Downton Abbey: The Rigid Socio-Economic Structure

I found last Sunday’s episode of Downton a little slow. However, it did underscore a socio-economic element that would be very out of place today: You weren’t to rise above your post and heaven forbid you fall lower. Tom marries up and resentment smolders below the stairs at Downton. “I knew he’d bring shame on this house.” Ethel falls lower and is subsequently shunned by everyone. “I don’t think it’s part of my duties to wait on the likes of her.”

Nowadays, you are what you make of yourself. Back then, you were what you were born into. If you changed your situation (for better or worse), people disliked you. In an NPR interview, Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, made an excellent comment on the rigid social structure of the time: “In today’s world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we’re only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough. … There is a … disappointment if for whatever reason you haven’t managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And… personally I wouldn’t change that for anything; I wouldn’t go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people to a certain extent in knowing this is their role, this is their place. There’s no pressure about it; you do the most wonderful job you can.”

But do the social mobility trends of the 1920s reflect the sentiment of “knowing your place” and not aspiring higher?

I took a look at a data set on social mobility over the past century in the UK and used Tom and Ethel as case studies.  Tom and Ethel were solidly in the working class when they first appeared on Downton Abbey. By Season 3, Tom is married to Sybil, and Ethel is on her own with the baby, unable to get any steady work. By how much did these transitions to higher and lower classes, respectively, go beyond the norm during the 1920s?

Sociologists often look at social mobility rather than income mobility because it paints a broader picture. In the study I used, the authors, Anthony Heath and Clive Payne, examined relative social mobility in the United Kingdom during the twentieth century, separating men and women into different pools. The social classes were split into three broad classes: the salariat (relatively secure, often bureaucratic employment), the petty bourgeoisie (independent employers and farmers who are directly exposed to market forces), and finally, the working class (manual workers with poor promotion prospects and few benefits).  The data left out the extremes on either end: those with enough money that they didn’t have to work (like the Granthams) and those at the bottom of the range with no employment.


Tom Branson
Tom Branson

Tom and Sybil move to Ireland where Tom works as a journalist, but he is also accepted into the Grantham social circle. Between these two things, Tom is bumped up to at least a white-collar worker income-wise and socially a little bit higher. I will assume he is now in the lower range of the salariat.

According to the data, about 62% of working men in Tom’s age group were in the working class in the 1920s. It was very common that men followed in their fathers’ footsteps. The data put the odds of a son moving out of his social class to a higher class as quite unlikely. Only 9-12% of sons moved up to the salariat class if their fathers were in the working class, as compared to 51% of sons growing up with a salariat father. Meanwhile, 76% of fathers in the working class subsequently had sons who remained firmly in the working class as well. Clearly, intergenerational mobility was not fluid. Furthermore, only 27% of men in Tom’s age group were upwardly mobile, so he was definitely in the minority.

No wonder servants below the stairs didn’t like him – he was going against an intergenerational assumption of staying in your place.


Ethel Parks
Ethel Parks

Ethel starts out towards the higher end of the working class and falls to the very bottom.  In 1920, about 52% of working women in Ethel’s age group were in the working class. The data finds that, overall, women experienced more downward mobility than men, but it treats falling lower within the working class as a horizontal movement. However, I imagine Ethel does not feel her move from a housemaid to a prostitute as a horizontal shift, so I will still consider it as downwardly mobile.

Only 24% of women experienced upward mobility. On the other hand, 49% of women in Ethel’s age group moved downward or horizontally in the 1920s, making her downward shift fairly common during the time. And yet people intensely disliked her for it. Of course, the prostitution aspect of her situation was frowned upon at the time, but is it also because they were thinking, “this could have been me?”

It is unlikely that Ethel will ever climb out of the working class. My post last week on spinsters and unmarried women was definitely skewed towards the middle and upper class. Women like Ethel, lower class, unmarried with a child, really had nowhere to go. They had no government assistance, and their job options were very limited. With their lack of education and connections, they were unlikely to see better opportunities arise. Katherine Holden did note that unmarried women who had a child with a soldier sometimes received money to care for the child, in part due to the sympathetic national sentiment over the loss of young men, but that did not happen for children conceived during ‘flings’, like Ethel’s child, Charlie. Even if Isobel helps her to get a different job, it would still be within the confines of the working class.

What do you think? Will Tom earn respect as he solidifies his connections with the Granthams? Will Ethel find work beyond prostitution?

A note on the data: The data I used looked at men and women over the age of 35 at the time of the survey; I’ve extrapolated the data to include Tom and Ethel even though they are a bit younger in the show. They were both born before 1900, so the survey results I looked at were in the pre-1900 birth cohort. I also combined some social class distinctions into broader categories.


Further Reading:

Aldridge, Stephen. “Social Mobility: A Discussion Paper.”Performance and Innovation Unit, Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom. April 2001.

Heath, Anthony and Clive Payne. “Twentieth Century Trend in Social Mobility in Britain.” Center for Research into Elections and Social Trends. Working Paper, Number 70. June, 1999.

Holden, Katherine. “Imaginary Widows: Spinsters, Marriage, and the ‘Lost Generation’ in Britain after the Great War.” Journal of Family History. October 2005.


4 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: The Rigid Socio-Economic Structure”

  1. Do you think that Matthew in Downton Abbey is acting as a man of the time would trying to consult with Mary about how the estate is run? Do you think they will have a business discussion about it and come to agreement about the running of the estate with Lord Gratham? Matthew seems very progressive in his thinking, supporting Edith, etc.

    1. Good questions! I do think it is somewhat unusual for Matthew to be discussing the estate with Mary. Then again, Mary forces her way into everything, so it seems like he doesn’t have a choice. I think he’d rather be keeping everything to himself. Remember Matthew’s conversation with the Dowager Countess? He was reluctant to bring up the mismanagement of the estate to anyone, and her response was that he’d be getting a lot of noses out of joint, but it had to be done. He’s definitely more progressive than Mary, so I think his semi-secret attempts to improve management will lead to a lot of fights with Mary (no surprise there!), and Lord Grantham.

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