Downton Abbey: References and Rankings Below Stairs

Lots of good issues coming up in the second-to-last (American) episode of Downton.  I am going to mainly discuss issues below the stairs but did want to briefly follow up on the outcome of the Matthew-Lord Grantham battle about the estate:

In my post last week, I discussed the difficulties of running an estate in the years following World War I. It was nice to see Lord Grantham come around an accept the idea of moving forward to increase productivity and reduce the waste of resources on the estate. I imagine it will be a slow and difficult turnaround.  I am not sure if Tom Branson has enough qualifications to run the estate (a grandfather who was a sheep farmer seems a little lacking in the ‘experience’ department) and the learning curve might be steep. However, with his practical approach, Lord Grantham’s understanding of the landlord’s duties and responsibilities towards the tenants, and Matthew’s law and business oriented mind, the estate should be in good hands. At the very least, it will be an improvement to what was before.

Now, on to the servants.

In her book, Life Below Stairs, Pamela Horn makes clear that the early 20th century saw big changes in the scale and nature of household employment.  In the early 20th century household service was a status symbol for the great houses. The more servants, the better. In 1911 only 20% of the 800,000 families with servants had a staff of three or more. According to Pamela Horn, “size, composition, and appearance of domestic staff were important for establishing [the employer’s] personal standing” (p. 6). She further emphasized this by saying “Edwardians judged the amount of a man’s income by the size of his house and the number of his servants.” So, ironically, even though Lord Grantham lost his entire fortune and was mooching off of relatives, he was likely still perceived as a wealthy man, in part because he had so many servants.

The Crawleys and their many servants
The Crawleys and their many servants

However, recruitment problems for domestic service were emerging. Primarily a female occupation, residential service in the great houses of England was an accepted part of family life. Over 25% of working women were employed in domestic work in 1914. Yet, even before the start of the war, the demand for servants began to outstrip the supply. Remember in Season One when Gwen, the red-headed housemaid, went off to become a typist? More employment opportunities were making themselves available to those in household service. They didn’t want to live in the house where they worked. Who wants to receive a tiny wage for an “afternoon” off per week? (One source Horn interviewed stated that her “afternoon” was actually barely three hours.) After the war, the exodus only increased. Servants were harder and harder to come by.

So when Thomas was to leave Downton, with a good reference from Mr. Carson, he would have had no problem finding new work. Eric Horne, in his personal memoirs of fifty years of service writes: “What are the chances that I should get [the butler’s] job [in a great house]? Quite ten thousand to one. But for one good place there are a hundred indifferent ones. Especially since the War, for now the butler has to be the general utility man” (p. 156). Thomas could go to another home, perhaps less grand, and even promote himself.

Without a reference, however, good luck. His sheer panic upon hearing he would not receive a reference was an accurate portrayal of the time.

Isobel Crawley and Ethel Parks
Isobel Crawley and Ethel Parks

Ethel’s situation can easily be compared to his predicament.  Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess both recognize that they need to write a solid reference for Ethel if she is to be hired elsewhere.

With the reference, she’d be able to secure employment easily. And in fact she got several offer letters (demand for servants was high, supply was low.) Without the reference, her reputation would precede her and she would not be hired. The same is true for Thomas.

When the plot twists again and Thomas stays on as under-butler, well…I was skeptical. Why would Mr. Carson concede to having Thomas directly under him? In one anecdote from his service, Horne wrote: “There are plenty of good footmen that make very bad butlers….inclined to resent all authority, and wanting to do what they liked and leave the rest to the butler” p 166-167. Well that IS Thomas! I doubt he will be subdued by the recent turn of events. When he lost all of his savings with the black market endeavor in Season Two, he had to meekly return to Downton and resume his post. He was humbled for, oh, about a day. And then went back to his usual arrogance and snide remarks. I don’t imagine he will change much this time around, either.

The hierarchy below the stairs is important, and now Thomas is near the top of it. The butler, housekeeper, cook and lady’s maid supervised the work of the subordinates (and made more money of course). As under-butler, Thomas would get to ‘supervise’ (ie: harass) even more servants.

He and Miss O’Brien should team up again. As maid to Lady Crawley, Miss O’Brien outranks most of the servants, and they cannot stop her from her manipulative ways.  “There are always spies about a place who tittle-tattle to the Master or Mistress, everything they see or hear amongst the other servants,” writes Horne (p. 168). Indeed.

Thick as Thieves
Thick as Thieves

Thomas – I’m sorry, Mr. Barrow now – and Miss O’Brien will have the rule of the roost.


Further Reading:

For a full explanation of who does what below the stairs, I’d recommend reading this post on the blog, Jane Austen’s World.

Horn, Pamela. Life Below Stairs. Sutton Publishing, 2001.

Horne, Eric. What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler. Westholme Publishing, 2nd Edition, 2011.  (I enjoyed reading this immensely. A very humorous autobiography.)


5 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: References and Rankings Below Stairs”

  1. So sorry we have found you so late in the series, but look forward to reading “back” blogs and another season. Thanks for the research and your insight ! L.Williamson

  2. Downton spoiler alert!!

    I have been waiting for you to post on last night!!! What do you think is going to happen to the estate now that we don’t have Matthew’s business vision?? Do you think Lady Mary and Cora (with her American can-do!!–and let’s face it, she has had some business sense in episode 6) will be able to bring the estate forward with Lord Gratham absent Matthew??


    1. Oh I have been dreading this episode! I knew what was coming but didn’t know how. It’s so unfair- we only just lost Sybil!

      Those Crawley ladies are proving themselves to be quite tough, and Lord Grantham has changed his tune. I have no doubt the Crawleys will hold onto the estate for as long as the economy will allow, especially with Tom Branson running the place.

      …Though I hope Matthew wrote his plans down somewhere, just in case.

      I can’t believe we have to wait a whole year for season 4!

  3. Thomas may now technically outrank everyone except Mr. Carson, he is still in a very precarious position. Since the fact that he’s gay is now openly known, ANYONE could denounce him and he’d have no defense. I’m guessing he won’t be quite as cocky in season 4.

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