of the era will be an adventure and I hope you follow along.

Downton Abbey Cast, Season 2

Part of the reason why I find Downton Abbey so intriguing is due to the timing the creators chose for the series. It begins in the Edwardian period  with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Electricity, the car, and the telephone start to make daily tasks easier. Season Two puts us in the middle of The Great War and we see a dramatic shift in economic opportunities for women while the men are at war. Season Three will flash forward to the roaring ’20s.

These decades are a time of great social shifts and economic turbulence. At the beginning of the series, Lord Grantham couldn’t possibly imagine how much his life, and the lives of those who he employed would change in the coming years. The early 20th century brought about huge transformations in technology, women’s rights, economic opportunities, and societal norms. The quiet, esteemed lives of the landed gentry would never more be on solid footing.

Even prior to World War I, the demand for domestic servants began to outstrip the supply. Remember in Season One when Gwen, the redheaded housemaid, went off to become a typist? More employment opportunities were making themselves available to the lower classes, particularly women.  These jobs, in factories and offices, gave women greater freedom for leisure and family and were a sought-after alternative.  In 1911, there were 1.4 million household servants in England and Wales,  96% of whom were women.  However, during World War I (1914-1918), Pamela Horn, in her book Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century, notes  that “almost 400,000 servants are estimated have left domestic work for positions in the armed forces or in various areas of war production” (p. 20).

By early episodes of Season Two of Downton, the footmen, Thomas and William, both joined up, and one can assume that other male staff of Downton who aren’t featured characters also went into the armed forces. In one episode Lady Grantham, in a discussion with the Dowager Countess about a dinner party, asks “How can we manage a prewar house party without a single footman?”

The London Times had already come up with an answer. On August 12, 1914, an article stated: ‘”There are large numbers of footmen,valets, butlers…whose services are more or less superfluous and can either be dispensed with or replaced by women without seriously hurting…anybody”‘(Horn,  p. 21).

Mr. Carson, the butler, clearly disagrees with that sentiment, “I really can’t have maids in the dining room for such a party,” he states later on during the episode.

I hate to tell you this, Mr. Carson, but soon you’ll have a hard time even finding maids willing to serve in the dining room. Though it was not shown in Downton Abbey, between 1914 and 1918 large numbers of women quit domestic service to take on wartime roles in other fields. “So intense was this occupational shift that by the end of the war there was wide-spread alarm that servants would be difficult to find,” writes Neal Ferguson (p. 58).  Indeed, there was great reluctance to return to domestic service.

To combat this, the 1919 Pre War Practices Act mandated that women vacate any wartime posts previously occupied by men, to open up jobs for returning war veterans. Many women had to (unwillingly) return to domestic service.  It was a setback for women, but there was a ray of hope at the same time: the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 decreed that all professional groups had to allow women into their ranks. It was a slow transition – Neal Ferguson writes that the Act was “only the leading edge of a wedge that was not hammered forcefully” (p. 68) – but a glimmer of what was to come.

We’ll see if other economic opportunities arise for the servants at Downton in Season Three. Will the women below stairs remain satisfied with their work?  What will happen with the more enterprising characters: Thomas, Ethel, Isobel Crawley, and even Lady Sybil? I hope to post something each week as the US season unfolds, and I’ve also put together a few posts with more general topics from seasons one and two (servants’ wages, technology, etc) that will appear from time to time.

Of course, one can argue that Downton Abbey is not much more than a soap opera with nice hats and classier backstabbing. It does paint a glossier picture than reality, but I would argue that it has brought attention to an extremely important era of social and economic change in British history. This blog series is not meant to point out every historical fact that the show got wrong, but rather the series will use Downton as a starting point for research into the unique economic tensions that arose among social classes during the time period.

If you have ideas for research, let me know in the comments or send an email to: thisalreadyhappened@gmail.com.

——-

Ferguson, Neal A. “Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles, 1918 – 1939.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 7.1 (1975): 55-68. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4048398.

Horn, Pamela. Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century. London: Sutton Publishing, 2001. Print.

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