Economics of Downton Abbey: Service and Identity

We’ve spent some time weekend-ing with the characters upstairs, but now it’s time to turn to those below stairs, where things are much less of a party.

As my introduction to Season Four mentioned, unemployment during the inter-war period in Britain was very high. It’s commonly cited that more than one million men were out of work during this time (Aldcroft, 1967). In 1936, John Maynard Keynes’ famous book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published as response to the mass unemployment in the inter-war period, which peaked during the Great Depression.

Immediately after Word War I in Britain, many men fell victim to the decline of once booming industries – like coal mining and work in the ship yards. As exports fell, many traditional industries suffered.  While newer industries cropped up and did well, many working class employees were left without jobs or the skills necessary to transfer to new ones.

Politically, Britain did step up to confront working class unemployment following the First World War – an issue that was surely made hard to ignore by sudden appearance of unemployed and penniless war veterans. In 1921, the government agreed to provide unemployment benefits. Other social services, like access to housing and health insurance, were also provided. Aldcroft (1969) links the expansion of social services to the wartime experience and the high unemployment that followed. Sociologist W. G. Runciman agrees that government involvement on such labor issues would have been ‘unthinkable’ before the war (1993, p. 57). According to Runciman, the proportion of national income spent on social services doubled during this time.

With this season of Downton Abbey, we get to take a close look at two male characters questioning their employment situation in post-war Britain: the ever-underemployed Molesley, and Alfred, who has aspirations beyond Downton.

Joseph Molesley

Joseph Molesley
Joseph Molesley

Unemployed through no fault of his own, Molesley has fallen on hard times.  In the first episode of this season, things looked up for Molesley as the Dowager Countess tried to set him up as a butler for Lady Shakleton. But alas, things went awry (as they tend to do for Molesley) and he did not get the post. The next time we see him, he is doing hard manual labor, covered in asphalt. Later, viewers learn he is delivering groceries for the local grocer. Once in an honorable position, he now looks for work where he can – even if it is well beneath him.

In the second episode, his dignity truly suffers when he is made a footman during the house party weekend and Carson requires him to wear gloves. For viewers this distinction (gloved or not) seems laughable, but in her book Servants, Lucy Lethbridge points out that service was an identity not just a job. A butler was the ‘quintessential career servant’ (p. 54). Molesley’s identity as butler of Crawley House (and valet to Matthew Crawley) was pushed aside with this small request from Carson.

This has to be quite demoralizing for someone like Molesley. He strikes me as a conservative character who is proud of his work – in the first season Matthew makes a thoughtless remark about whether he really needs someone to dress him, and Molesley is visibly crushed by this insult to his livelihood.

Lethbridge writes that from the turn of the century, male domestic service began to decline. After the war, domestic service became less appealing to male and female workers. Employers blamed unemployment benefits for the domestic service shortage, but in 1923 the Ministry of Labor Committee found that it was actually due to the ‘unattractiveness’ of the wages and conditions (Runciman, p. 59). For a traditional house, Molesley’s availability would be a boon. But there are a few things going against him – many potential employers are struggling financially, it seems that he is unwilling to move locations to find work, and he is reluctant to accept a role other than butler or valet.

Alfred Nugent

Alfred Nugent
Alfred Nugent

While Molesley clings to his service identity for dear life, Alfred tries to shed his. In Episode Three, he sees the advertisement for a culinary training school through the Ritz Hotel in London. Viewers have known about Alfred’s penchant for cooking for a while now, but there was never really a place for him in the kitchen at Downton. Lethbridge cites a 1925 book making a passing comment that it is not acceptable for men to be ‘plain cooks’, rather they must be true chefs (p. 156). Unless he was hired as an expensive cook capable of making foreign delicacies,  he’d likely be taking orders from Mrs. Patmore like Daisy. His current job as footman has more prestige and is a better ‘career move’ in domestic service.

If he could get out of domestic service, however, he could possibly advance his career in other ways. In the 1920s the hotel sector was expanding. As shopping, dining out, and dancing grew in popularity, hotels like the Ritz and the Savoy seized the changing cultural climate to put themselves in the thick of the ‘function trade’ and serve as venues for fine dining and dancing for the London elite (Pope, 2000, p. 670).

With a culinary training program like that of the Ritz, Alfred would be set for a new career as a chef. As we’ve seen on Downton Abbey, most servants don’t leave unless they’ve been fired – Gwen being the exception in Season One when she successfully became a typist.  While many historians write that economic and social mobility remained stagnant even after World War I, Baines and Johnson (1999) point to evidence of the contrary. Using data tracking employment of ‘traditional working class’ fathers and sons from London in the inter-war period, their work shows mobility both between generations and across skill boundaries. Alfred’s attendance at the Ritz training school would serve as an excellent example of new career opportunities that came with the advent of new industries.

And who knows, if Alfred passes the exam, perhaps Molesley could let his dignity go just a bit to take over Alfred’s position as footman.

Further Reading

Aldcroft, D. H. (1967). Growth in Britain in the Inter-War Years:  A ReassessmentThe Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 311 – 326.

Aldcroft, D. H. (1969). The Development of the Managed Economy Before 1939Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 4, No. 4, The Great Depression, pp. 117 – 137.

Baines, D and P. Johnson. (1999). In Search of the ‘Traditional’ Working Class: Social Mobility and Occupational Continuity in Interwar LondonThe Economic History Review,  New Series, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 692 – 713.

Lethbridge, L. (2013). Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times
New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Pope, R. (2000). A Consumer Service in Interwar Britain: The Hotel Trade, 1924 – 1938The Business History Review, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 657 – 682.

Runciman, W. G. (1993). Has British Capitalism Changed Since the First World War? The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 53 – 67.

Image One: Source unknown, retrieved from

Image Two: Source unknown, retrieved from


2 thoughts on “Economics of Downton Abbey: Service and Identity”

  1. Hi Meg:

    I am wondering if you could comment on Lord Grantham’s statement that they are going to “forclose the tenancy.” It seems as though what those who farm the estate have is what in the States we would equate with a 99 year lease with the reversion to the owner and or his heirs. It sounds as though tenancies (based on medieval law and custom) were alienable and inheritable as though there were fee ownership? As a real estate lawyer, I am trying to get a handle on what they were doing over in England then and if it has changed now? Thank you!


    1. Hi Kim! Great question. As far as I can tell, from the 19th century onward, tenancies were primarily done through shorter-term leases – economically, however, there were no real incentives for landowners to evict their tenants. Tenants were often allowed to fall into arrears like Old Mr. Drew in Sunday’s episode. From Sunday’s episode I got the impression that Mr. Drew (the younger) thought he’d just continue farming the land because that’s the way it’s been, not that he was the inheritor of the tenancy. Did you get a clear interpretation either way?

      I am researching the tenancy issues for my post on Sunday and I will try to address this in more detail. I look forward to hearing your insights as a real estate lawyer!

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