Up at 5:30, clean the flues, light the fire, clean the stove, polish the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, clean the knives, bring Cook a cup of tea, get the other servants’ breakfast, and accomplish this all before 8:00. Then, with Cook, make breakfast for “Them” upstairs, wash up, prepare lunch, wash up, and start the enormous fiddly preparations for the evening meal. Drag yourself up to the tiny bedroom furnished with cast-offs and freeze or suffocate depending on the season and look forward to doing it all again tomorrow.
Margaret’s mother told her a life of domestic service meant good food, lodgings, and money to call your own, but the fifteen-year-old kitchen maid was starting to have some serious reservations. The hard work was ghastly, of course, because life as a kitchen maid meant you were the servant to the other servants: the dogsbody who had to answer to everyone. The only hope was that by watching and helping Cook you might rise from the lowest servant to the highest and become the Cook yourself. And “Them” upstairs cared not a fig (a lot of them, anyway) for the servants below: cast-off bits and bobs for furnishings, plain food, unreasonable demands (ironing shoe laces, for example), low wages, scarce time off, and generally being treated as less than human.
Like sitting down and having a cuppa with your granny, if your granny was a domestic servant in England between the wars (a long shot for most of us), Below Stairs is an unvarnished account of a young girl’s life of service. A truly fascinating slice-of-life, Margaret Powell’s memoir shares what life was really like as the lowliest servant of them all.